Kashmir

The Khaki Fidayeen

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Five brave policemen who have broken the back of militancy in Kashmir.

As gunfire crackled in the snowscaped Srinagar chill of early January, with two fidayeen fighters—wholly rolled, strapped and sold to their ‘cause’—holding Lal Chowk’s Punjab Hotel under seige, a handful of Kashmir’s police officers were overcome with déjà vu. And itchy fingers, that burning need to be there as part of the operation, countering terror with all they’ve got. Equally if not more dedicated to India’s own cause, the legitimate cause of Peace in the Valley, these men in khaki are clear they have what it takes—if only the government would deploy them. Back in 1989, when the insurgency broke out, the J&K Police was ill-equipped to handle it; some policemen were even suspected of sympathy with insurgents. Today, the force actually has police officers trained in counter-terrorism. Most of them are Kashmiri Muslims, and when they say they would’ve wrapped up the 26/11 job in just ten hours, it doesn’t sound like an empty boast. They’re India’s Khaki Fidayeen. Open profiles five such policemen. They’ve already helped steady things in J&K, and are raring for action...

JAVID AHMED

Inspector

The information was soild, “Ek dum pukhta,” as the informer told Inspector Javid Ahmed. A militant had been spotted inside a college in Shopian in south Kashmir. There was no time to lose. Javid and his three men rushed immediately—as the inspector recounts.

At the college ground, Javid saw a young man near a motorcycle. As Javid approached, the young man pulled out a grenade. Unfazed, Javid jumped at him, even as two of his own men ran away. “I held his hands tightly in mine while he tried hard to pull the pin,” says Javid. The third policeman, who hadn’t fled, stood paralysed with fear while Javid’s fight went on. It lasted for almost five long minutes before Javid finally managed to loosen the militant’s hands. The grenade landed on a road nearby, beyond the college wall, but luckily did not explode.

If Javid has a charmed life, he’d rather not test it so brazenly again. “I have promised myself that I won’t act so brave again,” he says.Javid comes from a policeman’s family. His father was once in charge of the Tral police station in south Kashmir, a post which he has since taken charge of. During the peak of militancy in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), it was common for policemen and their families to get threats from militants. Javid’s father got many such threats, and even survived a landmine blast.

Javid’s first posting after graduating from the J&K police academy in 2002 was in Shopian, a Jamaat-e-Islami stronghold and thus a tough challenge. According to a senior police officer, militancy here reigned until mid-2000; the police feared for their lives and dared not take action. Javid, however, would have none of it, vowing to resist militants every turn of the way. “From day one, I had vowed to eliminate militancy,” he says.

In some four years, Javid led operation after operation in Shopian, resulting in the elimination of at least 25 top militant leaders, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s deputy district commander. “Wherever I am, I will keep fighting militancy, no matter what,” he says.

IMTIYAZ HUSSAIN

Superintendent of Police

The man opened fire the moment Police Officer Imtiyaz Hussain asked him who he was. “Tu kaun hai?” Hussain remembers shouting at the man sitting under an apple tree. It was an orchard in north Kashmir’s Sopore.

Hussain had his eyes fixed on the figure in the distance when he suddenly saw metal glisten in the bright afternoon sun. Instead of revealing who he was, the mystery man, Abu Abdullah, had pulled out an AK-47 rifle. The police officer could have died that very instant had it not been for his namesake, Constable Imtiyaz Ahmed, who jumped in front of his boss and took the AK-47’s bullets in his lower abdomen.

Abu Abdullah was no ordinary gunman. He was a hardcore Lashkar terrorist, sent to carry out a fidayeen attack in Srinagar. It was just hours before he was to head for the state capital that Hussain, who was then Sopore’s superintendent of police, got a whiff of his plans. At the encounter in the orchard, Abdullah had fought fiercely, so fiercely that he wouldn’t let the police party rescue Imtiyaz Ahmed, who lay wounded in the line of fire. Shards of apples flew in all directions.

It took Hussain an hour to get near Abdullah. And then he shot Abdullah dead from a one-foot distance. “I tilted his rifle away from myself and shot him with my pistol,” recounts Imtiyaz. But Constable Ahmed, sadly, couldn’t be saved.

Hussain belongs to the 1999 batch of the J&K Police. “It is called the fidayeen batch,” he quips. He joined as a deputy superintendent of police in Shopian, in south Kashmir, which was then the region’s hotbed of militancy. But it was from 2006 onwards in Sopore that Hussain faced the most difficult phase of his career.

