After a gap of almost two decades, cross-border terrorists have set their sights on Jammu once again. There have been five big incidents in the Rajouri-Poonch area since Oct 2021; in none of these cases have the perpetrators been caught.
- The manhunt underway in Poonch for the perpetrators of the April 20 ambush on an Army truck that killed five soldiers and badly injured a sixth highlights the importance of securing the border districts of Poonch and Rajouri to the overall terrorist challenge in Jammu & Kashmir.
- The attack and the subsequent search operation, involving scores of soldiers, drones, and sniffer dogs, recalls an October 2021 ambush on the Army in the same area and a search that stretched over nearly two months. More soldiers were killed before the search came to an end after failing to trace any of the perpetrators of that attack.
- The October 2021 attack was followed by three other major incidents in the same area.
- On August 11, 2022, five soldiers were killed after terrorists attacked an Army camp in Rajouri district. Two terrorists were shot dead as they were trying to scale the camp’s fence. It is not clear if these two were the only attackers; if there were more, they have not been traced.
- On December 16, 2022,two civilians were killed outside the gates of an Army camp in Muradpur near Rajouri town. The two men from Phaliana village ran a canteen inside the camp. Local residents and family members of the two men alleged the sentry at the gate fired at them; the Army said it was a militant attack. A magistrate’s probe is ongoing.
- Two weeks later, on January 1 this year, militants struck at Dangri, barely 2 km from Phaliana, killing seven people, who appeared to be targeted as they were Hindus. Security forces, including the Army, police, and CRPF began combing the area, but the assailants had vanished.
- What links these incidents, including the ambush on the Army truck at Bhimber Gali on April 20, is that they all took place within kilometres of each other in the Rajouri-Poonch area. Two things are signalled.
- One, that after a gap of almost two decades, cross-border terrorists have set their sights on Jammu once again, perhaps in the hope of exploiting its openly communal atmosphere. Two, their ability to carry out these attacks and melt into the forests indicates support from local communities, which had been hostile to the presence of both foreign and Kashmiri militants from about 2000 onwards.
Two decades of peace in Jammu
- In the late 1990s, as security forces were wearing down the militancy in Kashmir, cross-border terrorists turned their attention to Jammu, entrenching themselves in Doda and Kishtwar in the Chenab Valley, and in the hinterland of the two border districts — Rajouri, which has a 60-30 Muslim-Hindu population, and Poonch, which is Muslim-majority. Most of the Muslims belong to the Gujjar and Bakherwal communities.
- From 1998 to early 2003, cadres of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, HuJI, HuM, Al Badr, and others had turned Hilkaka, a Bakherwal village in Surankote tehsil, into a terrorist fortress. They had dug themselves in and virtually ran a parallel administration. They had converted hundreds of ‘dhoke’ (cattle sheds used by the Bakherwal for their animals) on the slopes into reinforced concrete bunkers. They built a hospital, and amassed food supplies to feed 500 men for a few months.
- It was only after an Army operation in April-May 2003 codenamed Sarp Vinash that Hilkaka was cleared. Some 15,000 troops were involved. Helicopters transported the troops up the high-altitude slopes. Helicopters were also used to bomb the dhoke-turned-bunkers. More than 60 terrorists were killed, and large piles of arms, ammunition, and communication equipment were recovered.
- The Army could flush out the terrorists because of a crucial turning point — the local Gujjar-Bakherwal population, which had earlier joined hands with infiltrating cadres of terrorist groups, had turned against them.
- In December 2000, the first Muslim village defence committee came up in Kot Charwal in response to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen cadres harassing Bakherwal women. Three months later, the village paid a huge price for standing up to the terrorists, when the HuM carried out a massacre at the village.
- In 2002, a man named Tahir Fazal Hussain returned to his village Marrah in Surankote from a job in Saudi Arabia to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the Lashkar-e-Taiba who had established a base in the village. Dozens of other men from the village who had jobs in Saudi returned with him.
- Hussain was instrumental in the setting up of a civilian village force called “Pir Panjal Scouts”, which played a vital undercover role supporting the Army and police, and provided massive support to troops during Sarp Vinash. In early 2004, an all-woman Village Defence Committee came up at Marrah after villagers were targeted by the terrorists for their role in the Hilkaka operation.
- Peace prevailed from 2004, largely because the people had decided to stand up to the terrorists despite the heavy price they had to pay.
- “When was the last time you heard about Surankote before all this? Until a few years ago, there was never a question that a terrorist group could establish a base in Jammu, because they knew that the local communities would immediately inform us if they saw any suspicious strangers,” Lt General Deependra Singh Hooda (retired) told The Indian Express.
- Lt Gen Hooda, who commanded the Nagrota-based 16 corps from 2012 to 2014, and was the Northern Army commander from 2014 to 2016, said the incidents that took place in Jammu earlier were restricted to the Line of Control. “There were hardly any incidents in the hinterland of Rajouri and Poonch,” he said.
- The fact that none of the perpetrators of the last five big incidents that have shaken the Rajouri-Poonch area (including the latest one) has been traced is a clear sign that much has changed.
- In the October 2021 incident, five soldiers were ambushed first, then four more died during the search that followed, picked out by snipers hiding in the thick Chamrel and Bhatta Durian forests. The soldiers did not once lay eyes on their attackers, and were not able to determine how many they were.
- The search team even took a Pakistani undertrial accused in a Pandit massacre to Bhatta Durian to lure out the terrorists. He was killed there in crossfire, the Army said.
- Search operations following the other incidents also led to dead ends. A lead on January 15, two weeks after the Dangri killings, that two men had entered the home of a panchayat member of Narla Bambal village in Rajouri district, demanded food and water, given the family Rs 1,500, and warned them against telling anyone, went cold.
- The People’s Anti Fascist Front, said to be a front of the Jaish, and which was designated as a terrorist group after the Dangri killings, has claimed to have carried out nine attacks (though it may or may not have been responsible). Including the April 20 ambush at Bhimber Gali, four of these are in Poonch or Rajouri.
The security grid in J&K
- Jammu & Kashmir has multiple security layers. There is the Army at the LoC, and the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) is the main counter-insurgency force in the hinterland, with support from the CRPF and J&K Police. Since 2020, there has been a thinning out in the RR deployment in Jammu, with one division-strength of personnel being moved to the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh.
The turn of the wheel
- Since 2018, the Gujjar-Bakherwal community has felt the hard edge of the communal power play in Jammu and Kashmir.
- It may have begun with the rape and murder of a little Bakherwal girl in Kathua. BJP members rallied under the national flag in support of the accused, and a Gujjar leader who mobilised support for justice for the victim and her family was arrested in a rape case, bringing out the communally polarised politics in the erstwhile state. The fake encounter of three Gujjar men from Rajouri in Shopian where they had gone to look for work, set up by an Army officer and two informers for monetary rewards, was another shock to the community.
- According to Lt Gen Hooda, the abolition of the Roshni Act, and the subsequent demolition of the Bakherwals’ dhokes as “encroachments”, has added to the unease in these communities, as has the government’s inclusion of ‘paharis’ in the state’s list of Scheduled Tribes.
- “My sense is that we need to have an outreach to these communities again. Only six or seven individuals may be supporting the terrorists. At the end of the day, if you want to defeat militancy, it cannot be done without the support of the local population. We have to get the Gujjar and Bakherwal population on board again,” Lt Gen Hooda said.