Dilshada Begum gave birth to her fourth child on January 1. Leaning against the cracked mud walls, village women gathered around her, but her sunken eyes did not express joy.

As she huddled under a quilt, the women tried to console her.

On the evening of December 31, Dilshada’s husband, Abdul Kareem Sheikh, a constable in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, was killed on duty at a checkpoint in Choghul, Handwara. Family members say he died on spot as a passenger, in a vehicle he had stopped, indiscriminately fired upon him. Eleven bullets pierced his torso.

Thousands marched in grief, making the procession one of the biggest funerals in the hilly village of Mawar Payeen, in north Kashmir’s Langate. Abdul Kareem Sheikh’s death, his elder brother Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh said, evoked widespread grief as he was always “loyal to the public” with whom he had good relations.

For the Sheikh family, Abdul Kareem Sheikh is a “shaheed“ – a martyr. “It was like qayamat [‘day of judgement’] had dawned upon us when his funeral took place,” Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh said. Mourners from other villages “were more affected by his death than we were,” he added. “Women said it was as if their own son had died.”

Abdul Kareem Sheikh had been employed as a Special Police Officer for over a decade and was inducted into the police force a little more than two years ago. His father-in-law, Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, said thousands participated in the funeral at the local Eidgah, a first in the district. “There was no space left (in the eidgah) for more people.”

Prior to the unrest over Hizb-ul-Mujahideen Commander Barhan Wani’s killing, five policemen were killed in militant attacks in 2016. Assistant Sub-Inspector Bashir Ahmad Ahangar and constable Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh were killed on June 4 when militants, in broad daylight, shot and killed them on a busy street in Anantnag. On May 23 three policemen – head constable Nazir Ahmad Mir, ASI Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, and Mohammad Sidiq Sheikh, Personal Security Officer of a politician – were killed by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in two separate shootouts in Srinagar city.

The attacks in Srinagar led to public outrage and questioning of militants’ tactics, which was also echoed in Anantnag and subsequently in Abdul Kareem Sheikh’s village. Each time mourners questioned if these killings could indeed be called jihad.

The attacks by militants, however, did not stop. Another police constable, Khurshid Ahmad, was shot outside his home in south Kashmir’s Pulwama on August 27. He later succumbed to his injuries.

Two policemen were gunned down in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district on November 26. The funeral of Jalaluddin Khandey, a constable, drew a crowd in thousands, his cousin, who did not want to be identified, said. Khandey was employed in the force for 12 years, 10 of which were in Rajouri district of Jammu province.

“Someone shot him to make news,” Khandey’s cousin said. Although the killings had instilled fear among the people, the cousin said, thousands attended the funeral. “People were shocked. Everyone mourned his death.”

A total of 12 policemen were killed in 10 shootouts during 2016, as per police records.


‘Kashmiri willing to fight the militancy’

The government withdrew to safer havens as the valley erupted in unrest, pushing the police and security forces to the forefront of dealing with the unrest and having to resort to crowd control methods that led to violent confrontations, injuries and deaths.

In that sense, anger against the police is not new in the valley. During the 2008 and 2010 unrests, the police, along with security forces, cracked down heavily on violent protestors. Police action in the Kashmir valley has often been described as excessive and heavy handed.

However, the outburst of anger had a different – much higher – intensity this time around.

On the second day of the unrest, Afroze Ahmad Lone, a 23 year old special police officer, was killed when a crazed mob pushed the police vehicle he was driving into a river. Homes of policemen were attacked by mobs and, in some cases, vehicles of policemen were burnt down after being intercepted by protestors.

As suppression of the violent protests intensified, graffiti disparaging police officers appeared in Anantnag and Sopore. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, patriarch of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, in his statement to the press, named police officers for their alleged brutalities.

“This criminal and butcher Touseef Mir, SHO [station house officer] of bus stand police chowki, is warned that that rogues and killers like him would be brought to book,” Geelani said in the statement. “We cannot stop people who want to tackle you directly.”

In videos prior to his killing, Wani had threatened personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and announced attacks without warning, as the police continued anti-militancy operations.

Shakeel Bakshi, a separatist activist, said the funerals of policemen were now “being used for propaganda”. Bakshi said the role and responsibility given to the local police had transformed it into a “military police” and its “iron hand dealing” of protests had left a deep impression. “Children who took to slogans in 2008, have picked up guns today,” he said.