At that time, Sopore was the hub of terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba. Most fidayeen attacks which took place in Srinagar would be orchestrated from Sopore. Hussain’s main objective was containing the Lashkar. Unless the police sent out a strong message by instilling the fear of death in militants, he felt, it wouldn’t be possible to contain militancy. His big moment came in November 2006, when he successfully managed to bump off Osama Pehalwan, chief of the militant outfit Al-Mansurian. Pehalwan had led a string of attacks against the Indian Army.

In another daring operation, Hussain recalls scalping senior Lashkar commander Hafiz Nasir. On an informer’s cue, Hussain and team zeroed in on the militant hiding along with two Jaish operatives in Rafiabad, near Sopore; the three were planning a fidayeen attack on the cavalcade of then J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, according to intelligence inputs. As the team lay siege, Hussain, who was accompanied on the operation by an Army colonel, was instructed by his seniors to rush to a site where the CM was supposed to address a public rally. But once he left, the militants broke out of the cordon. Two Army soldiers were killed, and Hafiz Nasir took refuge in another house. Hussain was called right back. He was in favour of blasting the house, but the colonel wanted to be sure—and took a peep inside. Nasir shot him. “He died on the spot,” says Hussain. It was only afterwards that he and his police team managed to kill Nasir.

In another input from Rafiabad, an informer told Hussain that four militants were hiding inside a house. Hussain says he sent a police party thrice into the house for a search, but the militants could not be found. Finally, when the informer called a fourth time, Hussain lost his patience, calling the informer a liar. “Cut my throat if you don’t get them,” the informer whispered.

This time round, Hussain accompanied the search party himself. They searched the entire house. But, like three previous attempts, Hussain couldn’t find anything. He was about to call it off when he spotted a black-and-white TV set in one corner of the house. “I don’t know,” he says, “but I had this gut feeling that there is something there.” The police officer ordered his men to dig beneath the TV set. Even after a couple of feet, they found only earth.

“Sir, there is nothing here,” one of his men told him. But Hussain insisted that they keep digging. After a foot or so, they came upon another layer of concrete. And beneath it, they discovered a bunker, measuring 6 feet by 8 feet. Sure enough, there were four militants holed up inside. Hussain asked them to surrender. They wouldn’t.

“Finally, we got it filled with water,” says Hussain, almost cringing at the memory. It was in a similar manner that Hussain and his men were able to eliminate Sajjad Afghani, the J&K chief of terrorist outfit Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, in 2008. Afghani was hiding above a false ceiling in the residential quarters of a government hospital employee, and had been an active militant for ten years in north Kashmir. Hussain knew. “Many Pakistani boys work for us,” he discloses, “providing us vital information about militant activities in Kashmir.” He has also intercepted many calls from across the border, asking militants to kill certain people. “I have saved the life of at least a hundred people by shifting them to safe places.”

It is on a Sunday that Hussain, a legend in these parts, finally finds time for Open. His bulletproof vehicle has broken down recently. This puts his life in danger. But there are also other hardships he must put up with in daily life. For example, he stays in rented, not police, accommodation.

The rewards are meagre. Police officers in J&K rue the fact that the men who risk their lives get a pittance as allowances—Rs 200 as risk allowance is all that a policeman gets. Compared to that, an Army soldier gets Rs 5,000 per month as risk allowance. So, at a time when so many young men of his age were crossing the border to join militant outfits, how did Hussain choose the police?

“Three of our boys died in an encounter... and a militant from Multan also. Tell me, will a Kashmiri mother cry for her three boys or for a militant from Multan?” is his succinct response.

The superintendent gets a call on his mobile. And it is then that I recognise his caller tune. It’s a song from a 1965 film on Bhagat Singh’s life: ‘Eiy watan, eiy watan, humko teri kasam, teri raahon mein jaan tak luta jaayenge...

MOHAMMED IRSHAD

Superintendent of Police

When the fidayeen entered Punjab Hotel in the heart of Srinagar last week, one man was immediately summoned: Mohammed Irshad. Till recently the SP, Special Operations Group, he is a reclusive man who lets his personal weapon do the talking. And true to his reputation, Irshad’s team eliminated both fidayeen fighters in a few short hours. “We drilled holes from the wooden roof, shielding ourselves behind iron plates and then shot them,” he says.

