Not clearly on either side, police become targets

As the senior commander in his police station, Tahir sends his officers out daily into the suburbs of Kashmir's largest city to maintain law and order, knowing that some may never return.

In the past two months alone, 40 policemen have been killed in the war-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir. Most have been killed in militant attacks, some under more mysterious circumstances, with evidence pointing to criminal gangs or pro-Indian renegades.

Trusted by neither side in the conflict - the Indian armed forces nor the Islamic militants - Kashmir's force of some 60,000 local police officers has become a chief target of violence.

On paper, at least, this was supposed to be a cease-fire between India and Pakistan, a pause in the fighting to give Kashmiri opposition leaders time to hammer out a political solution with local and foreign militant groups. But with militants rejecting the cease-fire as an empty gesture and consolidating positions in the Kashmir Valley, the targeting of Kashmir's own police is a trend that has troubling implications for any successful peace process.

Caught between the warring parties, police morale has dipped to dangerous lows.

"My own family members are asking me, 'why are you continuing in this job?' " says Tahir, a 20-year veteran, who requests that his real name be withheld. "Yes, people in my force are scared, and yes, I'm disheartened too. But ... we have to go out to enforce the law."

"There are more expectations on police," says Sajjad Haider, editor of the Kashmir Observer newspaper in Srinagar. "The Indian government from day one was very keen to get police involved in counterinsurgency, because the police are mostly Kashmiri people. But the militants think that the police should support them or at least remain neutral. We are entering a very dangerous phase."

The most recent attack against the Jammu and Kashmir Police Force was also the deadliest. Coming just a week after a three-month extension to the cease-fire was announced by New Delhi, four militant groups ambushed a police convoy in the Rajouri district near the city of Jammu on March 2. Firing rockets and heavy machine guns, the militants killed 16 officers and injured 12 others.

Anti-police violence has taken a steady, numbing toll on the families of policemen. Down the winding, muddy alleys of Srinagar, mourners gather in the home of Abdul Majid Wani. Wani, a young officer whose police identity card shows a handsome bearded face and warm smile, was killed last week in a militant grenade attack that also took the lives of five other police officers near the town of Kokernag.

"We pray that in Kashmir there should be an earthquake so that we all die together," says Wani's uncle, Ghulam Hassan Wani. "We cannot bear to watch our people dying inch by inch."

In the next room, Wani's bride, Munira Begum, wails a song of mourning every Kashmiri woman knows, but she is singing it much sooner than anyone could have expected. The henna from her December wedding still stains her hands. And she is pregnant with Wani's child.

Originally restricted to ordinary duties like halting theft, investigating smuggling rings, and protecting the peace, the Jammu and Kashmir Police Force has steadily blurred the line between law enforcement and military work. Paramilitary police forces like the Special Operations Group blur this line even further.

Set up in 1994 as an elite force within the Jammu and Kashmir Police Force, the SOG quickly became one of the most effective tools against the urbanized militant movement, and a top target of militant wrath. In part, this is because they have been so effective at infiltrating militant groups and identifying the chain of command. In part, the SOG is feared because of their alleged brutality.

"The SOG is simply a band of killers and looters who are operating with state support," says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the largest Muslim congregation in Kashmir, and founder of an umbrella opposition group, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. "For any political activity to take place, such as elections or protest rallies, the situation has to be peaceful. But with so many agencies around it's difficult to operate safely, and dangerous to send people into the streets."

But Jagtar Singh, district commander of an SOG unit outside of Srinagar, says that his officers are merely enforcing the law. A burly man with the trademark turban of his Sikh faith, Mr. Singh has covered his walls with faces, facts, and figures that come with his profession. There's a painting of a famous Sikh warrior who, according to legend, continued fighting in battle even after he was decapitated. Most important is a small plastic accordion file of snapshots of 30 militant commanders in the area. Each photo was taken at exceeding risk by an undercover SOG officer who had infiltrated the militant groups for six months and returned with crucial information. With these photos, the SOG knows who to target for arrest.

"We are the police. If someone is carrying a gun and moving around our area, we try to apprehend him," says Mr. Singh. "But generally the militants in this area are foreigners, and a foreigner holding a gun never surrenders to us. They open fire. There remains no alternative but to fight back, and in that process they mostly get killed." Many members of the more active militant groups, Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Al Badr, are Pakistanis and Afghans, with no linguistic or ethnic ties to Kashmir.

Out on the highway, Singh's SOG forces have set up a checkpoint. As traffic backs up, they stop each bus, motorcycle, and bullock cart, checking faces and ID cards to catch suspected militants who may be moving about among the civilian population.

"The police are really a soft target for militants, but not the SOG," says Singh, with a touch of pride. "Other police wings, you generally find a single policeman with just a stick in his hand. He is no match for militants. But the Lashkar can't distinguish between local police force and us."

But while SOG forces have gained a freer hand in recent months in dealing with militants, the regular police who make up the bulk of Kashmir's law-enforcement community have found that not only are they targeted by militants; now, even their routine tasks have been reined in during these lawless times.

Local police commander Tahir, for instance, has noticed an increase of high-level interference in smuggling cases. Last week, his officers captured a truck full of rice, stolen from state rations meant for Kashmiri citizens. Within an hour of this apprehension, Tahir received a barrage of phone calls from high-level state leaders, demanding that the truck be released and the charges dropped against the driver.

Next week: Part 2 of 'Kashmir, a Quest for Peace.'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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