Bakshi also blamed “provocations” by certain mainstream politicians that, he said, had blurred the lines between the executive and armed police. “Politicians condemn [such killings] but they are the ones who provoke [such attacks],” he said, adding that the public discourse over the last decade comprised of police brutalities. “They [the attackers] do not distinguish between STF [referring to the Special Task Force, incorporated into the executive police, and now rechristened Special Operations Group of the police] and the police [tasked with civilian administration]. The uniform is the same.”

A police superintendent, who did not want to be identified, said that separatists were vociferous in their condemnations because “they know we [police] are the main obstacle between them and their Islamist goal.” At the end of the day, he said, it was a “Kashmiri willing to fight the militancy”.

Another senior police officer, in south Kashmir, who also did not want to be identified, blamed the negative perception about the police on several factors, prime among them being corruption. “Police is always called upon in trouble...If someone goes to a police station and gets fleeced, other ideas get reinforced,” he said, adding that across the country, there were negative perceptions about the institution of police that has “always been colonial. The idea of service to people has just taken birth in the last 10-20 years.”

The other contributing factor, he said, was a “natural propaganda” that made anything negative about the police seem true. “Popular versions of truth is believed more than actual truth.”

Family and friends

The police, however, despite being a much-hated institution in the popular imagination in the valley, finds acceptance in a deeply layered society. Strong family ties, personal relationships with members of the public, and a strong sense of community sense ensures sympathy and support to Kashmiris serving in the police.

An estimated 70,000 individual Kashmiris were employed in the police force, according to the police superintendent. Given Kashmir’s close-knit family traditions, even “if you take the lowest average of five persons directly involved with an individual, how many are directly and indirectly linked to the police then?” he said.

He further said that the impact of killing policemen had a ripple effect in the surroundings, leading to resentment among the public. “No one is happy when a policeman is killed, when he is unarmed. They [militants] do not own attacks where they think their promoted narrative would suffer setback due to public sentiment,” he said.

He added that the public support, though not as desired, was still extended to the police. “There are also people who appreciate our work. The people whose businesses were shut, could not go to hospitals... at the end of the day, they want the police to restore normalcy,” he said. “How can we work without locals’ support?”

The police officer from south Kashmir said the public’s general perception of the police has its phases, based on a larger negative picture and micro-level perceptions of the daily dealings with the police. “Certain incidents contribute to the larger picture,” he said, adding that there was also a parallel – “almost healthy” – perception due to the individual interactions of civilians with the police.

Despite negative perceptions, the officer said that there was also an acceptance of police personnel at various social levels, including in marriages. “Even within the OGW (jargon for “over ground workers”, a term describing civilians tasked with militants’ logistics) circles, it is quite acceptable that someone [such a person’s relative] works for the police. Many militants’ cousins and fathers or brothers are in the police,” he said. “It is simply a manifestation of the fact that people are generally very confused.”

A matter of livelihood

Comprising more than 80,000 personnel from all three regions of the state, the Jammu and Kashmir Police draws a sizeable chunk of its personnel from the valley, where unemployment is high. While the police is the object of scorn for the general public, despite the unrest a large number of youth also sought jobs in the police.

To make ends meet, Abdul Kareem Sheikh laboured away as a Special Police Officer for much of his career, staying away from his family for long periods, as there was only labour work available in his village when he came home. His frail widow yearns to see his killers brought to justice while the elders in the family have left it to god.

Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh points out that Abdul Kareem Sheikh had only passed matriculation exams and was a constable. “Being a policeman was not an aspiration for him, he was not a senior ranking officer. It was a means of livelihood,” he said, adding that despite attacks and negative perceptions, Kashmiri “people will keep joining the police force.”

“You can’t wish away the JKP [the Jammu and Kashmir Police],” the police superintendent said, adding that even after police personnel faced ostracisation and braved militant threats, the trust deficit that is between the central government and the police was “very unfortunate” and “exploited by separatists.”

The multi-layered dynamics of the local police and its relationship with the public, whose relationhip, in turn, with the militants is perhaps one of the complexities of life in a long festering conflict.