The Indian armed forces in Kashmir have long been accused of detaining and harassing the families of militants. Now the militants are using similar tactics against the police.
PULWAMA, India-administered Kashmir — On August 29, at around 11pm, at least half a dozen policemen barged into the single-storey home of Mohammad Asadullah Naikoo in the Beighpora village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district. They took Naikoo to the police station, where he was detained for at least 36 hours.
Naikoo's son, Reyaz Naikoo is the de-facto commander of the militant group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in Kashmir. Since Reyaz became a militant in 2012, police has detained Naikoo more times than he can keep count. The night raids by the police, followed by abuse and beatings were now a regular occurence in his life, he said.
This time was different, however.
Hours after the police picked up Naikoo from his home, militants rounded up the family members of at least a dozen police personnel, including three policemen, in what appeared to be a tit -for-tat tactic.
“No abuses. No slaps. No kicks. Nothing," says 70-year-old Naikoo. "The police called me by my name. This was the nicest police have been to me and my family in years.”
His son Reyaz, a former mathematics teacher, was the driving force behind the abductions. For over a year, he had been issuing statements urging the police to desist from targeting the families of militants, telling them that their families could also face a similar situation.
On August 30 and 31, the police were caught by surprise as the militants took action at night, abducting several members of families of police personnel.
Reyaz owned up to the abductions, saying that the police had forced their hand.
“We have tolerated a lot until this day and tried to reason with the Kashmiri police but they did not budge,” Reyaz said in an audio statement. “We kidnapped them (the family members) so you know we have the capacity to reach your families. This time we have let your families go unharmed but it will not happen again. The next time we will do as you do. You must be aware that we cannot imprison your families. We only have one punishment, which you know very well.”
In the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, violence has been the mainstay of life during the last 28 years of armed conflict, but the string of recent abductions was an unprecedented act that reflected the changing realities of the war in Kashmir.
The abductions by the rebels has so far been harmless, as all the abductees were released within 48 hours. A line, however, has been drawn between the estimated 30,000 police families and the rebels. The militants have now made it clear: if the police went after their kith and kin, they too would go after the families of the police.
There are an estimated 90,000 policemen in the India-administered Kashmir, in addition to 31,000 Special Police Officers (SPOs). The SPOs are not permanent employees and are paid around $75 (5,000 rupees) a month until they become permanent employees. It usually takes five years to become permanent employees, however if they perform well, it takes less time. The performance is often evaluated either by a number of militants a cop kills in his career or the role he plays in quelling pro-freedom demonstrations, which includes rounding and beating up young teenage boys in police stations.
With the abductions of law enforcement families, some fear has set in. Two low-rung officers recently resigned from their jobs.
Their resignations were read aloud by the Islamic leader at a local mosque in Tral in south Kashmir. The officers apologised in writing for being part of a force that was “against the people.”
According to local media, at least 24 SPOs resigned in July and August, but the police department has remained tight-lipped. According to sources, the department feared it could start a trend.
“So resignations are never accepted. The policemen are told those who resign will be treated as deserters. So these two who had made public their resignations will again be on duty in a few days,” a senior police official told TRT World, on the condition of anonymity.
The police department in the region has, for over a decade and a half, been an important part of the Indian government’s anti-insurgency force in Kashmir, far from the days in 1990 when the police had participated in a revolt against the Indian rule.
During the 1990s, the police, by and large, did not participate in anti-insurgency work. A separate fighting force called the Special Task Force (STF) comprising surrendered militants was established to tackle insurgency.
The STF was dissolved in 2002 and all its members, most of whom had received quick promotions, were sent into the regular police force, with a focus on steering the police department toward counter-insurgency work.
By the time popular revolts erupted in 2008, 2010 and 2016, the police was at the forefront, hitting protesters with bullets, tear gas canisters and allegedly torturing young boys in detention cells. This new role stained the police's reputation of being culturally sensitive and sympathetic toward Kashmiri people.
The local population began to see them no differently as they saw India's paramilitary and army – the muscle of the Indian state that made the Indian rule in the region possible.
In Midoora village in southern Kashmir’s Tral, at the home of Nasir Ahmad Mir, who was one of the first to be abducted by the militants on August 29, a group of women and a few men sat in the drawing room. Nasir was not home. Two days after the militants released him, the police called on him. He had gone to the police station with his father. His mother, Mughli, said. “It will take them time to return.”
His mother’s hands shook uncontrollably and she had a hard time speaking; one of the women in the gathering said she had a neurological condition which got worse after the abduction.
I waited with his mother, his brother and a dozen relatives and neighbours who came to congratulate the family on his safe return and to sympathise with the family. None of them were talking about the abduction though, and it was hard to steer the conversation towards that topic.
“My father is a cook in the police department,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Mir, Nasir’s brother. “We never really thought of him as a policeman till two days ago.”
