Arrest, harass… and counsel?
Uzma Falak questions police tactics in Kashmir.
It is 10.30 pm. The winter dark is impenetrable. Shahzada and her daughters lie huddled in her modest house in Srinagar’s old city in Indian-controlled Kashmir. She is worried for her son, Mushtaq Sheikh, who hasn’t returned from work. Suddenly, loud noises, sirens and swearing interrupt the stillness outside. Flashlights scan Shahzada’s room. Outside, men in uniform have cordoned off the house. A posse of police have gathered for the raid to arrest Mushtaq, a young man in his twenties, who is the family’s sole breadwinner.
‘There were so many police vans, as if they had to catch a big fish,’ says Urooj, one of Mushtaq’s sisters. They smashed the front wooden door, barged in and went on a rampage. ‘They abused and assaulted us,’ she recalls. Accompanied by an informer in a mask, the police asked for Mushtaq and became annoyed when he wasn’t there. A day later, government forces in civvies asked the family to hand over Mushtaq’s father in his place. Mushtaq is on the run. His father isn’t able to come home either, if he is to evade arrest.
Meanwhile, in south Kashmir, a protester remains underground for a second week. Last week, when police couldn’t trace him, his friend was arrested and harassed instead. He fears he might be charged under Public Safety Act for the second time.
In early November, police launched a massive crackdown on youth for involvement in anti-India protests, marked with arrests, night raids and extortion. Many of the protesters have since gone underground; some have left the Kashmir Valley entirely to evade the police dragnet and protect their families and close associates. The police have been using CCTV footage from Kashmir’s streets in their hunt for the protesters.
In Palhalan, north Kashmir, police have reopened old cases and resorted to massive ‘random’ arrests under different sections of Indian law.
Though protests and arrests are not unusual in Kashmir, the recent spate of arrests began after Indian armed forces killed a 22-year-old man on the outskirts of Srinagar during protests on the day of Narendra Modi’s visit, at which the Indian prime minister announced his much-touted economic package for the area. Modi, who has been accused of complicity in the Gujrat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, failed to sell his neoliberal development rhetoric to the people of Kashmir and delivered his speech at a fortified venue amid a strict clampdown on protests.
Though the exact number of detainees is unknown, police officials put the figure at 40 in Srinagar alone, including minors. Police told the press that they had identified those involved in the stone-pelting, and that regular protesters would be booked, while ‘first-time offenders’ would be released after ‘counselling’.
The police use various tactics to humiliate and subjugate the young people they arrest. ‘One young stone-pelter was asked to recite the English alphabet and numbers,’ recalls a dissenter from his prison days. The police also patronize the protesters, using assumed religious superiority – often asking them to recite verses of the Qu’ran. If they are unable to do so, their commitment to their struggle and the protest is questioned, making them feel guilty.
The assumed moral, class, educational and religious superiority adopted by the police suggests the deeper ethical corruption and perversity of the state apparatus. Brainwashing, encouraging the youth to join the police, threatening, blackmailing, promising power and green pastures are usually the key elements of such ‘counselling’ sessions. ‘When their tactics fail, they tend to play “good cop, bad cop”,’ a protester reveals. He says the police promote specific literature to ‘de-radicalize’ the youth.
Detainees have in the past also accused the police of sexual torture, including rape, and of supplying drugs as a way to weaken them and, as a result, the resistance movement. Ironically, the police have opened drug rehabilitation centres, usually near to military garrisons, which also increases the dependence of Kashmir’s young people on the state.
In 2014, a police counselling programme included sessions with ‘experts’ who attempted to assess protesters from a ‘sociological’ perspective and understand why stone-pelters resort to ‘violence’, giving them space to vent their ‘emotions’ and providing them with information on ‘employment’ schemes. The police have also claimed that they ‘dissuaded’ some young men from joining the armed groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, by ‘providing an Islamic perspective on how their decision to join the militancy was un-Islamic’.
However, the police have failed to curb the anti-India protests or the stone-pelting, which have tapped intensive police resources. The struggle on the streets and in the forests of Kashmir continues to shake the pillars of the establishment, even while it ‘counsels’ the Kashmir people, asking them, Why do you protest?