Targetting of JK Policemen’s families A new turn in the proxy war

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Eleven family members of policemen of the J&K Police (JKP) were kidnapped by terrorists on 30 Aug 2018 from some villages and towns of South Kashmir. It signaled a turn in the long standing proxy conflict in J&K because strangely an ethical element of the conflict had thus far avoided any focused terrorist campaign to target policemen’s or soldier’s families. Through many years the professions continued to receive respect from the locals. Policemen, as it is, mostly reside at their homes or return to them very frequently being locally deployed. The ratio of young men turning up for recruiting rallies for the two forces, against the number of vacancies has always been extremely high and continues to be even today.
The targeting of policemen and to lesser extent local soldiers enrolled with the Indian Army, however, has undoubtedly been a part of terrorist strategy for very long; a ploy to break their will and prevent local inhabitants from being seen to be visibly in support of the counter terrorist (CT) campaign of the Army and the J&K Police (JKP). Stray killing of informers linked to the police have occurred and some policemen themselves were targeted. Yet, there was no large scale campaign as being witnessed in the past six months in particular. Post the killing of Burhan Wani, police homes were targeted and many families forced to swear allegiance to the separatist movement. Over the last two years many policemen have been killed in targeted killings especially when off duty in their homes. It’s to the credit of the force that despite the threats and the tragic deaths, JKP as a force has continued to remain at the forefront of the CT campaign.
The eleven family members in question were released unharmed with a message from Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) leader Riyaz Naikoo claiming that HM resorted to the act in retaliation for the Army, Special Operations Group (SOG) and JKP actions of targeting terrorist homes and members of their families a day earlier. Naikoo’s father had apparently been picked up by the police after the killing of four local policemen in an ambush near Shopian. Unconfirmed reports and media sources stated that under some kind of new policy, the JKP along with the Army were tasked to interrogate families with terrorist links and place pressure on them. Contact by Army and JKP with families of terrorists is nothing new. It has been a norm to urge the parents and other close relatives to appeal to terrorists, especially newly inducted ones, to return to normal life. Some high profile actions have been publicized in the past with return of Majid Khan the 20 year old football player who had joined the Lashkar e Taiyaba (LeT) in Nov 2017 and was later motivated by his parents to return with the help of the police. In fact little is it known that the Army itself had set up a high profile orphanage (Muskaan) to cater to wards of neutralized terrorists and also assist some NGOs who run such facilities for children of conflict. Thus intimidation of terrorist families has never been a norm except perhaps in the case of some unrelenting ones who insisted on facilitating the activities of the terror groups. The terrorists on their part have rarely targeted policemen in the cogent and focused way that they have now resorted to. There is no doubt that JKP with its local content is a huge asset. Its advantages in terms of local knowledge, intelligence, liaison and advice are something that the Army and CRPF fully utilize.
Ill-informed social media burst out with sentiments demanding retaliation against the families of terrorists. My own tweet asking people in India to condemn the terrorist action against innocent families was re-tweeted over 20000 times but the comments expressed anger and even regret that the Army and other security forces (SF) were not doing enough to send home a strong message to the terror groups; the strong message that most advocated was a tit for tat action to target families of terrorists too. Explanations that forces of the government do not target innocents unlike the terrorists, who have no apparent obligations towards rules of conflict, cut no ice across most of the country. Many suggested and in fact even inquired why the concept adopted by the Punjab Police during the Punjab militancy could not be duplicated here; they were once again recalling that the Police leadership in Punjab in 1990 legitimized targeting of terrorist families which forced terrorists to relent and cease their targeting campaign.
It’s an interesting mix of sentiments and a paradox of sorts emerging in the situation in the Valley. Quick fix solutions people seek are going to remain elusive and the temptation to employ counter violence against innocents is going to exacerbate rather than resolve anything. A few issues need to be highlighted before examining the potential direction this can take.
People must never view the security situation purely from the Army’s angle and wonder why the JKP cannot secure its own. The concept of policing and soldiering in a hybrid proxy conflict has different strokes. The Army after operating in the field returns to the secure environment of its billets and camps; the JKP does not do that. People need to realize why. A police force has many components – only the armed police is organized as units and live in secure billets or are deployed as sub units. The rest of the police personnel, especially those working in police stations and as traffic policemen live in their homes making them doubly vulnerable. Many feel that an enraged local police force, seething at terrorist attempts to target its families, will automatically respond in kind and be victorious in outcome. There is no such guarantee. The level of local alienation in Kashmir is many notches higher than ever experienced in Punjab. In fact the Punjab gentry did not take to supporting the terrorist elements in the manner we are witnessing in Kashmir; flash mobs at terror hideouts was not even imagined in Punjab. Ethically, any campaign against innocents always ends with egg on the face and is no accepted way of conducting a counter campaign. Where evidence of involvement of terrorist families in over ground support or otherwise is proved legal action must be initiated.
The temptation to target families with links to those in terrorist ranks is something that will please the sponsors of proxy war who would probably get another opportunity to further their campaign without having to work for it. The action-reaction spiral based upon response by terrorists against policemen’s families and the subsequent counter will let loose a bloody cycle and create yet another uncontrollable situation which will give boost to further alienation. JKP’s professionalism will be tested and actually diluted if this were to happen and the Army would be left on its own with intelligence and the campaign against financial networks taking a back seat.
Securing the police families is a difficult task. First there is the physical security where some temporary efforts can be made in clubbing vulnerable families or enhancing the number of policemen and families inside police lines. None of this is a permanent solution as family connections are widespread and thus vulnerability of all is high. What the police are capable of doing is undertake a social awareness campaign for the people to accord cooperative security to the police families. This needs a sophisticated communication strategy which must be professionally set up for it.
The JKP has always come in for high praise for its professionalism, loyalty and patriotism. More needs to be done for it as far as terms and conditions of service are concerned. It’s a resource that the sponsors across the LoC know is a major asset in India’s quiver. We need to be extremely careful in doing anything which may upset its equilibrium. Once that is lost, regaining it may just remain an elusive dream.
(The author is former GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps).
(In agreement with