Impact on Amarnath yatra, assembly poll plan: J&K attacks pose early test for Modi 3.0, opposition

Elements across the border, despite their weakened hold over the valley in recent years, still continue to hold the keys to peace in Jammu and Kashmir.

WrittenBy:Nirupama Subramanian
Picture of the bus attacked in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Anything can happen.” In Jammu and Kashmir, this is how most people frame the uncertainty that surrounds their lives. If the peaceful conduct of elections with no calls for boycott and the highest turnouts in four decades was seen as the turning of a corner in the former state, a wave of terrorist incidents – including an attack on a bus on June 9 causing nine deaths – have underlined the enormity of the security challenge it faces.

During the elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had described the turnout in Kashmir as one of “most gratifying things” of his tenure. He linked the “enthusiasm” for elections as an endorsement of his government’s effective abrogation of Article 370 (the evidence at the time, since confirmed by the results in the valley’s three seats, pointed to an unleashing of suppressed Kashmiri anger through the ballot box against the 2019 constitutional changes). He suggested that the government was on course to hold the assembly election before the Supreme Court’s deadline of September 30.

Three things stand out about the latest terror attacks.

The timing, geographical spread, and modus operandi

First, the timing. 

The first of the three attacks so far, on a civilian transport bus in Reasi in Jammu, occurred around 7 pm on June 9, at the same time that Modi and his cabinet were being sworn in at the glittering forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Television channels blanked out the bad news for the duration of that ceremony, but on social media, reports travelled fast of terrorists firing at a bus with pilgrims headed to Katra. The driver took the first shot, and the bus fell into the gorge below, killing nine people.

It seemed that those behind the attack wanted to play the spoiler at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, and send a message that the peace that prevailed during the elections was temporary, that they still had levers on the ground that could be activated at a time and place of their choosing.

From Pakistan, which had held off sending a congratulatory message to Modi on becoming Prime Minister for a third time, messages of felicitations from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his brother and former PM Nawaz Sharif came the next day. The gruesome details of the Reasi attack were just emerging. 

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Modi's cold response to Nawaz Sharif underlined the need for peace and security. More incidents on Tuesday at two separate border areas in Jammu will have ensured that on the India-Pakistan front, any new beginnings must cross the terrorism hurdle first.

Second is the geographical spread of the attacks.

Perhaps due to the heightened security in Kashmir since 2019, or by communal design, terrorists appear to have shifted their attention to Jammu. Since 2021, this region, particularly the two border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, have seen a spate of deadly terrorist incidents. For security forces, 2023 was annus horribilis in this area, with five attacks claiming the lives of 20 army personnel. The suspicion that some in the local Gujar population were involved in harbouring cross-border terrorist, led to the torture of civilians by army personnel in Poonch – widely circulated video footage revealed the ghastly details causing the deaths of three.

Reports have persisted through the months that a large number of “foreign” terrorists, that is, from Pakistan, have infiltrated the LoC in that area, waiting for opportunities to strike. 

As recently as in the run up to the May 25 election in Anantnag-Rajouri constituency, three terrorist incidents took place. On April 22, a government employee, whose brother was in the Army, was killed in Rajouri’s Kunda Top. Separately on the same day, a village defence guard was killed in the Basantgarh area of Udhampur. On May 2, an Indian Air Force convoy was attacked in Poonch’s Surankote area, killing one official, and leaving four others badly injured.

The latest attack shows that the terrorists have travelled deeper into Jammu and are looking for new striking grounds in a communally divided region. 

Reasi is not a border area. It has major pilgrimage sites, including Vaishno Devi and Shiv Khori, the temple to which the bus was headed, and attracts religious tourism from all parts of the country. In Kathua, where an encounter with another set of terrorists was continuing from late on June 11 well into the next day, two terrorists and a CRPF trooper were killed. In Doda in the Chenab Valley, where terrorists attacked a combined army-police check post, six security personnel were injured. Both are communally sensitive areas, and the presence of terrorists showed the spread.

Third, the modus operandi of the Reasi attackers was the same as in earlier attacks, which indicates that either they are the same group or another with similar training. They were armed with military-grade US-made M4 or M16 weapons. The targets were carefully chosen vehicles. Their ability to stay hidden for long periods in areas they have targeted, and their choice of thickly forested, hilly terrain to ambush their targets where they have the advantage of the high ground, point to highly trained individuals.

The first target of the attack is the driver. In previous ambushes on military convoys, the attackers went on to kill the other personnel in the vehicle. Ironically, in Reasi, while nine people were killed, the vehicle’s plunge down the gorge may have saved the lives of the other passengers.

The attacks will present security challenges for the upcoming Amarnath Yatra, which usually begins in July. Whether it leads to a reconsideration of the J&K assembly elections by the September-end deadline set by the Supreme Court remains to be seen. The attacks underline that elements across the border, despite their weakened hold over the valley in recent years, still continue to hold the keys to peace in Jammu and Kashmir. 

It also poses a test both for the new Modi government, and the revitalised opposition, including three MPs from Kashmir, as they prepare to take their seats in Parliament later this month. 

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