Today, the very mention of cargo (Irshad’s erstwhile office was in a building that had housed the cargo section of Indian Airlines) is enough to send shivers across the spines of militants. Inside his office, the first thing that strikes you is a big map of Kashmir. Pinned across the map are names of top militant commanders. Some of them, crossed out. Eliminated. Irshad, clearly, brooks no nonsense. His first posting was in the militant-crawling Doda region, where he is believed to have wiped out most Hizbul cadre. “Once he achieved that, the Lashkar couldn’t sustain itself there in the absence of Hizbul support,” says a senior police officer and colleague.

Modus operandi? In the Valley, Irshad forged a reliable network of informers, some of whom even had the guts to infiltrate militant ranks.“We have our men in every tanzeem (outfit),” says Irshad. Like all other officers who dared take militants head on, Irshad has had his share of near-death experiences. Once, during an encounter in Telbal, two Lashkar militants jumped out of a window of their first-floor hideout, into a street behind where Irshad and another senior police officer were standing. The militants fired a volley of bullets which they escaped by ducking to the ground. The militants killed five police personnel and injured three others.

Irshad and his men chased them, and one of them was taken down just 2 km away from the original encounter site. “The other died in another encounter, two months later,” reports Irshad.

The superintendent also remembers a search operation in the Bandipora area, where, acting on specific information about militants inside a house, they laid siege to it. On entering it, they couldn’t find any. An exhausted Irshad sat with another officer on a box for almost 15 minutes, discussing what to do.

Finally, they left the building, calling off the operation. It was five days later that a militant was caught, and he revealed that he was hiding in a bunker beneath that very box all that while. “He said he was about to fire at us, but I walked away at that very moment,” recounts Irshad.

Irshad does not share details of his work with his family. “Most of the time, they don’t know what I have been up to, but sometimes they come to know of it through media reports.”

“And then they get worried.”

AFADUL MUJTABA

Senior Superintendent of Police

At first sight, Afadul Mujtaba doesn’t look like a policeman. He looks more like a rich carpet dealer. But ask the separatist leadership of Kashmir, and you will hear what this man is made of. As SSP, Srinagar, Mujtaba once stirred up a fiery debate in the Valley by citing the Hadith (passed-down accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings), arguing that pelting stones was un-Islamic. Such unruly mob behaviour has always been a big headache for the police, with disgruntled youth using the slightest provocation to gather at various spots in the city and turn bricks and stones into missiles (veteran mobsters could even injure cops by hurling flat stones through the cracks of their cane shields). But after Mujtaba made his Hadith reference, the separatist leadership found itself divided. Some of them agreed with Mujtaba, while others argued that stone pelting was the only weapon of the weak. It even prompted a senior separatist leader to hold a seminar on the issue.

But Mujtaba didn’t leave it at that. Sources talk of his novel methods to corner some of the regular stone pelters. Under one such plan, he asked some of his plainclothes men to blend in with stone pelters, but equipped with Bluetooth hands-free mobile kits. As they joined the pelting, the undercover cops led some of them towards the police cordon. Once close, the plainclothes policemen turned on the stone pelters, pushing them towards their trap lying in wait.

Plus, Mujtaba has also been part of some of the police’s fiercest encounters with militants. His colleagues swear by his agility during such high-risk operations in the Valley. He has handled many that involved terrorists on deadly suicide missions. Mujtaba himself keeps a low profile, reluctant to discuss his feats with anyone.

“I am just doing my job,” he says, with a smile which disappears in a second.

AASHIQ BUKHARI

Assistant Inspector General

Budgam district is the first militant-free district of Kashmir. There was a time when there were more than 200 ‘most wanted’ militants operating in this area. Most of them were done for once Aashiq Bukhari took over the reins of the police in the district. Once posted, he lost no time in leading extensive operations against militancy, and with undaunted energy.

In one such operation, the police managed to catch a bus-load of arms coming from the bordering town of Kupwara. In another search operation, they discovered three truckloads of liquid explosives hidden in a bunker (its hatch hidden under a commode) in the Chanapora locality.

“We got that damn house blasted,” says Bukhari. He has been instrumental in the killing of about 300 militants. Some top militants were even given instructions to bump off the brave police officer. One of them was a dreaded Pakistani militant married to a local woman, Ali, who was later killed by Bukhari’s men.

None of the assassins could get him. “The Army is for the borders,” he says, “It is only the local police which can deal with militancy.” He is also against what he calls the “sarkari goondaism” (official hooliganism) of the Army. “The soldiers in the Army convoys carry these long bamboo poles and threaten people moving around. This alienates people further and creates hatred for the man in uniform,” says Bukhari, shaking his head.

“But, of course, the militant always fires the first shot.” He fires right back.