Four gun battles have raged across J&K over the last week even as a fresh security drive intensifies amid preparations for the much-anticipated G20 tourism meeting scheduled to be held in Srinagar this month. The UT administration has been trying to pull all the stops to make sure the high-level meeting, which will see foreign diplomats touring around the Valley, is conducted peacefully.
In the run-up to the meeting, Srinagar city is also getting a Rs 321 crore expensive makeover, with the new tiled pavements and footpaths being laid out, roads black-topped, and fresh landmarks erected.
But the sudden spasm of militant activity —four encounters and one attack —appears to have thrown a wrench in the excitement, and spurred disquiet over a probable militant disruption to the big event.
As Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministers met at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) conclave at Goa, a major gunfight was underway in the heavily forested Kandi area of Rajouri close to the Line of Control in J&K in which five Army personnel died.
In the Rajouri attack, militants are likely to have manipulated the vast, and sometimes very amorphous and disorganised human intelligence network into generating a dubious tip-off regarding militant presence.
Meanwhile, in Srinagar, police and security forces have heightened the security measures ahead of the G20 tourism meet. Police sources said they are keeping a special eye out for Vehicle Based Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) and other modes of militant threats.
The Rajouri Surprise
As Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministers smiled to cameras at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) conclave at Goa, a major gunfight was underway in the heavily forested Kandi area of Rajouri close to the Line of Control in J&K in which five Army personnel died on Friday.
The Army in a statement said that they were pursuing an intelligence-based operation to clear out the militant presence from the area. The militants are understood to be the same people responsible for the deaths of five RR personnel in Poonch on 20 April last month when a lone Army truck caught fire during a militant attack.
On Friday, as the Army was sidling closer to the area where they suspected militants were hiding, an explosive went off, causing the death of five troopers and injuries to four.
A release by the People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), a Jaish-e-Mohammad affiliate, the militant outfit which claimed the Friday’s attack, was a jumble of snobbish phrases and sentences boasting of luring Indian Army units to the site of operation. “You walk into our ambushes…we kill you, we win…The World knows we are here.” The release also seemed to warn of more attacks.
The Kandi encounter was launched at 7:30 am on Friday, according to the Army. But as casualties seemed likely because of the high-intensity explosion, and as the gunfight became more intractable, the forces rushed additional troops to the region. Mobile Internet services in the area have also been suspended in the area. Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also visited the area on the same day.
In the Rajouri attack, militants are likely to have manipulated the vast, and sometimes very amorphous and disorganised human intelligence network into generating a dubious tip-off regarding militant presence. Investigators now say they are also probing the antecedents of the source who gave out information pertaining to the Rajouri incident on Friday.
Attack Tempers The Anticipation at Goa Meet
At the SCO meet in Goa, the spectre of Rajouri killings loomed large and tensions were quite perceptible, reflecting in the cold glares that the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart exchanged, proceeding to greet each other at the venue but stopping short of shaking hands.
“While the world was engaged with COVID (19) and its consequences, the menace of terrorism continues unabated,” Jaishankar said minutes later. “Taking off our eyes would be detrimental to our security interests. We firmly believe that there can be no justification for terrorism and it must be stopped in all its forms and manifestations including cross-border terrorism.”
Third Major Operation in 36 Hours
The Rajouri gunfight was the third such within the span of 36 hours. Before that, security forces had gunned down two militants in the Kreeri area of Baramulla district in North Kashmir. Police identified the militants as 23-year-old Shakir Majid Najar and 16-year-old Hasan Ahmad Seh, both hailing from the South Kashmir district of Shopian. The militants were affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba group and had joined last month.
Police sources said 17-year-old Danish Amin Tantray of Faisal Kulgam, who also went missing and is suspected to have joined militant ranks around the same time as Najar and Seh, is still at large.
On Saturday, J&K witnessed a fourth encounter in Baramulla in which Aabid Wani of Babapora, Kulgam associated with LeT was gunned down.
On Wednesday, security forces killed two militants in the Machil area of the Kupwara district near the Line of Control. “Early morning on 3 May at around 8.30 am, terrorists were sighted by the troops having infiltrated into their own side of the LoC. An intense firefight ensued, resulting in the elimination of two terrorists,” Emron Col Musavi, PRO for Srinagar-based China Corps said. He said troops were on a high alert and a counter-infiltration grid was activated on 1 May.
However, J&K police sources told The Quint that the actual strength of the militant party that engaged security forces was five out of which two were killed during the fire exchange. Three are believed to have escaped.
In another incident, militants fired upon a patrolling police picket in the South Kashmir town of Bijbehara on Thursday. Official sources said that a cop named Mohammad Ramzan sustained an injury in the right leg but is said to be out of danger.
Experts Hint Towards a Calibrated Plan
The Rajouri attack comes on the heels of a similar episode near neighbouring Poonch district on 20 April that led to the death of five Rashtriya Rifle soldiers.
Experts and observers said that the recurrent militant activities in the Rajouri-Poonch belt appeared to be a part of a calibrated design. “Rajouri-Poonch is the clear target,” Zafar Choudhary, a Jammu-based editor and political analyst wrote. “It is not about an encounter here or an ambush there. It needs a lot of deep, long-term thinking, firm state-society alliance, and mutual trust to beat this carefully crafted design for disaster.”
Defence analysts believe that very stringent control over the militant situation in Kashmir has spurred a blowback in the Jammu region. “It’s because of the pressure the forces have generated in Kashmir that militants are operating in Jammu which was previously used merely as a crossover, infiltration route,” Ajai Sahni, Executive Director at Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi told The Quint.
“But they didn't have enough opportunities for actualising the terrorism or establishing a terrorist network there. Now they are able to create circumstances for individual incidents. This is natural. When you squeeze them in one place they ooze out from another place,” he said.
Sahni said that militants expect that security forces tend to drop their guard sometimes at places that have been peaceful for prolonged periods, or they do not follow the most rigorous security process. “That creates vulnerability. Besides, these areas are densely forested. So occasional incidents will happen.”
Stringent Security Measures in Srinagar
Meanwhile, in Srinagar, police and security forces have heightened the security measures ahead of the G20 tourism meet. Police sources said they are keeping a special eye out for Vehicle Based Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) and other modes of militant threats including Fedayeen attacks.
The Specialised National Security Guards (NSGs) teams will pair with the Special Operation Group, a counterterrorism unit of the J&K Police that is going to be deployed at all venues. Around 500 Police personnel had been sent to Udhampur in Jammu for ‘soft skills training’ as they will be interacting with the delegates who will be chaperoned to tourist destinations in Baramulla, Dachigam National Park, and Gulmarg.
On Wednesday, the Union government also extended protection from arrest under Section 45 of the Criminal Procedure Code to all Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) deployed in Kashmir. The special protections were previously inapplicable in J&K due to Article 370.
These measures have also accompanied back-to-back raids by the law enforcement agencies. Recently NIA conducted two separate raids across Kashmir at 28 different locations.
(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. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)