Praveen Swami

Unless problems within India’s largest central police force are resolved, its presence in Jammu and Kashmir will be a persistent source of friction.

Constable Ram Prasad Yadav has spent most of this summer peering out through the slits of his bunker, staring at an unremittingly hostile world.

Like other Central Reserve Police Force position in old-town Baramulla, the dank, sandbagged bunker has been under constant attack from small groups of stone-throwing protesters. “Spend a year here”, he says, laconically, “and you’ll be wanting to kill someone — or kill yourself.”

Evidence is mounting that growing numbers of CRPF personnel share that sentiment. Eight of fourteen people injured in CRPF fire during the recent rioting in Baramulla were hit above the waist — a sign that the bullets were intended to kill, not injure. In one instance, CRPF sources said, a constable is suspected to have fired to kill in response to communal taunts. In others, men hit by rocks retaliated in pain. Both the situations point to flaws in discipline and training.

Following the shooting of four protesters in Baramulla by the CRPF earlier this month, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah called for the withdrawal of the force. Unable to contain the violence that has scarred the State’s streets since last summer, Mr. Abdullah has since tempered his demand. But unless problems within the CRPF are resolved, the force’s presence in Jammu and Kashmir is likely to be a persistent source of friction.

Later this month, as the Amarnath Yatra ends, five of the 60 CRPF battalions located in the Kashmir division will be relocated to Chhattisgarh. Three more battalions, of the seventeen stationed in Jammu division, will also be moved to fight Maoist insurgents. But the bulk of the estimated 77,000 CRPF personnel in Jammu and Kashmir will stay on, at least for now.

Earlier this year, encouraged by the steady de-escalation of terrorist violence in Jammu and Kashmir, the Ministry of Home Affairs had laid out plans to pull out the CRPF from the State. The personnel were desperately needed in states like Chhattisgarh, which currently has just 17 CRPF battalions.

Planners hoped the Jammu and Kashmir police, supported by the Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles counter-insurgency formations, would be able to hold the ground. The 81,370-strong Jammu and Kashmir Police is supported by the 18 battalion-strong Kilo Force, the Rashtriya Rifles formation responsible for northern Kashmir, and the 14-battalion Victor Force, which operates in south Kashmir.

Mr. Abdullah hoped he could use the CRPF pullout to score points over the opposition People’s Democratic Party, which has been calling for troop cuts. The summer’s events, though, made clear the Jammu and Kashmir Police had neither the numbers nor will to deal with the crisis alone.

A fatigued force

No great insight is needed, though, to see that the CRPF isn’t a solution, either. The force is under-trained, and under-equipped; its personnel fatigued, and their morale frayed.

In less than five years, the CRPF has more than doubled in size. Back in 2003, the CRPF had 120 battalions—approximately 1.2 million personnel—on its rolls. Figures released in 2007 show the CRPF had 201 battalions—or almost 2.5 million personnel—on its rolls.

But the rapid expansion has led to a crippling shortage of officers. The CRPF in Jammu and Kashmir is, sources in the force say, over 40 per cent short of Assistant Commandants, 60 per cent short of Inspectors, and over 20 per cent short of Sub-Inspectors. While it takes nine months to train a constable, officers typically require two years of instruction. Many frontline units, as a result, lack leadership.

Moreover, the CRPF has among the most punishing work-loads of any police force in the country. CRPF units guarding the road and railway line in south Kashmir, for example, typically deploy at 5.00 a.m. — which means waking up two hours earlier. Personnel are rarely pulled off duty before 9.00 p.m.

Worst of all, the CRPF has less than 20 battalions stationed in non-combat locations, among them Chandigarh, New Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh. That means CRPF personnel can expect a two-year peace-station posting just once every two decades.

“When an army soldier finishes his tour of duty in Jammu and Kashmir”, says one north-Kashmir based CRPF officer, “he’ll be heading somewhere quiet. At the end of bad day, a police officer goes home to his wife and kids. My next posting is going to be in Manipur or Chhattisgarh.”

Confused mandate

But CRPF officers say the problems the force is facing in Jammu and Kashmir are also the outcome of a confused mandate.

According to Union Home Ministry’s 2007 Annual Report, the CRPF is expected to handle a wide variety of roles: counter-terrorism, static guard duties at key installations and offices across the country, riot control and even VIP protection duties. CRPF units especially trained for counter-terrorism duties are now being asked to contain urban rioting, a task for which they have been neither trained nor equipped. More than 1,300 CRPF personnel are claimed by authorities to have suffered injuries combating the summer protests.

New Delhi had decided to assign urban counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir to the CRPF in 2003, on the basis of recommendations of a Group of Ministers set up in the wake of the Kargil war. In time, the CRPF was to have replaced the Rashtriya Rifles and Border Security Force altogether, and transform itself into a dedicated counter-insurgency formation.

Late in August, 2006, days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with leaders of the secessionist All-Parties Hurriyat Conference in an effort to push forward the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir, the BSF received orders to withdraw from Srinagar.

But New Delhi pumped in the CRPF into Jammu and Kashmir without the assets needed to make it an effective fighting force: among them, a theatre-specific training school, an intelligence service and communications-interception capabilities.

Even as the CRPF struggled to fulfil its counter-terrorism mandate, it was given frontline charge of fighting the Islamist-led street protests that gathered momentum in Jammu and Kashmir last summer.

Unless policy-makers address the multiple strains confronting the CRPF, the problems it has faced in Jammu and Kashmir are likely to be replicated in the new theatres it is being assigned.