Pir Panjal bloodshed, combined with its troubling past, could be catastrophic for Kashmir

If the government fails to take corrective steps and heed the voices of the suffering masses, we may soon be above the danger mark.

WrittenBy:Anuradha Bhasin
A map showing Poonch and Rajouri with army personnel and barbed wire in front of it.
  • Share this article on whatsapp

Has the battleground of militancy shifted from the Kashmir valley to the border districts of Poonch and Rajouri? 

To answer that question, one may have to grapple with two more questions: Is there a spike in insurgency in Rajouri and Poonch? And has militancy been decimated in Kashmir?

The first can be answered in the affirmative while relying on data since October 2021, when the army was engaged in an encounter with militants  for several weeks in the dense forests bordering both the districts. However, there is little evidence to make an incontrovertible conclusion regarding diminishing of militancy, which has seen many ups and downs both in the valley and rest of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Data reveals a steep decline in the number of militancy related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir in 2023, with a total of 72 incidents as against 151 in 2022, and a drop in the killings from 253 in 2022 to 134 in 2023. But it may be too early to term this as a victory over insurgency on two counts. 

First, the casualties of security forces have considerably increased from 12 percent in 2022 to 25 percent in 2023. Thirty-three of the 134 persons killed this year include security forces as compared to deaths of 30 security personnel out of 253 in 2022.

Second, the statistical decline and rise may indicate a temporary phase, and not necessarily a change. From 2006 to 2010, there was a significant and consistent decline in militancy related killings from over 1,100 to 361. This further dropped to 181 in 2011 and 121 in 2012 (the lowest ever in the last three decades). But militancy related violence in subsequent years registered a steady rise. It was 172 in 2013 and went up to 452 in 2017. The numbers have been steadily declining since. 

However, the entire graph of militancy since 1990 – with its many twists and turns – indicates that the story may not be over yet. Of the 134 killings in 2023, Rajouri and Poonch account for about 55 deaths. The Kashmir valley still accounts for around 75 deaths in militancy-related violence. 

So, would it be correct to presume that the theatre of militancy has shifted to the twin border districts in the Pir Panjal region? The continuum of violence, though on a low key in the valley, despite the heightened militarization and suppression of the local population, does not indicate a shift but its extension to the neighbouring districts in Jammu province. 

It would also be erroneous to link the recent statistical decline to the watering down of Article 370. If there are indications of declining militancy in the valley, there is evidence to the contrary in Jammu province. Both regions of the erstwhile state have lost their autonomy. It would thus be unreasonable to believe that militancy has declined in one part of the region and spiked in the other because the Indian government removed the constitutional guarantees given to the people of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370. 

The only reasonable explanation is that the militants are changing their strategy owing to several probable factors. The dense forests of Rajouri and Poonch give the militants more strategic depth as opposed to the populated areas of the Kashmir valley, as is evidenced by a slew of ambushes and encounters where militants have kept the Indian army engaged for days and have often managed to slip away. 

Secondly, the increasing footprints of a surveillance state in the Kashmir valley with a stringent mechanism of raids, detentions, military barricades, and other oppressive methods in place in since 2019 has visibly discouraged local involvement in insurgency, whose baton seems to have been passed on to foreign militants from across the Line of Control. Army officials have admitted that though the number of insurgents is contained, they are contending with well-trained guerilla rebels operating with more sophisticated weaponry. 

Thirdly, unlike the previous decade, the new phase of militancy since 2019 has witnessed more targeted killings – suggesting an attempt and deliberate motive to disrupt the communal harmony in Jammu and Kashmir. Rajouri and Poonch, where Hindus are a sizeable minority and scattered across the districts, may be the more preferred arena of the insurgents’ operations in view of its demographic complexity.  

All three factors are premonitions of an impending disaster. The strategic location of Rajouri and Poonch and its recent history are reasons for additional worry. The recent killings of three civilians allegedly in custody of the army, and the unlawful detention and brutal thrashing of at least a dozen other civilians, a day after four army personnel were killed in an ambush laid by the militants in the forests nestled between the two border districts, hark back to the chequered past of this border belt. Both the army and the civilians are mindful of the troubled memory that dates to not just the 1990s but goes further back to 1965. 

Both, however, recall it differently. 

