‘People Shouldn’t Fear Police’: Interview With SSP Srinagar

Rakesh Balwal, SSP Srinagar. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

AMID the intensifying anti-drug campaign in the valley, a top cop has exhorted civil society to wake up to the monstrous reality consuming precious young lives and socially boycott drug-peddlers.

“In the war against drugs, the public support is not up to the expectations,” Rakesh Balwal, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) said. “People can’t leave everything to the police. They should come forward and support us to get rid of this menace. They should socially boycott drug peddlers.”

In an exclusive chat with Kashmir Observer, the city police chief said that cops aren’t merely for operational things in Kashmir, but for resolving the plethora of issues such as drug menace, normal policing and social crimes.

“I’m continuously trying to remove the police-public gap and all the apprehensions common people have about us,” SSP Balwal, who recently completed one year in office, said.

“My point is that anti-militancy operations will carry on till we’ve active militants, but grievances of the public in no way should suffer due to this. People should come to the police to get any of their issues resolved. People shouldn’t fear us.”

The officer termed the ‘militancy-free’ urban landscape as his continuous priority. “You can witness a relatively calm city now,” he said. “We’ll try to maintain the peace, come what may. No school has been shut for a single day due to law and order problems this year. Even incidents of stone pelting have almost disappeared now.”

Talking about new redlines, the SSP said that police fully accommodates democratic protests regarding roads, water and electricity as per standard SOPs, but those which cross red-lines of challenging integrity and sovereignty of the country are unacceptable. “We’re okay with people coming to Press Enclave for protests for their basic rights, but they can’t cross the red-line,” he emphasised.

Regarding the recently-held funeral prayers of two separatist leaders, SSP Balwal said that police is fully professional in dealing with these situations and was sure that nothing untoward would happen.

“We were in touch with the organizers and put on aerial and other surveillance,” he said. “We’re satisfied with the results. The people fully cooperated with the police. The trust in policing is slowly coming back.”

When the gap between police and public won’t be there, he said, people will trust police and their honest intentions.

“But there’ll always be black sheep among the peace-loving people,” SSP Balwal said. “We don’t want to touch them but will definitely go after miscreants. There were only two minor stone pelting incidents in the city in 2022, we tactfully managed the protesters at the ground and then later on we identified them one by one with our latest technologies. They were booked for their wrongdoing. Likewise, the people are fully aware that if they do anything wrong, there’s no way out to save themselves while no innocent will ever be touched.”

In the following interview, SSP Srinagar talks in detail about the civil society, conflict and crime in the city.

SSP Srinagar in his office.

When the baton was passed to you a year ago, what challenges were there for you as SSP Srinagar?

My term started in December 2021 when Srinagar was a little turbulent with sporadic attacks, targeted killings, grenade attacks, etc. The city all of a sudden witnessed a number of killings in October last year. So, my immediate challenge was to bring a sense of security among the common people.

At the same time, I had to remove the trust gap between police and public. The people wouldn’t approach the police in the top, middle and lower levels — which I found very strange because this rarely happens in other states of the country. Police aren’t merely for operational things; it’s there to resolve the issues of people even if it is a minor domestic issue. We all get salaries out of tax paid by citizens and it is the responsibility on the shoulders of police to take care of genuine grievances and problems of the public. During my one year stint, I’ve continuously tried to remove this gap and the apprehensions people have about working in the police. My point is that we should carry on the anti-militancy operations but at the same time, people should come to the police without any hesitation to get their issues resolved.

Another challenge was to deny safe passage and safe havens to militants in the urban landscape of Srinagar. Then there were other law and order issues, like some incidents of stone pelting earlier, but now we all can witness a calm city. We will try to maintain the peace, come what may. The schools didn’t shut for a single day this year because of no law and order problem.

So with this ‘urban peace’ that you’re talking about, can we see security ease-out measures, like omission of bunkers and frisking?

We’ve already given a lot of relaxation in terms of security measures. Even during 15th August and 26 January, or during the VVIP visits, the frisking is relatively less now in Srinagar. The markets remain open and the internet works uninterrupted.

We’ve gone to the next level now where we’re using drones, CCTV cameras to monitor the situation. It was for this reason we asked people to install high-security number-plates so that crimes are cracked easily.

We’re doing smart work to minimise the public inconvenience. These things helped us to redefine our ways of checking and frisking. We mostly frisk and check when there is actionable intelligence input about the militant movement.

But the talk of the town is that there is a lot of surveillance in Srinagar and then there is an issue of “intruding the privacy” of the people.

We fully respect the privacy of the people but drones and CCTVs are only used to check suspicious movement in public spaces. It’s like this everywhere in the world and the whole country also and they don’t intrude into anyone’s private space. This is for the security of the people and larger public good.

We don’t use CCTVs to see who’s inside a house or shop, doing what, or who’s inside a car.

At the end of the day, if you want a less aggressive posture of security forces in the city, then we’ve to go to the next level of policing driven by smart technology.

But can we expect a possible end of Kashmir’s escalating drug problem in the face of this intensified police campaign?

See, there’s a whole system with handlers across the border behind this. The drugs come from Pakistan via North Kashmir. Kashmir valley historically was only the route for drugs, but now the youth here slowly have become users as well. And the money that is made out of it is being used for the purpose of terrorism as well. But we’re keeping a full vigil on it and many smugglers and peddlers have been arrested and put behind bars.

