The charged discourse over the unrest in Kashmir is typically focussed on two principal characters who are in perpetual and violent conflict with each other--the Kashmiri militant and the Indian army soldier. They both have their champions. India loves its soldiers and salutes them for their sacrifices and Kashmir has a deep relationship with those who take up arms against India, as the Valley made abundantly clear this week, following the killing of Burhan Wani.
But law enforcement in Kashmir is not just about the militants and the Indian Army. It is also about the stone pelting civilians and the cops of the state who have the unenviable job of controlling them. Unlike the Indian Army soldiers that are drawn from all over the country, the police in Kashmir is constituted of Kashmiris. They have to work with the Indian Army, who are disliked in the Valley, and among their people, who abuse them and call them traitors for doing their job.
As protests turned violent last week, the mob pushed a police vehicle into the Jhelum, drowning a cop --Afroz Ahmed.
The news of his terrible end at the hands of fellow Kashmiris took me back to the time when I was reporting from Kashmir, and to the many conversations I had with cops about how they did their job. This is how one cop explained it to me: your family will see you as the breadwinner, some might see you as a figure of authority, but most people will see you as a traitor.
Mohammad Ali*, a young constable, told me that he had concealed the fact that he worked for the police from the locals in his hometown of Sopore, and he carried multiple identity cards for when they checked, especially in times of unrest. "If they find out you're a cop then you've had it," he said.
Security personnel in the army and paramilitary forces stationed in Jammu and Kashmir come from all over the country, but the local police in the Valley are all Kashmiris. They have grown up in families who believe that Kashmir should be independent, they have lived through the deadliest years of the militancy, they know someone who has been beaten, killed or disappeared.
While covering the protests in downtown Srinagar, I wondered whether it was hard for Kashmiri cops to restrain, beat up and arrest young Kashmiri men. I wondered how many of them in their youth had raised similar slogans and marched down the streets which they now patrolled, and how many had pelted the kind of stones which they now ducked.
When I asked Ali these questions on the train from Banihal to Baramulla, three years ago, he obliged, requesting only that I don't use his real name so he doesn't get into trouble with his superiors.
Ali told me that it was with a heavy heart that he had mounted his riot-control gear to crackdown on the protests which had erupted after the Indian government hanged Afzal Guru in February 2013. He too had condemned his execution. "It's hard to explain. My job conflicts with what I believe in. When I'm on the streets to stop protests, I don't think I am doing this for India. At that moment, it's only about self-defense and protecting the guy next to you even if he is an Indian," he said.
I recall that it was hard to talk a stretch because Ali kept playing speeches of separatist leaders, and that he would hurriedly respond to my questions in the time it took him to find another video on his mobile phone.
Ali, who had a degree in Urdu and liked arts, had joined the police force because he couldn't get a job in the "creative line" or event management, which is his dream. What I remember most is Ali talking about how becoming a constable kills one's chances of getting married in Kashmir. "When the girl finds out that you are a constable, she thinks you are a traitor and so do her parents." he said.
(The cop's name has been changed to protect his identity.)
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