In 1965, Pakistan launched its Operation Gibraltar, with covert infiltrations to incite the local Muslims to trigger an uprising against the Indian state, said to be the immediate cause of the 1965 war. For the army, it had to navigate the arduous challenge of local support to trained guerillas from across the Line of Control in several pockets that were almost evenly spread across the Pir Panjal. 

For the locals, 1965 is a horrifying memory of brutalisation of the landscape of Rajouri and Poonch that remained embedded and was easily eruptible even in the most peaceful times. Anecdotes of pro-Pakistan banners in the villages and some locals joining the guerilla warfare, and in retaliation the massacres of civilians by the Indian army and villages being burnt down triggering mass displacements across the Line of Control, have been told and retold for decades. The echoes of how civilians were flushed out from their homes and killed, how over a lakh people were compelled to flee, some of them returning a year or two years later not without facing more persecution, continue to reverberate in this hilly region. 

These stories are deeply embedded in the psyche of the locals. Despite the Indian army’s attempts since the 1970s – of rapprochement through goodwill missions like opening of schools, hospitals and construction of roads – to reach out to the locals, the old wounds have never healed. This even though the locals made the conscious choice of burying the past and reconciling it to reality.   

In the 1990s, several militant groups made attempts to re-ignite Rajouri and Poonch by invoking its delicate religious and ethnic fault lines. The Indian state contributed to deepening the religious and ethnic cleavages by weaponising one community against another, one ethnic group against the other, and by accentuating old village-level feuds through various mechanisms of co-option. This included the creation of Village Defence Committees, which mostly comprised the Muslim Gujjar-Bakerwal tribals. 

Despite all these attempts, the innocent civilians of the area, sandwiched between the guns from all sides, refused to fall prey to the nefarious designs. Insurgency in the region could not sustain for long because it enjoyed little local support in the region. But it contributed to the fragility of inter-communitarian relations and lacerated the old existing chronic wounds. Stories of brutal torture by all stakeholders – including militants, security forces and the Village Defence Committees – piled up over the old ones to form an ugly kaleidoscope of blood spill, chopped ears and noses, stolen food, torched houses, detentions and torture. Fresh displacements emptied some villages along the Line of Control. 

The revival of militancy in Rajouri and Poonch is linked to the local anxieties heightening in the wake of loss of autonomy to the region, changed strategies of the militant groups operating from Pakistan in the wake of the new realities of the post-2019 developments, and the short-sighted politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party. 

The BJP recklessly wants to gain political heft in the region by consolidating the Hindu vote bank through gerrymandering of electoral constituencies and deepening ethnic polarisation by introduction of bills to grant the ethno-linguistic Paharis (comprising the majority in Rajouri and include both Hindus and Muslims) the Scheduled Tribe status. Also by refusing to understand how such divisive and disempowering policies can leverage the machinations of insurgents. 

The nomadic tribals, comprising about 36 percent population in the two border districts, had seen in the revocation of Article 370 the slight hope of extension of the Forests Rights Act. But they have been left empty-handed. While the implementation of the act is tardy or non-existent, the government has weaponised loopholes and shortcomings of old land-related laws against a large section of the people, including the nomadic population, to declare them as encroachers under the new amended laws. The Gujjars and Bakerwals also see the grant of ST status to the Paharis as an existential threat. 

Both in 1965 and during the years of militancy, the Indian army viewed the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe as an ally. The recent incident of rounding up tribal men, huddling them inside an army camp to be mercilessly beaten till they dropped dead, highlights a new trend that has elicited ripples of panic and fear across the region – among the Muslim Paharis and the Gujjar-Bakerwals. 

Any belated attempt to mollycoddle the tribals, without an intent to provide justice and with an intent to stop these dangerously flawed policies, will not help. The signs of outrage in the most suppressed region of Jammu and Kashmir, despite heightened panic, already convey that the region has reached the threshold of a catastrophe. If the government fails to take drastic corrective steps to heed the voices of the suffering masses, rein in the military, add a measure of accountability and restore public confidence, we may soon be above the danger mark.  

The author is managing editor of Kashmir Times and author of A Dismantled State: The Untold Story of Kashmir After Article 370.


Support Independent Media

The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free.

Also see
article imageTruth commission in Kashmir: Peace vs justice, and a memory palace’s ruins

Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now

You may also like