"I won’t quit, won't back down," a young khaki-clad special police officer Mushtaq (name changed) tells us, deep in South Kashmir. A group of SPOs echo Mushtaq's sentiments.
It was a somewhat unexpected reaction to the murder of two SPOs and one constable on Friday morning (September 21). The cold-blooded murders triggered a dozen contractual policemen to post their videos announcing their resignation and immediate disassociation from the force.
In Kashmir, the complexity of terror thrives on a multi-layered society. The man who wields the gun — a terrorist — is a Kashmiri, and the man who wields the gun in uniform — a Jammu & Kashmir Police officer — is also a Kashmiri.
An outfit of 30,000 SPOs is an asset to the Jammu & Kashmir Police force, an organisation that is at the forefront of fighting terror in the state. Of these 30,000, approximately 10,000 SPOs are deployed in South Kashmir, a hotbed for militancy and insurgency.
Indian police officers pay respects to slain colleagues on Friday, September 21. (Credit: AP Photo)
Most of these SPOs risk their lives for a salary as paltry as Rs 6,000 per month, and only five per cent of these men are part of operations and intelligence. After a successful operation in 2017, where top commanders of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) were killed in encounters — the information and intelligence for which was sourced out locally — the terror organisations were desperate. From making appeals to not give information to cops, to — more recently — making death threats on videos, they tried everything.
We have lost 3 of our brave colleagues in a barbaric terror strike. Our tribute to the 3 martyred Jawans Nisar Ahmad, Firdous Kuchay & Kulwant Singh. We condemn this inhuman act and assure that all the culprits shall be dealt under law. @JmuKmrPolice— Kashmir Zone Police (@KashmirPolice) September 21, 2018
The terror groups finally found an "Achilles' heel" in the Jammu & Kashmir Police force.
The SPOs, post duty, are mostly unarmed and vulnerable at home. The terror groups, who first made warning videos, reportedly gunned down the SPOs to instill fear.
Dilbagh Singh — the man at the helm of the Jammu & Kashmir Police, who replaced SP Vaid after nearly a dozen cops were abducted and subsequently released by militants — however, say, “There is not a single resignation on table.”
Cops say, “Each day, we get scores of inquiries, asking about openings for SPOs.”
While the recruitment for 2,000 officers was announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs, there is a cap to the number of SPOs to be deployed.
Swayam Prakash Pani, currently the IG of Kashmir and the former DIG South Kashmir, has seen the worst phase. He said, "The protection of SPOs comes from society they live in."
What he said, may not be completely out of line. While a dozen armed men barged into the house of Kulwant Singh, a 35-year-old SPO on Friday, the locals pleaded and protested. Singh was the lone Hindu Rajput. Some of the terrorists identified as locals from Shopian, included names like Saifullah, Mustaq Mir and Wasim. There have also been unconfirmed reports of Zeenat-Ul-Islam being part of the operation.
The orders to kill, according to intelligence sources, came from across the border.
The timing, in such light, feels ill-planned. These attacks were one of the reasons why India called off talks with Pakistan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
As India Today travels to the apple town of Shopian district. On the road, the traffic, like in any small town, is normal. Closer to Batagund village, where the two SPOs and one constable were fired at indiscriminately, we cross over a number of apple orchards, until we reach the spot — an area deep within one such orchard.
Despite a handful of people in vicinity, there is palpable tension. At a distance, we spot Abdul Aziz, an old apple farmer. Looking visibly shaken, he points us to the direction where the dastardly crime was committed.
Abdul's son too is an SPO.
He says, “He is my only son. I have told him not to come home."
Abdul, worried and shaken — the spot of the murders was a few metres away — says, “I have heard, announcement from masjids asking SPOs to resign. I have not gone to offer namaz since.”
Even with a gun to the head, the concerned father said, his son won't resign.
Grieving relatives and villagers at SPO Kulwant Singh's house in Batgund. (Credit: Twitter)
At the residence of the three SPOs, villagers are united in grief.
Although Batagund and Kaprin villages are known to have several terrorist-sympathisers and over-ground workers (OGW), the killings of unarmed SPOs seem to have upset the villagers.
A villager says, "It is not done. They told us the men will be released after they make video. They lied."
Not many, however, are willing to come on record. The Shopian district is a terror hub. Of the 68 terrorists killed in South Kashmir, 28 were from Shopian. This was, perhaps, one of the reasons that the terrorist targeted the cops.
In the homes, the widows wail. The tragedy of conflict has swallowed their men. All three were the only earning members of their families.
Kutchey's widow, Rukhsana, was holding two toddlers. “My husband was on railways duty. We pleaded with the terrorists to let him go. They did not," she says.
Sitting between the grieving relatives and neighbours, Rukhsana adds, "He is the only one to earn. I don't know how we would manage."
An SPO in Shopian we spoke to has packed his bags already. He says he has quit, and moving to Jammu fearing for his life. Although the Jammu & Kashmir Police deny about mass resignations, a few exceptions have been made — officers have been allowed to not report to duty for the time being.
Several SPOs who have decided not to resign are staying in the Police Lines for some time.
A discreet message has been passed on to reach out to the SPOs. The setback, however, is temporary, according to sources in intelligence and security forces.
The Superintendent of Police (SP) of the neighbouring Kulgam district, Harmeet Singh, who visited the slain cop’s family, says, “The threats made to Jammu & Kashmir Police or the SPOs are not new. These men are part of the family."
"We will look after them," he adds.
With him was Mohammad Yusuf Bhat, a PDP MLA, who says, “The act needs to be condemned. We can't bear the sight of young widows and men being killed."
"India and Pakistan now needs to talk or else Kashmiris will keep getting killed,"he adds as an afterthought.
According to Shabir Ahmed Kullay, an NC leader, "There is threat to SPOs as well as to politicians during the urban body and panchayat polls. After this incident, there will be zero per cent polls. No one will contest the elections. At least not from Shopian."
The districts of Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam are the key concern areas. A young SPO from another district says: "I will lay down my life for the country."
"The threats made by the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo are cowardly. If he is a man, let him face us on ground face to face."
“If today one resigns, thousands of others will join. If twenty resign, two lakh others will join," says the SPO in his early 20s.
But not many in the unit concurred with him.
Another constable adds, "The bravado is okay, but we know what we face on ground."
In a three-decade-long fight against militancy, the one lakh-strong Jammu Kashmir Police has been at the forefront of the battle. There are only 30,000 SPOs in the state. At least 10,000 of them are from South Kashmir. Despite a handful of SPOs announcing resignations, the police force is not worried. The attack, according to them, has gone against the militants.
Brave voices, in various parts of South Kashmir, show that there is resilience — and will to take terrorism and terrorists head on.
"This is just a phase. This too shall pass," signs off a senior officer.
Also read: No one killed Aurangzeb — Fewer tears for Kashmir's slain soldier shows 'liberal' lack of empathy