Without weapons, riot gear or even clean uniforms, a group of police officers sat on the sidewalk outside a shopfront in Srinagar, the main city in the Himalayan region of Indian-administered Kashmir, weighing their allegiances.
Thirty Kashmiri police officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing retribution from their superiors told The Associated Press that they have been sidelined and, in some cases, disarmed by New Delhi-based authorities since the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi downgraded Jammu and Kashmir from a state into two federally administered territories, tightening its grip on the restive region.
The state police force was shocked by the sudden presidential order earlier this month that stripped Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, leading officers to feel spiritless, caught between the federal security forces they now report to and the friends and neighbors who question their loyalties like never before.
“At the end of the day, we neither belong to our own nor are we trusted by higher authorities,” said one officer.
For years, Kashmiri police have been on the forefront of intelligence-gathering and profiling of activists and armed militants fighting Indian rule.
Days before Kashmir’s special status was revoked, tens of thousands of troops were deployed to the region. Authorities cut internet, cell coverage and even landline telephone service, leaving Jammu and Kashmir’s 12.5 million people unable to contact each other or friends and relatives outside the state.
State police, too, were in the dark.
Officers described Kashmir’s sudden re-organization as a betrayal by the federal authorities they had been serving at the risk of social alienation in their communities.
Many of the policemen said their department-issued firearms were taken away from them days before Modi’s government’s order was presented in Parliament because authorities feared they could rebel.
India’s home minister, Amit Shah, was seen outside parliament house in New Delhi on August 6 with a checklist that included a line about briefing India’s defense minister about the possibility of “violent disobedience” by Kashmir’s men and women in uniform.
At least three fights have broken out between state police and soldiers since Kashmir’s status was changed, leading to injuries on both sides, two police officers said.
Some officers said they were unclear about their role as the region transitions from a semi-autonomous state to a federally administered territory.
In contrast to the Indian paramilitary soldiers manning a maze of checkpoints armed with assault rifles, shotguns, tear gas canisters and two-way radios, Kashmir police are only carrying batons.
“It has been a leisurely job these days,” said one officer perusing a newspaper at a checkpoint.
“We’ve become like clerks and helpers in the field for soldiers. Why should we carry weapons? After all, we too are part of this besieged society,” he said.
The work of a Kashmiri police officer been contentious at least since 1947, when India became an independent, secular state and partition created the Muslim state of Pakistan.
Since then, the Alpine valley of Kashmir has been bitterly disputed by the two countries, who fought two of their three wars over it and now each administer a portion of the land while claiming it in its entirety.
On the Indian-controlled side, many Kashmiris see local police as henchmen for the Indian government bent on suppressing a popular demand for independence or a merger with Pakistan.
In the 1950s and 1960s, police routinely detained residents for even listening to Radio Pakistan, a state-run broadcaster. Anti-India activists were arrested and tortured.
They worked to scuttle anti-India political movements and break up armed rebellions by infiltrating their ranks and locking up agitators.
When the latest armed insurgency erupted in 1989, police initially fought against it. Within a few years, as rebels began targeting their families, many abandoned their patrols and stayed at their posts and barracks.
Some sympathized with and supported the rebel demands as the campaign morphed into a full-fledged rebellion backed by massive public support. Dozens of police joined the rebel ranks, some rising to become commanders.
The Indian army deployed a special contingent along with tanks in Srinagar in 1993 to crush a “police mutiny,” ending with the arrest of hundreds of officers.
And two years later, India formed a new counterinsurgency police force called the Special Operations Group, drawn mostly from members who came from the most highly militarized and remote mountain regions near the de facto border with Pakistan. The dreaded force has been widely accused by Kashmiris and human rights groups of brutal rights violations, from summary executions, torture and rape to kidnapping suspects as well as civilians for ransom.
Still, with few employment opportunities in an economy crippled by decades of conflict, Kashmir’s state police force draws scores of applicants. The department has swelled from about 18,000 officers in the early 1990s to more than 100,000 today.
As fresh troops arrived in Srinagar the night before Kashmir’s special status was revoked, the region’s largest rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, called on Kashmiri police to rise up against New Delhi.
“Those Kashmiris who work in the police have a chance to redeem themselves,” top rebel commander Reyaz Naikoo said in an audio statement that was widely shared on social media, claiming to have already contacted some officers.
Kashmir police spokesman Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani dismissed Naikoo’s claim, insisting that officers were carrying out their “professional duties as we’ve been doing before.”
Gillani said that typically only 20% of Kashmiri officers carry firearms, and that the force remained “at the forefront of maintaining law and order.”
In the aftermath of New Delhi’s security crackdown, officers said they have met even greater resistance than usual on their rounds, shamed by neighbors who accused them of licking India’s boots.
An officer in charge of a police unit in downtown Srinagar said his officers were demoralized.
“Our problem is that we’re loathed at home and distrusted by authorities. This will continue as long as this conflict continues,” he said.
By Aijaz Hussain for the Associated Press.