Why J&K Governor Malik shunted out police chief

Around midnight on September 6, Jammu and Kashmir’s new Governor Satya Pal Malik ordered removal of Shesh Paul Vaid as state police chief, appointing him transport commissioner instead. Significantly, the midnight order to transfer Vaid and appoint Dilbag Singh as ‘acting’ DGP came at the risk of contempt of Supreme Court, which only recently directed states not to pick and choose officers to appoint them as ‘acting’ DGPs.

But the unceremonious removal of Vaid did not come all of a sudden. A week before Vaid was shifted, at least 12 people, mostly relatives of policemen, had been kidnapped in different incidents by militants across the southern districts of Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam, the hotbed of militancy. The local Hizbul Mujahideen outfit, which claimed responsibility, said this raft of abductions was a response to recent instances of alleged harassment of families of ultras by the security forces and the burning down of their houses. A week before that, three policemen, including an officer, were killed by militants when they had gone to celebrate Bakr Eid with their families in South Kashmir. 

It is believed that the governor-led administration was not happy with the working of the police chief of the most sensitive state in the country.

The arrest and subsequent release of the father of Hizbul commander Riyaz Naikoo and other relatives of militants in exchange for family members of police personnel, was not only an embarrassment for the police higher-ups but also had the potential to demoralise the force.

The abductions set alarm bells ringing in Srinagar and New Delhi as the police force is the backbone of the anti-insurgency grid in the state.

For months now, militants have been warning policemen to quit their jobs or be ready for dire consequences. Nearly three dozen cops have been killed in militancy-related incidents this year. However, it was for the first time that militants targeted the families of policemen, who are essentially doing their duty to earn a livelihood in the jobs-starved state.

After the killing of policemen on Eid and abduction of their relatives, a panic erupted in South Kashmir with 20 special police officers (SPOs) reportedly deciding to quit their jobs in Tral area alone. They announced their decision to quit from loudspeakers at the mosques. The J&K police has 35,000 SPOs hoping to rise through the ranks as regular personnel. Indeed, the force remains a sought-after avenue of employment. Nearly 9,000 Valley youth have joined the police in the two years since Hizbul commander Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016. SPOs are recruited by the police on a fixed monthly remuneration of Rs 6,000 and police maintain that SPOs are an important element in their strategy to combat militancy.

A psychological war

Police are an important part of Kashmiri society and their families and relatives would number around 15 lakh. Last year, the police received 1,18,000 applications from all over the state for 5,362 posts of constables, and 70,000 for 680 posts of sub-inspectors. The highest number of applications (5,121) were received from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, followed by Shopian with 3,419 applications.

The arrests of the relatives of militants and, in retaliation, the kidnapping of kith and kin of policemen by the ultras is seen as a new and dangerous trend in the three decades of insurgency in Kashmir.

The possible fallout of killing of police personnel and targeting of their families, who happen to be natives, may fuel revenge that would only further prolong the deadly conflict, which has consumed thousands of lives in the last three decades.

Ever since militancy erupted in Kashmir in the late 1980s, detaining family members of militants for questioning has been a routine matter. In some cases, they were put behind bars for months and years together, charging them with working over-ground for militants and helping them with logistics. But now, the militants are hitting back with tit-for-tat abductions, and the security forces’ tactic is proving counterproductive. 

With the police backing down in the face of abductions by releasing the detained family members of militants, the ultras have gained an edge in the psychological war, albeit just for the time being.

Militants know that the police are an important component of anti-insurgency operations and want to demoralise the force by targeting their families. To an extent, they have succeeded as policemen on duty are increasingly worried about the safety of their families back home. Some policemen, especially officers, have already shifted their families to safer places after threats.

Over the last couple of years, militants have released videos warning police against harassing their families. On August 30, this was no longer an empty threat. And the militants have warned that they would abduct policemen’s kin again if their family members are arrested or houses ransacked or burned down in the future. In an audio released after the August 30 abductions, Riyaz Naikoo is heard addressing Kashmir policemen, saying: “We have tolerated a lot till today and tried to reason with the local police, but they did not budge. The police forced us to abduct their relatives. We kidnapped them so that you know we have the capacity to reach your families. This time, we have let your families go unharmed, but this will not happen again. What happens to them next time will depend on your actions. You must be aware that we can’t imprison your families. We only have one punishment, which you very well know.”

But the police too are planning measures to counter this psychological fight. This psychological war may turn the situation murkier in Kashmir in coming days.

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Why J&K Governor Malik shunted out police chief

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