SRINAGAR, Jammu & Kashmir—Security forces in Jammu and Kashmir’s conflict-ridden Valley may soon be wielding weapons installed with traceable microchips if a new proposal is accepted by the state administration.
The Valley’s police force has for long faced the problem of disappearing guns—attributed either to weapons being snatched or police personnel defecting to militant groups.
The measure to install traceable chips on weapons used by forces guarding “protected persons”—including politicians, bureaucrats and top cops—was placed earlier this month at a security review meeting in Srinagar.
Vijay Kumar, a former IPS officer who is currently the security adviser to J&K governor Satya Pal Malik, told HuffPost India that the state administration was reviewing a number of proposals aimed at modernising the operations of security forces in the Valley, subject to budget constraints.
Defections and weapon snatching are not new in Kashmir, and high-ranking officials claim only a “negligible minority” of police personnel are vulnerable to threats and coercion from militant groups. But the scale of the measures taken to counter this is adding to the pressures faced by policemen on the ground, especially those in the lower ranks.
Why are weapons disappearing?
While earlier, many Kashmiri militant groups were believed to get their weapons from Pakistan, a drop in supply over the past few years—partly due to stronger border checks—has meant a change in tactics.
Now, young men who want to join militant groups are asked to bring their own weapons—and the easiest way to do this is to snatch a weapon from a policeman or CRPF official on duty.
Nearly 75 weapons were stolen or snatched across the Valley last year, pointing to, say police officials, 75 new militant recruits. The number of militants recruited this year—more than 200—is the highest in over a decade.
And the snatching isn’t confined to dark, unguarded corners of the Valley.
On 28 September, eight weapons were looted from the official residence of the then Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) legislator Ajaz Mir in Jawahar Nagar in the heart of Srinagar city. In the same month, militants uploaded photos of over a dozen special police officers (SPOs) on social media and asked them to quit the force. This triggered a spate of videos in which policemen recorded messages of regret for joining the forces, before announcing their resignation.
Adding to the pressure was the fact that in 2018, militants targeted the relatives of policemen, abducting them in retaliation for the arrests of family members of a top militant commander in south Kashmir’s Tral region.
On 30 December, suspected militants made off with at least four assault rifles from the guard post at former Congress MLA Muzaffar Parray’s house, metres away from Mir’s.
The incidents have now led to a number of measures aimed at improving the standard operating procedure followed by cops in the Valley.
A couple of weeks ago, the police began surprise checks and guard counts at the houses of protected persons in Srinagar. They also issued a detailed advisory on weapon snatching to SPOs and the people they protect.
In October, the police department had ordered the withdrawal of SPOs working as personal security officers (PSOs) to protected persons. Like their counterparts, PSOs work on an honorarium basis, but their duties are limited to guarding politicians, senior police officers, bureaucrats and individuals under threat.
“It has been observed that some SPOs are performing PSO duties and all SPOs except SPO drivers, presently attached with protected persons, be immediately withdrawn,” said an order issued by Munir Khan, additional director general of J&K police. Khan is also part of a three-member committee to monitor and the way SPOs work.
Police officials and those from the central and state administration admit that the signs of trouble in the police force is a major concern, but insist that there is no full-blown crisis yet.
Kumar, the security adviser to governor Malik, told HuffPost India that the situation is not alarming and that the J&K police force is still at the forefront of fighting insurgency. Weapons are snatched, he said, only when officials are not alert.
“As far as personnel decamping with their weapons or defecting to militant groups is concerned, they are a negligible minority and this is definitely not a new phenomenon. Also, it is an act of betrayal and treachery and the militant groups too are not impervious to such acts,” Kumar said, adding that there is no distrust between top officials and cops in the lower rungs.
“Nevertheless, we have established a committee to find out why some SOPs are not being absorbed by sections of the police force (PSOs). It is regrettable that two incidents (in Jawahar Nagar area) took place in a span of six months but we are putting in a system in place to check such incidents. The police comes from the same (Kashmiri) society and have to face tremendous pressures while performing duties,” Kumar added.
Police officials and those from the central and state administration admit that the signs of trouble in the police force is a major concern, but insist that there is no full-blown crisis yet
ADGP Khan, a part of the committee, did not respond to calls or messages from HuffPost India, but police officials familiar with the matter said a number of measures have been taken to check defections and weapon-snatching.
“Police guards for protected persons can be deputed from either duty police, armed police or security wing. In majority of cases, it’s the security wing that sends the police guards, so a number of internal exercises have been conducted by the battalion’s quartermasters in the last few months,” said a senior J&K police officer on condition of anonymity.
The police, he said, has been focusing on three areas: minimising communication gaps, proper checking of weapons and proper custody of weapons.
“Earlier, when a PSO would take a leave, he would just keep his weapon inside the residential complex which he was guarding. Now, the weapons have to be returned to the security wing in a locked trunk,” said the officer, adding that a deputy superintendent rank officer is in charge of the security exercises.
K Rajendra Kumar, a former director general of J&K police, said that instead of stepping up security checks of guards, the focus should be on sanitising and guarding vulnerable areas.
“(This) would make it impossible for anyone to snatch weapons or decamp with arms. This will also reduce pressure of officials on guard duty and in future they can be deputed in other areas of importance,” Kumar told HuffPost India.
The weight of history
In April 1993, around four years after insurgency began in Kashmir, the J&K police saw its first major “revolt”, when a police constable was killed, leading to protests by police officials of the Valley.
At the time, The New York Times had reported the government as saying that the constable was killed in crossfire between security forces and militants. The protesters, the report said, claimed that the constable died in custody after being tortured.
“Indian Army troops stormed the police headquarters in Kashmir early this morning, crushed a police revolt in the capital, Srinagar, and freed top police and civilian officials without bloodshed,” said the report.
“Hundreds of policemen, armed with rifles and a few automatic weapons, surrendered without a fight,” it added.
While the operation lasted just 15 minutes and ended without violence or casualties, the possibility that the police could turn against the State has never been forgotten. Recordings of the police protest have been used in a militant propaganda song titled ”Ham sabz parcham vadiye Kashmir mein lehraingein″ (We will unfurl the green flag in the Valley of Kashmir).
A senior police officer, who is familiar with the developments of both 1993 and 2018, said the police vs State/Army narrative is part of a militant strategy to spread discord in police ranks.
“Police officials and their families have to perform their social duty and be part of the society here and even if they try their best to avoid any confrontations with the society at large, they still feel the pressure. We have noticed that the most pressure they feel is during deaths or funerals of civilians and militants who die in the conflict,” he said.
Yet, he said, the number of security personnel turning to militancy had dropped significantly from the ’90s.
“(At the time) many militant commanders were former police officials such as Hameed Sheikh and Captain Ashiq. In fact, Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational chief and No. 2, Burhanuddin Hijazi, was a former policeman,” he said.
Hijazi, a resident of north Kashmir’s Pattan region, had played a crucial role in the organisation and advocated the spread of Kashmir militancy into Indian cities and stronger ties with Islamist outfits and Mumbai’s underworld. Since he was killed in 1998, there has been no defection as significant.
Still, after the events of last year, both the central and state administrations are making all efforts to ensure that that doesn’t change. In September, after the PDP-BJP government fell, a council under governor Malik decided to increase the ex-gratia payment to the kin of policemen killed in the course of their duty. And last week, the hardship allowance offered to gazetted and non-gazetted police personnel in the state was hiked.