On a large parade ground set beneath dry brown hills, the Kashmir police went about their business. On one side, officers dressed in normal clothes and waving banners, imitated a gang of protesters. On the other, their colleagues, kitted out in new riot gear, selected for its menacing look as much as its flexibility, jogged forwards, chanting. Quickly, the kitted-out officers lowered themselves into a kneeling position and as those in the centre raised their shields, the officers on the flanks set off after the “demonstrators”, waving their truncheons and hitting out. Afterwards, purple-coloured water was fired from a cannon.
Senior officers say the aim of these training sessions – which The Independent on Sunday was the first international media outlet invited to attend – was to avoid causing serious harm when police clash with real protesters. In Kashmir, where a decades-long struggle for autonomy and the subsequent security clampdown has led to the deaths of more than 70,000 people, protests by youths demanding “azadi” or freedom are nothing new.
But last summer’s demonstrations were met with what many believe was unnecessarily heavy-handed tactics by the police, and at least 114 unarmed civilians were killed. There has been mounting pressure on the authorities to devise a non-lethal strategy.
As a result, more than 3,000 officers are being pushed through a rolling programme of sessions on the use of water cannons, crowd dispersal, and the safe discharge of tear gas shells. There has been expenditure on new equipment for officers previously using crowd-control gear based on British-era designs. “We have tried to give our people knowledge about how to disperse crowds without harming them,” said R A Vakil, commander of the Jammu and Kashmir force’s 6th Battalion. “We want to reduce deaths.”
But on the streets, these efforts have already been met with derision. The training sessions have coincided with a crackdown on Kashmiri youths using draconian laws that have sent scores of people to jail without trial. Anger is mounting.
Among those venting their rage is Showakat Mattoo. Last summer, the death of his 17-year-old nephew, Tufail – killed by a teargas shell that struck him on the head – was the spark that set off months of demonstrations. The boy’s family insist he was an innocent passer-by and have demanded the police charge the officer responsible.
“This was on 9 June last year and they have done nothing. They even have an eye-witness,” said Mr Mattoo, sitting crouched over a basket containing burning embers at his Srinagar home. “This talk of non-lethal training is just rubbish. It’s just eye-wash.”
It is not hard to find such anger. In the aftermath of last year’s demonstrations, the authorities said they would release the youths who had been detained. Yet reports suggest many hundreds remain in custody. The police admit 110 youths have been held under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a piece of legislation whose origins date from the days of British rule that allows someone to be detained for up to two years without trial on the say-so of a magistrate. A family’s only recourse is to appeal to the High Court.
Among the more notorious PSA cases – laughable were it not so serious – is that of Omar Hamid Hanga, an 18-year-old arrested in February and accused of beating a police officer who had fallen to the ground at a demonstration last summer. The piece of evidence cited by the police is a photograph that shows several youths beating the officer. But the face of the boy purported to be Mr Hanga is entirely concealed by a mask.
His family insist the two boys look entirely unalike and that he was not even in the town where the incident happened. Their pleas were ignored. “The authorities are not willing to listen to people,” said the teenager’s uncle, Abdul Masjid, as his wife sobbed.
Ferdousa Zargar’s 19-year-old son, Asif, was also detained under the PSA. ‘There was no trial. He was accused of stone throwing,” said Mrs Zargar, a widow who lives in Srinagar’s old quarter. “I was looking to him to raise our family.” Her son is currently being held in a jail in the north of the state. A senior police officer, Abdul Gani Mir, defended the use of the PSA. “There are proper checks and balances,” he said.
Amnesty International does not agree. In a report, it said up to 20,000 people had been detained using the PSA in the past two decades. “Kashmir authorities are using PSA detentions as a revolving door to keep people they can’t or won’t convict through proper legal channels locked up and out of the way,” said Amnesty’s Sam Zarifi. The chief minister has said the report’s recommendations will be “seriously considered”.
But it is hard to find anyone in this city who has much good to say about the police or their vow to try to reduce casualties. The protesters’ demands for freedom have in recent years started to include demands for justice and accountability. Why are no police or paramilitaries, they ask, ever charged when they commit a crime?
Such polarisation means there is little chance for goodwill unless people see concrete action as well. The federal authorities in Delhi have long dragged their heels over a political solution for the people of the valley. Last year they appointed three “interlocutors” to sound out various factions but undermined the deed by selecting three well-informed but politically powerless individuals. As it is, the interlocutors have also raised concerns about the use of the PSA.
Yasin Malik, a former militant who turned to non-violence nearly two decades ago and who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, one of several groups demanding autonomy, lives near Lal Chowk, the area in Srinagar notorious as a location for protests. Last year, one of his cousins was among those killed. “They need to start a discourse,” he said, mockingly. “Instead they are trying to decide whether to beat me with a plastic bar or an iron bar.”