In this year only, we’ve lodged about 160 FIRs against the peddlers in the city, 250 people have been arrested in cases and around 60 individuals have been booked under Public Safety Act/ PIT and other relevant laws. Large number of recoveries has also been made of drugs/narcotics.

Police have also opened a Drug de-addiction & rehabilitation centre at Srinagar’s Eidgah area for drug addicts. We try to give a new lease of life to the young people. Several steps are also afoot to establish more such centers which is in-line with Nasha mukt Abhiyaan of UT government.

However, the public support is still minimal. The level of cooperation at the level of giving information to police is also very poor. People have to understand that police works at the best level with public cooperation only. People should come forward and support us fully in getting rid of this menace. They should socially boycott the narcotics smugglers/ drug peddlers. People at times have alerted us about the situation at the locality level but this is very less.

But since Kashmir is beset with turmoil, how does it affect normal policing?

See, if terrorist attacks and targeted killings are happening and when grenades are thrown in public places every now and then, the top priority of police will be to ensure a sense of security. We’ll focus more on saving the lives of the people and try to mitigate the threats. As security situation improves, like it is now, our approach and priorities evolve and we will keep focusing more and more on social issues and on public outreach at par with that in Scandinavian countries.

Having said that, we’ve started organising Thana Diwas every week in every police station in Srinagar, where the police officials led by a gazetted officer interact with the locals and try to resolve their issues. At all levels, the time between 12 noon to 2 pm is kept for grievance redressal. Even I meet all visitors who come to the SSP office. We’re able to do this only because the security situation has improved.

But does the combatant role of police due to the situation pose a challenge in maintaining the cordial cop-civilian relationship?

Our combatant role is directly proportional to the level of violence and terror incidents that happen. If the terror incidents remain low as it is now, we’ll get more and more time for public outreach. The primary job of police is to give the public a sense of security. We’ve to safeguard the life, property and honour of the public. If the lives of citizens are not safe, then police can’t fully focus on the other two duties of it—safeguarding property and honour.

Also, I always believe that the police is just a reflection of society at a particular time. In countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, you’ll find fully public-centric policing. The reason is that society has less terror/crime graph. But here in the valley, due to long years of tryst with violence, sub-consciously violence is acceptable. Even small kids like to buy toy-guns rather than traditional toys. This is because society has seen and sub-consciously made peace with violence for so long which has affected all generations since 1989.

What do these renewed threats to media-persons indicate? Is the capital back on militancy radar?

See, we’ve only very few categorized terrorists left in whole Kashmir valley right now. There is only one resident terrorist in whole Srinagar district. Their numbers have come down drastically, recruitment into terror ranks isn’t happening. They’ve lost their edge to do big attacks. And now, handlers based in Pakistan have come-up with an anonymous blog providing low risk and high profit. They’re creating shadowy posters and naming people to create fear psychosis. This creates more noise and hype amongst society, media and in national news channels. And this strategy has proved highly rewarding for them than doing any terror attack for which they have lost capability.

It’s a ploy to create fear among reasonable and rational sections of society including those in journalism. This is a low-cost and high reward thing as it sends alarm bells across the media fraternity and in the security establishment. But we’re fully aware of this, cases have been registered and many revelations have come forth during investigations.

Talking of challenge, we lately saw the funeral procession of top two separatist leaders being allowed in Srinagar. Was it a calculated move or a step to test waters?

We knew how to deal with it and were sure that nothing wrong would happen. We were also in touch with the organizers and had put on aerial and other surveillance. We’re very satisfied with the results. The people cooperated with the police and I am happy that slowly trust in policing is coming back.

When the gap between police and public won’t be there, people will trust the police and their intentions. But there’ll always be black sheep among the peace-loving people. We always respect common people but miscreants and habitual offenders can never be spared. There were only two minor stone pelting incidents in the Srinagar district in 2022 and we managed the protesters at the ground during that time and then later on we identified them one by one with our latest technology. They were booked for their wrongdoing. Likewise, the people know if they do anything wrong, there’s no way out to save themselves.

Are there any redlines for people now, given how police are vigilant about peace at the moment?

The people shouldn’t indulge in violence and take law and order into their own hands. We always accommodate protests regarding roads, water and electricity under our SOP. It is part of democracy and we are okay with it, but you can’t cross the line. You can’t say things against the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.

What about the city’s crime graph?

The nature of crime in Srinagar has changed. The crimes happening in big cities of the country are happening here as well. There’re more cybercrimes as well, land frauds, property crimes, blackmailing, etc. There are criminal gangs operating — luring gullible youth for jobs.

Over 50 per cent of the people coming to my office for grievance redressal are related to property crimes/land issues. 30 per cent relate to women related crimes/ family and matrimonial issues, while the rest 20 per cent come for other issues.

But we’re ready for it and have created different cells to monitor different cases. We’ve the capability to prevent and investigate any type of crime in Srinagar.

My long term objective is to have public-centric policing in Srinagar leading to drastic reduction in crime resulting in a vibrant and peaceful capital city in my tenure as SSP here.

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib Javeed is special correspondent with Kashmir Observer and tweets @AuqibJaveed

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