Mushtaq said he first thought the army or the police had taken his brother. “There was a whole lot of them (Indian forces) all over the village, so I thought it was them. Besides, who else could it be?” Mushtaq told me that his brother had a postgraduate degree in Commerce and in Public Administration. Along with a friend, he ran a small private school called Al Fajr (The Dawn) nearby. “When I found out that militants had abducted him, I couldn’t at first understand why.”
“We are civilians, non-combatants. We should be left alone as should the families of the militants,” Mushtaq said. “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What is the point of dragging the families into the fight between armed parties? In that fight we are nothing but easy targets,” he said.
Since the abduction of his brother, he said, he was a little afraid to stay out late. “Since then I haven’t gone to the mosque for the last prayer. It does not feel safe anymore,” Mushtaq said
Mushtaq, his mother, his elder brother were all a little reluctant to speak. They didn't want Nasir and their father to meet us and speak to us; they didn't want their pictures taken; they wanted to hide. It was in total contrast to the families of the militants whom we met before and after meeting Nasir’s family; unlike Nasir’s family, they wanted their stories told.
The harassment of the families of the militants was a known fact in Kashmir, so common that it often did not even make news in the local paper. But the abductions of the police families had become news. And for a while the broken homes and lives of the families of the militants had also been in the spotlight.
“I have spent months in police lock up; sometimes for a week, sometimes for two weeks. That is how life has been since my son became a militant in 2012,” said Naikoo, Reyaz’s father.
Past beatings have resulted in Naikoo and his younger brother, Qadir's eardrums being torn. Both of them spent months in detention together and Qadir even served a sentence of about four months in 2016. Charged with throwing stones, leading rallies, damaging public property and waging war against the state, Qadir had 14 cases against him.
While Naikoo spoke about being detained regularly in the police station, his younger brother, Reyaz’s uncle, Qadir, tallked about his own detention and imprisonment. Naikoo’s younger son sat hunched on his toes and appeared to be on edge. His eyes kept going to the wire-meshed window at the gate.
The family was in a similar situation: they had no clue what the next moment could hold. Perhaps a dozen policemen and Indian soldiers on their way in, more abuse, beatings, detentions, imprisonment, or a last call from their son, possibly informing them that he had been trapped in an ambush. Despite the windows and the doors, it felt like an open space, not a home; anyone could walk in here at any moment.
To live in Kashmir is to inhabit a permanent state of uncertainty. The only constant here is the persistent sense of siege. The edge is always in sight; the edge of the cliff, the knife. The edge between what is and what could be. But here, in a single-storey home, where past visits of the armed forces have left behind relics of violence: broken windows, battered refrigerator, a dented rice cooker and a defunct washing machine, that edge appeared to pass right through.
While Naikoo's last detainment at the police station was free from incident, Naikoo was unclear whether the abductions and the threat to the families of the policemen would stop the Indian government and the police from harassing the families of the militants. One of only two top-ranking Kashmir Muslim officials, who headed the intelligence department, was relieved from his position only four days after the abductions.
The Director General of police, SP Vaid, too was transferred in a hurry a week after the abductions. Reports in Indian media said that New Delhi was unhappy with Vaid for releasing relatives of militants, including Naikoo, in response to the abductions.
According to sources in the police department, the prevalent thought at the top level was to come down hard on the militants and their families, similar to what the police did during the insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s. Others in the organisation have advised against that strategy, saying it was likely to backfire.
Ghulam Hassan Dar, father of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant popularly known as Lateef Tiger, said that five days after the abductions armed forces entered his house at night and beat him up, along with his two brothers and their three neighbours.
Two days before he was attacked, I met with Dar. He had spoken at length about the travails of his family, particularly since his son had become a militant.
Dar disagreed with the abductions of the families of policemen. “They are civilians like we are civilians; we both should be left alone.”
Dar repeated stories similar to Naikoo’s and the family of another militant, Mudasir.
“On the night of before the marriage of one of my children, the police and army barged into our house and they fired into the air in our yard, just outside the room where we were. They hurled abuses and beat at our doors and windows with their guns. We spent that whole night awake, not in song and dance, but in silence and darkness.”
Dar said that his two sons had recently been detained, one for 17 days and another for 21 days. He has spent months in the same lockup, sometimes all three of them together. All these detentions were illegal, as the police never put them on record.
“At first they asked us to convince our son to surrender. Then they kept saying that we knew where he was in hiding. How can I know that? Do you think he would tell me? What kind of a guerrilla would he be if his family knows all about his movement?”
Going by Dar’s account of his most recent beating, it seemed the Indian government had decided to stay on the offensive, ignoring the fears of the police personnel in Kashmir, and setting instead the stage for what could possibly be a greater confrontation.