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Armed Attacks, Drones: Why Is Jammu Seeing a Rise in Militant Activity?

'The attacks hint towards a serious effort to keep Jammu connected with the larger political story of Kashmir.'

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On 12 August, two militants affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group sidled towards a fortified army camp amid forested ridges in the Pargal region of Rajouri. The assailants attempted to climb the fence when a sentry noticed their movement and fired in response. A fierce gun battle ensued, in which five soldiers sustained serious injuries. While four of them – Subedar Rajendra Prasad, Rifleman Manoj Kumar, Rifleman Lakshmanan D and Rifleman Nishant Malik – had succumbed to injuries earlier, the fifth soldier, Havildar Satpal Singh, died this week.

The Pargal attack is being billed as the first major terrorist attack on an army camp since February 2018, when militants affiliated with the group Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked a camp in Sunjuwan in Jammu during small hours. Six soldiers and a civilian were killed during the attack, which left over a dozen others injured.

Yet, Pargal is not the only incident which has brought Jammu into the spotlight this year. Officials said on Tuesday that two suspected terrorists were killed as the Army foiled an infiltration attempt along the Line of Control (LoC) in Rajouri.

Instead, security forces and analysts point to a whole array of similar incidents that have evinced official interest and also heightened the security concerns over what many see as attempts to resuscitate militancy in the Jammu region.

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A Slew of Attacks This Year

One person died and 14 were injured during an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack at Salathia Chowk in Udhampur in Jammu in March this year.

In April, terrorists associated with Jaish-e-Mohammad attempted to carry out a suicide attack near Sunjuwan in Jammu ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s scheduled visit to the erstwhile state. The militants had infiltrated from the border close to the Samba sector and carried suicide vests and other ammunition. But before they could succeed, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel, whose bus came under attack from the armed assailants, retaliated and killed the two gunmen. SP Patel, an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI), also died during the operation.

Later in May, a fire incident struck a bus ferrying pilgrims to the Katra region of Jammu. Four pilgrims died in the episode and 22 received injuries. It later came to the fore that the episode was a terror attack executed using sticky bombs affixed to a vehicle en route to the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine base camp.

Five days ago, a blast of unspecified origin took place near the Nar Balakote area in the Mendhar sector in Jammu near a Panchayat Ghar, where an Indian flag was being hoisted on the occasion of Independence Day. Police are investigating the nature of the blast.

The militant activities are not just confined to carrying out audacious armed attacks. Last year, drones suspected to be from the Pakistani side dropped explosives upon a technical area at the Jammu airport.

The attacks involving the use of drones prompted the Jammu & Kashmir administration to place a ban on the sale, storage, use, and transportation of unmanned aerial vehicles across many districts in the Union Territory.

In fact, the threat level from drone-led attacks eventually became so severe that authorities declared many critical installations in Jammu, such as the Civil Secretariat and Raj Bhawan, as ‘No Fly Zones.’

Later, Deputy Inspector General of BSF Frontier Headquarters, DS Sindhu, called the introduction of drones as a means to smuggle arms and narcotics a “big challenge”. He reiterated this warning in June this year.

Rajouri Was an Infiltration Route for Many Years

Analysts say that the surge in terrorist violence in Jammu cannot be viewed independently of the similar worsening of the security situation in Kashmir, where hit-and-run assassinations of police, political workers and members of the minority community have accelerated over the last few months. “Firstly, terrorism doesn’t have any geographical boundaries, especially when you talk of J&K,” said Arun Joshi, a veteran journalist who has reported on security matters. “Ultimately the roots of the problem are the same. The only difference is that the fidayeen cult, which was more or less fading away, has reemerged in Rajouri. And that is a matter of concern.”

Joshi said that these attacks are intended to send a message that terrorists in one form or another are active and at large, whether in Kashmir or Jammu. “Rajouri on top of that is a border area. And it was an infiltration route for a number of years during the height of the insurgency,” he said.

“This thing has come as a surprise because it means there’s been some laxity in understanding the dynamics of infiltration. It means that there’s an ecosystem, just like the one we have in certain parts of Kashmir, in which terrorism is thriving. And that the regions like Rajouri and Poonch are not immune to it.”

Last month, local nomads busted a LeT module in the remote Tukson Dhok village of Rajouri, leading to the arrest of the organisation’s self-styled commander, Talib Hussain Shah, and his deputy, Fasal Ahmad Dar. Both men had been allegedly responsible for a series of bomb blasts in the Rajouri district.

The event took an ironic turn after it was revealed that Talib, while moonlighting as a militant commander, also served as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) IT and social media in-charge in the Jammu province. Pictures showed him in the company of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and other BJP leaders.

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Closing the Political Gap Between Jammu and Kashmir

The Jammu & Kashmir police arrested last month two militant associates, Saqib Hussain Mir of Banola tehsil Chiralla and Adil Iqbal Bhat of Sazan tehsil Bhagwah, for running the terror module “to revive militancy in Doda at the behest of a local terrorist Muhammad Amin alias Khubaib of Kathwa-Phagsoo, Thathri, who among others joined militancy in the early nineties and crossed the border for getting arms training”.

Experts believe heightened militant activities in Jammu reflect a bid on part of militant groups to close the perceived political gap between Muslim areas of Jammu and the Kashmir valley. “Over the last few years, the political behaviour in Jammu has changed very swiftly to reconstruct the region's identity as being separate from Kashmir,” said Zafar Choudhary, a Jammu-based political expert and editor. “While this has always been a pursuit of the Hindu-majority areas, in the recent past, the Muslim-dominated areas of Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley have also been seen delinked from Kashmir Valley’s political narrative.”

Choudhary says that in the aftermath of the move to repeal Article 370, there have been attempts to revive a situation of the late-1990s. “Actions of militants may appear only wanton terrorism, but there is always politics behind that,” he said.

“The thought process from where militancy operates would not like to see the area of conflict shrinking to just Kashmir Valley. The attacks hint towards a serious effort to keep the Jammu region connected with the larger political story of Kashmir.”
Zafar Choudhary, Political Expert

In response, the government – its claims of militancy being brought down by the abrogation of Article 370 notwithstanding – has come up with more security measures.

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Reviving 'Village Defence Groups'

In June, the Union Home Minister announced a plan to revive ‘village defence groups’, a form of civil militia armed to serve as a civilian pushback against militancy. Such committees were first constituted in 1995 across 10 districts of Jammu as militancy billowed out recklessly. Drawing on a pool of 26,567 recruits, the VDCs, as they were called then, eventually became embroiled in allegations of serious rights abuses and were disbanded.

Last week, however, the Jammu & Kashmir administration greenlit the creation of the Village Defence Guards Scheme (VDGS)-2022 to “prevent the incidents of terrorist acts inspired and supported from across the border and to boost the security grid in the Union Territory”.

As per the scheme, based on feedback from law enforcement, a group of armed civilians belonging to “more vulnerable areas”, not more than 15 in number in each group and who would be designated as “Village Defence Guards” (VDGs), would be formed “with a view to instil sense of self-protection and ensure the safety and security of such villages, infrastructural installations in and around them and to check the trans-border movement”.

While critics have called out the move for entrenching the militarisation of the region, political analysts believe that the government has the right to disallow militants from trying to “break the narrative of normalcy”.

“Whether in Kashmir or in Jammu, terrorists rely on a similar objective, which is inflicting a sense of terror and subverting what government defines as normalcy,” said Joshi.

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir.)

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