The gruesome attack that took place on New Year's Eve at the village of Upper Dangri tucked away in the mountainous Rajouri region of Jammu, has reignited concerns about the revival of militancy in the volatile border belt abutting the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K where four villagers died on the evening of 31 December after militants opened fire indiscriminately as they lurched from home to home in search of victims.
On Sunday, the toll reached six after two children died as a result of an improvised explosive going off that the perpetrators were said to have planted at the house of one of the previous night’s victims— apparently to cause more killings.
The deceased have been identified as Pritam Lal, his son Shishu Pal, Deepak Kumar, Satish Kumar, and two minors Vihar Kumar (4) and Samiksha Singh (16).
It’s likely that the killing of unarmed Hindu villagers at the hands of suspected Muslim militants is going to deepen the communal polarisation of the sensitive region. The attack comes just days after a big gunfight took place near the Sidhra area in Jammu in which four militants were killed, raising worries over renewed militant activities in the region.
Terror Grips J&K Again
On Monday, videos that surfaced showed that the grieving families of the victims had pitched the dead bodies on the main road in Upper Dangri, as the villagers staged a sit-in protest against the deaths. The call for strike has also been supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
According to the villagers, at least two men with their faces veiled with red masks were involved in the shootings. The perpetrators asked the victims to produce their Aadhaar cards first before killing them in cold blood.
As per various media reports, there were inputs regarding “suspicious movements” as a result of which the police and army had already stepped up patrols.
On 16 December, the Rajouri region was gripped by protests after two civilians had died outside an Army camp at Falyana. The protesters claimed that it was the Army, who had in a case of mistaken identity, fired at Shalinder Kumar and Kamal Kishore, both locals working at the Army canteen. Their bodies were found just minutes after a mysterious gunfire rent the air early morning.
However, the Army denied that they killed the civilians and attributed the cause of death to a “firing incident by unidentified terrorists.” On Saturday, outside the same camp, the police said they found an unclaimed bag without specifying what its contents were.
Security Breach Behind Killings
Meanwhile, after the IED killed two minors on Sunday, the J&K Police party was able to detect a second one which was defused on time. Director General of J&K Police Dilbagh Singh said the second IED was intended to kill the senior police officials and politicians who were going to visit the area post-carnage.
Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has criticised the security officials for not clearing out the area properly before allowing the villagers to move back in the aftermath of attacks. “This apparent carelessness on the part of security forces needs to be probed & accountability fixed,” he tweeted. “Costly lessons learnt in the past taught us not to hand over the sites of encounters/attacks without thoroughly sanitising them. Why wasn’t this SOP followed in Rajouri?”
The protests at the road in Upper Dangri were dispersed only after the J&K Lt Governor arrived to pay condolences. On Tuesday, divisional commissioner Jammu, DGP, and A-DGP J&K Police gathered at the cremation ground amid processions and sloganeering. Later in the afternoon, a special team from National Investigation Agency(NIA) which will now investigate the attack arrived at the village as well.
Plot for Eruption of Fresh Militant Activities
The Rajouri attack casts a light on the rising militant activity in the Jammu region that experts say is a result of Pakistan’s effort to have the tight grip of forces on Kashmir knocked loose and allow paramilitary dominance to seep into parts of Jammu in a way that could create the security voids in the valley necessary to step up next wave of militancy campaigns.
"The Jammu region is communally sensitive and unlike Kashmir which is homogenised (demography-wise), killings of Hindus in Jammu can lead to backlash, with the potential of Muslim youth getting radicalised. Pakistan sees this kind of adverse communal situation as an advantage,” Shesh Paul Vaid, former DGP J&K Police told The Quint. “Jammu has been free of militancy overall but in the last year, we have seen attempts to revive terrorism. Old-time terrorists are being recycled.”
Vaid said that frequent militant action in Jammu is aimed at yielding redeployment of security forces out of Kashmir so that pressure comes down there.
Militant Violence Continues Despite Setbacks
Sunday’s attack also highlights how militant groups despite their seemingly reduced presence, still muster the resources and wherewithal to stage attacks, coinciding with important dates or in response to certain political developments, in a bid to put the government in a tight spot.
A day earlier, J&K police had presented data during a press conference during which they shared numbers emphasising how militancy had significantly come down in J&K. Just 24 hours later, two attacks took place in Kashmir valley; one in Handwara in North Kashmir and another in Srinagar when militants lobbed a grenade at a CRPF vehicle near Hawal area in which a young boy Sameer Malla sustained splinter injuries.
In a media statement that The Resistance Front (TRF) released subsequently to claim responsibility for the attacks, the militant group appears to have linked the attacks to Saturday’s press event.
Similarly in October, Kashmir was gripped by a sudden wave of militant violence on the heels of Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit. Six gun battles, five attacks, two mystery murders, including that of a top-ranking police officer (later police said militants were not involved and domestic help was) and one civilian killing, came as a blip in what looked like a normal security situation for much of September last year.
The flurry of attacks has also come ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s proposed visit to Kashmir as part of Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra in the third week of January.
What Renewed Attacks In J&K Signal
The Quint has over the last one year, closely tracked the evolving security situation in the Jammu region.
Early last year, security forces found 250 detonators in the Sidhra area of Poonch district in Jammu. In March, an IED blast in Salathia Chowk in Udhampur caused the killing of one person and injured 14 others.
In April, police and paramilitary forces foiled a suicide attack ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the region. Two suspected militants affiliated with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) group were killed and a CISF officer also died during the operation.
In May, SIA filed chargesheet in connection with a terror-financing case in which alleged militant operatives were arrested near Sidhra in Jammu along with a cash of Rs 43 lakh. The SIA found that the money had come from Punjab and was meant to be transported to Kashmir. In the same month, a fire incident took place in a bus ferrying pilgrims to the Katra region of Jammu, causing the death of four pilgrims en route to Mata Vaishno Devi shrine base camp.
However, the police later discovered that it was an attack and that the perpetrators had used sticky bombs.
In August, a big attack took place in the Pargal area in Rajouri when militants attacked an army facility, killing five servicemen. A mysterious blast too took place near the Nar Balakote area of Mendhar area in Poonch. The blast occurred near the Panchayat Ghar where the Sarpanch (village council head) hoisted the tricolor during the Independence Day function.
But security analysts don’t see this part of a new pattern. “Terrorists are attempting to put Jammu on the conflict map in the same way as Kashmir is,” explained Arun Joshi, veteran political commentator. “Terrorists strike anywhere they will get an opportunity to. All they want is to strike terror in the hearts and minds of the people and they will do it wherever they are facilitated or assigned.”
(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.)