After the fear in J&K, the loathing
3 November 2002
The Indian Express
Srinagar: In one corner, a dozen ears are glued to the afternoon radio bulletin, desperate to know what’s in the offing. A few officers sit in the sun, deep in their own thoughts, oblivious to everything around them. The men at the door still have their fingers on the trigger but their brows are creased with concern. The smell of tension hangs heavy in the air. This is the headquarters of Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Special Operations Group. For long it was possibly the most feared place in Kashmir, built on a reputation for brutality. Today, though, it’s in the grip of fear after new Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed made it his stated intention to scrap the 3,000-man outfit. The fear runs through the ranks. ‘‘It’s a curse to be associated with the SOG not only among the people but even in the police force itself,’’ says one officer. ‘‘People hate us because we were a front for all that is ugly in the anti-militancy fight. Our own people are also responsible for it but our name was also used by the authorities whenever they had to take a short cut and bypass the law.’’ Though the SOG will be assimilated into the main force, that itself spells trouble. ‘‘There is bitterness against us within a large section of our department too. We would be rewarded, many of us got out-of-turn promotions and even cash awards...this obviously angered our colleagues in the main force,’’ the officer said. The charges of brutality, and the consequent public hatred, are accepted as a matter of fact. ‘‘Yes, there were cases of extortion’’, says another officer. ‘‘Terror was certainly being used as an instrument. But the reason wasn’t just the SOG, the lack of accountability encouraged us to take short cuts for personal benefits.’’ The hunger for success and its rewards meant norms were given the go-by. ‘‘Our officers turned a blind eye towards such acts deliberately because they wanted successes. But it seems we are the only scapegoats in this entire process’’, he adds. The officer then makes an interesting point. ‘‘We were never an autonomous force. We always worked under the district police heads and now nobody talks of the top brass.’’ As the officers talk, a silent radio set comes to life, flashing a message: ‘‘A policeman has been shot at in the vicinity’’. Nobody seems interested. ‘‘Don’t go there. It’s not our job. Ask your boys to return, I want nothing today’’, the officer shouts back. The force, he says, has been virtually defunct ever since the uncertainty regarding their fate began a fortnight ago. ‘‘We are just waiting for orders to pack up.’’ When the officers leave, a constable standing nearby — and listening keenly to the conversation — steps up. ‘‘Officers have nothing to worry about. They are mostly outsiders and will be at the most transferred to any other place. But we are locals and it is going to be hard for us,’’ he says. The fear is well- founded; fear of the SOG has given way to a barely concealed hatred, which could find release in acts of reprisal. ‘‘They had become so powerful that they actually believed they were above everything. Now they will learn their lessons,’’ says a shopkeeper outside the SOG camp at Humhama. The SOG didn’t operate in isolation; it fed off a massive network of informers and surrendered militants who stand to lose even more. An educated estimate reckons there are around 1,000 informers working with the SOG in Srinagar district alone. ‘‘We don’t get information nowadays, just phone calls asking us whether they can retain their weapons’’, a senior officer of the force says. Spying, he said, had become a lucrative business, encouraged by the SOG with many incentives. ‘‘The fate of these sources is a matter of concern for us. In fact all of them have a vested interest in what they were doing and once they lose the patronage of this force, they will be killed. Or they will join the other side’’. There’s another, unstated, fear: that the spies will start to sing and the SOG’s darkest secrets will come out. What does disbanding of SOG mean on ground? Human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz isn’t very optimistic of a drastic change. ‘‘If these men are assimilated into the police, it could turn the entire police force into SOG,’’ he says. ‘‘The question is whether the police and other security agencies uphold the law or remain a law unto themselves.’’ The real problem, Imroz believes, is one of impunity — perceived or real. ‘‘And if the perpetrators are not taken to task, nothing will change.’’ Justifying his pessimism, he explains that the ground situation — militant violence — remains the same. ‘‘If militant attacks intensify, the police and other security agencies would behave the way they always used to,’’ he says.