SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― Residents of Rainawari in downtown Srinagar have been at loggerheads with security forces since the Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special constitutional status on 5 August, and demoted India’s only Muslim-majority state to a Union Territory.
After a month-long siege and several raids by security forces in the area, people are tense about the police identifying residential properties for setting up camps for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), India’s paramilitary force deployed in Kashmir.
Residents of Tangbagh in Rainawari have alleged that police officials have identified three multi-storey residential houses in the densely populated neighbourhood, adjacent to the Dal Lake, after multiple incidents of stone throwing near the main road from 5 August.
Wary of deployment of paramilitary forces in their neighbourhood, residents of Tanbagh, have refused to hand over their properties. They allege, however, the police is forcing them to vacate.
HuffPost India spoke with two of three house owners.
Zahoor Ahmad, a house owner, who is in his sixties, accused Station House Officer (SHO) Rashid Khan of intimidation.
“Forces led by the SHO broke the door and entered the premises [of his property] and broke windows,” he said in a conversation on 28 September. “I told them that I can’t rent this place to you, my family lives here.”
“They want to forcibly occupy the house. This is oppression,” he said.
Khan had told them to “live in the ground floor and give the upper stories to the paramilitary forces” if they did not want to move out,” Zahoor’s wife said.
“How does he expect us, with young women in our homes, to rent out our space to so many men with guns?” she said, requesting her name not appear.
“They want to forcibly occupy the house. This is oppression.”
Several CRPF camps have been placed in Srinagar’s residential areas since the 1990s. A camp in Dagmohalla, a neighbourhood close to Tangbagh, had existed for decades. The CRPF camp in the Habbakadal neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar now houses Border Security Force personnel.
Even as the J&K police say that acquiring residential properties to house paramilitary troops is routine, this exercise, in the aftermath of the Modi government revoking J&K’s special status, in the midst of the communication blackout, is deeply frightening for the residents of Tangabh.
It’s been two months since the Modi government revoked J&K special constitutional status, severed mobile phone services and the internet, and sent thousands of fresh troops into Kashmir. New bunkers with CRPF personnel are visible on the streets of Srinagar.
Residents say they have been embroiled in violent clashes with the J&K police in the weeks that followed the abrogation of Article 370. Residents told The Economic Times that the J&K police had also detained the Resident Welfare Association president for a few days last week. For women, the prospect of having troops living next door is alarming.
Residents alleged that the police had arrived after dark and had intimidated residents without provocation on 27 September.
“The men were led by the SHO Rashid Khan and started kicking at my door,” said a woman living in the house adjacent to one of the identified properties, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We were terrified and gathered inside the kitchen. He was shouting abuses at us.”
SHO Khan, who is in charge of the Rainawari police station, claimed the police had sought consent of the owners of the identified properties who had already “agreed to” what was, as of now, “only a proposal” to set up temporary “tactical deployments on high rises to give covering to the ground forces.”
According to SHO Khan, the multi-storey residential buildings are required to watch over and provide a security cover to the soldiers deployed on the ground to keep “illegal activities” in check. Khan said that departmental procedures would be followed, including taking the consent of the property owners and paying owners rent for the properties.
Haseeb Mughal, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) in Srinagar, confirmed that the security establishment was looking to establish paramilitary “camps” for two CRPF companies in the area “as part of the city grid” - a network of various security forces covering the Srinagar city.
One company of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force comprises of 135 men headed by an assistant commandant.
Mughal said the establishment had identified a property near the Shiv Mandir in Rainawari in addition to three houses.
Despite the reservations expressed by people, Mughal said, the police will “ensure that we will be doing this [establishing the camps]”.
While denying allegations of harassment and vandalism by the J&K police, Mughal conceded that people were trying to stop the CRPF camps in their neighbourhood.
“The only issue that they [residents] are agitating over is the camps that they don’t want,” he said.
A second Soura
Until last week the Jogi Lanker bridge – the main access point for the Jogi Lanker and the Tangbagh neighbourhoods inside Rainawari – had been sealed by the police, while another access point to Tangbagh and the Chodribagh neighbourhood was barricaded by the local residents.
