A stranger at the door triggers anxiety in the Mir family in Amirabad. This is a hamlet in the Tral area of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. It is also home to Sajjad Ahmad Mir, one of the special police officers who have announced their resignation in videos circulated on social media since September 21.
Hanifa, Sajjad Mir’s mother, is tearful when asked about her only son. “He has resigned. He left home early for Awantipora [a subdivision of Pulwama district]. He will now do any other job,” she said.
His father, Ali Mohammad Mir, had entered the room carrying a kangri, or fire pot. “He is an MA in English. I was against his job from day one. But then he toiled hard and couldn’t get anything better,” he said. “No job is bigger than life,” he added, as his eyes rested on a portrait of his son.
The family insist that their son never participated in anything that went against the “tehreek”, movement, for “azadi”, freedom.
A spate of videos
The sleepy hamlet of Amirabad depicts a faultline that has recently deepened in South Kashmir, between militants and local policemen. In August, militants kidnapped at least 12 people, including policemen and relatives of policemen, before releasing them two days later with a warning.
Last week, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo issued a statement asking special police officers to resign or face the consequences. In Kashmir, special police officers are not part of the regular constabulary but receive a stipend for helping the regular police in day-to-day operations. On September 21, militants kidnapped three special police officers and the relative of another from the southern district of Shopian. This time, the three special police officers were killed while the relative was set free. The Hizbul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the incident.
The same day, a spate of videos flooded social media. They featured special police officers announcing their resignation from the forces. The Union home ministry was quick to respond, denying that there had been resignations, calling the videos “false propaganda”. It was also on September 21 that the Indian government pulled out of bilateral talks with Pakistan, alleging the latter’s involvement in the Shopian killings.
A senior police officer, who did not want to be identified, dismissed the social media statements. “No official has sent us any formal resignation,” he said. “It does not matter to us. In a force which has over 35,000 SPOs, the resignation of 10 people doesn’t matter. They are put under duress, which is a barbaric act. It shows the desperation of militants since 72 militants have been killed until this month in South Kashmir.”
In the four districts of South Kashmir, around 15,000 policemen and their families are now caught up in the maelstrom. Of these, perhaps the most vulnerable are special police officers. They get a monthly honorarium of Rs 5,500-Rs 6,000 and are considered for permanent service after three years. Normally, they do not take part in counterinsurgency operations. But in certain cases, local residents claim, they have helped, providing inputs about where militants were hiding out, for instance. On September 25, the government announced pay hikes for special police officers to boost their morale. Like the police, it maintained, however, that the resignations constituted a “negligible” number.
Still, since September 22, mobile internet services have been snapped in Pulwama and Shopian districts. But on September 24, militants issued a fresh warning on social media, circulating the pictures of 24 policemen, along with their name, designation and addresses, asking them to resign or face consequences. Two of the pictures are of senior police officials from Tral, an area in Pulwama district. Pictures of at least two special police officers and one local army man working with the Rashtriya Rifles have also been released with similar warnings.
Not surprisingly, public resignations continue to float up on social media. From Bonigam in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, for instance, special police officer Rafeeqa Akhtar announced she was quitting the force. “I am Rafeeqa Akhtar from Bonigam Kulgam. I have been working as an SPO for the last 15 years, but today I am leaving the job according to my will,” she is heard saying on a video.
Fear has now gripped Amirabad, as other special police officers claim they have resigned, even if there are no videos to show for it. “Mafinamas” or apology letters have been sent out to the local press and mosques, posters have gone up in public places. “I have issued a mafinama,” said one individual as he sped away on his bicycle. “I am now working in orchards.”
A warren of lanes in Amirabad leads to the house of a retired sub-inspector. His son sits inside the house, puffing on a cigarette, a toddler on his lap. “Since my father died in service in 2014, I moved an application with the department to appoint me at my father’s place,” he said. “Instead, they appointed me as an SPO. I have never participated in any counterinsurgency operation in my two and a half years of service,” he said.
He was doing his own “jihad” to earn for his family, he said. “Aren’t we human beings?” he asked. “Don’t our lives matter? Suddenly, we have turned untouchables.” Now his priority was to survive. “I have two small kids,” he said. “From the day I resigned, I have felt a bit relaxed.”
His years as a special police officer, he now feels, were wasted. “If I had taken up a business, it would have yielded more benefits,” he said.
Not far from Amirabad is the village of Pastuna, where Ashiq Ahmad Lone, another special police officer, had resigned after he was shot in the leg two months ago.
Answering Lone’s door, a young girl announced that the family was not home. There was gossip on the shop fronts near Lone’s house but his neighbours fell silent when asked about him. The village headman also claimed not to be home when told someone wanted to talk about Lone.
A group of youngsters taking a cigarette break from harvesting paddy in the fields, however, were more loquacious. “He was given warning to resign before,” said one man. “He resigned after he was shot in the leg in July this year, while he was taking a stroll in the evening.” They add that he might have been killed but was probably spared because of his father, who is physically handicapped.
‘A brother is killing his own brother’
South Kashmir now seems divided between the families of militants and policemen. Very often, both militant and policeman belong to the same village. They know each other well. They may even have been relatives or friends.
In Amirabad, the house of Hibul Mujahideen militant Jehangir Ahmad Wani is a stone’s throw from the late sub-inspector’s home. On the morning of September 24, his family was busy packing apples in their lawn. A brother is killing his own brother, said the Wanis, who were reluctant to talk at first. Who is benefitting from all this?
Eventually, the conversation turned to “zulm”, or oppression, in Kashmir. One of the family members, a young man, pointed to the apples: “Look these are highest grade apples. It would not fetch a good rate in Indian market. Had they opened routes, we would have supplied our crop to world markets which would have reaped us highest profits. Isn’t this oppression?”
Shahzada, the mother of Jehangir Wani, who had joined militant ranks just two months earlier, watched the exchange from a distance.
In the village, a lanky local youth, spoke about why Wani had taken up arms: “His father, Rafiq Ahmad Wani, was killed by government forces in 1996. Later, they accepted it was a case of mistaken identity. A few months back, his dearest friend Mukhtar Ahmad Lone, a militant, was killed in a gunfight.” It finally prompted Wani to take up arms, the youth explained.
Shahzada has two more sons. According to residents of the village, however, they suffer from “mental illness”. “Her only hope was Jehangir,” they said.
‘Nobody gains from this bloodshed’
After the kidnappings last month, the Hizbul’s Riyaz Naikoo had released an audio clip on social media, directed at the police. “You forced us to kidnap your kin to make you feel what we feel when police harass our families,” he is heard saying. “How would a mother feel when her son is taken away? We also abducted them to let you know that we are capable of reaching them as well”.
The militant commander’s home is in the village of Beighpora, across the highway from Amirabad. On September 24, his father, Asadullah Naikoo, was busy harvesting rice. Their house, with its broken window panes, bears the scars of several raids by security forces since their son joined militancy in 2012.
Zaiba, Naikoo’s mother, says the family is now used to the “excesses” of security forces. “Our greetings are responded with abuses by policemen,” she said. She recalled when Ashiq Munshi, a head constable, had been shot dead during a wedding ceremony in Awantipora. “The forces wreaked havoc on us,” she said. “They broke everything that came their way. Men were taken, while female members were locked in a single room. They then beat us with their gun butts through windows.”
In a night raid on August 29, Asadullah Naikoo had been detained by the police. The next day, militants kidnapped 12 people. They were released soon after the police released Asadullah Naikoo. “Kashmiris are fighting amongst themselves. The policemen are also amongst us. Nobody gains from this bloodshed,” said the militant commander’s father.