The siege in the area was compared to the much talked about siege in Aanchar, a volatile neighbourhood in a locality called Soura, on the outskirts of Srinagar.
The windows of several residential properties along the road winding around the Rainawari police station are covered with thick blankets or tarpaulin sheets to prevent damages, allegedly from stones hurled by the security forces.
Residents alleged that security force’s personnel resorted to damaging vehicles in the Chodribagh neighbourhood. Locals say the police allegedly threw a parked three-wheeler from a bridge besides breaking the windows of many others vehicles.
Police deny excesses
Mughal, the SSP, denied the residents allegations of excesses by the police as “a propaganda to destabilise plans” of establishing the camps, adding that there were “over half a dozen officers,” the residents could approach with “genuine grievances”.
Residents in Tangbagh, however, said they were afraid of reprisals from the police if they expressed complaints.
They accuse SHO Khan of highhandedness. In one instance, more than a week ago, residents claimed women from the Tangabagh and Chodribagh had gone to the police station to request relaxation in the restrictions, but they were allegedly manhandled.
“We had gone to beg him for some relief (from the inconvenience caused by restrictions),” one woman, a resident of Tanbagh said, requesting anonymity. “But he abused us and started counting to ten before pushing us away and lobbed tear gas.”
Khan denied all allegations of misconduct against him as “baseless” and instead claimed that “some residents” – who were in violation of the law by illegally constructing houses in a green belt and damaging the environment of the Dal Lake – were singling him out because “we are working to maintain law and order.”
“They do want us inside there to keep a check,” he said.
Referring to the incident alleged by the woman, Khan said, “There were about 150 women who started pelting stones” following which they were dispersed with force.
“Basically there is just one patch that has not been tamed yet,” he said, referring to the neighbourhoods deep inside Rainawari.
“There is just one patch that has not been tamed yet.”
What women fear?
Adding to the people’s anxiety are rumours of large scale infiltration of foreign fighters. The J&K Director General of Police (DGP), Dilbag Singh, was quoted by The Press Trust of India (PTI), acknowledging the presence of nearly two dozen militants in the city.
Security concerns are more pronounced in the women of Tangbagh who fear the presence of “strange men with guns” given that houses in the neighbourhood are built close to each other.
In one of the worst instances of sexual violence, at least 23 women in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora were allegedly raped by Indian Army personnel in February 1991. Villagers say more have been raped but haven’t come forward fearing social stigma. Twenty-eight years have passed and the case is yet to go to trial.
In the house adjacent to the another identified property in Tangabagh, owned by Fayaz Ahmad Gassi, a middle-aged woman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that she was worried about her daughter’s safety.
“I have two young daughters, my husband passed away sometime back,” she said. “Would we feel safe with them right in front of us? Would we able to walk without fearing for our honour?”
Another neighbour whose house is built close to Gassi’s property. “If we open a window, the soldiers will have direct view of our rooms. How can we allow that when we have young girls?” said the elderly woman, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“If we open a window, the soldiers will have direct view of our rooms.”
As the allegations of police excesses in Tangbagh and Chodribagh neighbourhoods gained traction in the press, residents allege about a dozen policemen returned to intimidate them on 28 September.
Last week, residents were reluctant to speak to this reporter.
Zahoor, the house owner, said that he had “worked out the issue” and did not “want to appear in the media again and antagonise them”.
Gassi, the second house owner, said panicked neighbours told him about the plan of setting up a camp in his property. “No one came to me directly,” he said. “My brother is planning to go to the court to seek a stay order against any such plan”.
In Tangbagh, residents living in the vicinity of the identified houses fear that house owners may eventually agree to rent their properties.
“They will vitiate the whole environment here,” said Farooq, a young resident of Tangbagh. “We have never had stone pelting here nor have the CRPF ever come so far inside. If they set up camps here, naturally there will be stone pelting on it.”
Gassi’s neighbours rued that the residents might not be able to stall the police for long. “Will the news reports be of any help,” one man wondered out. A second man pointed out that the police had even booked Farooq Abdullah, a Lok Sabha lawmaker and former chief minister of the state, under the J&K Public Safety Act, “Then, what can we do?” he said.