Why has militancy shifted from Kashmir to Jammu?

One reason could be that the security clampdown in the Valley is pushing militants into fresh terrain.

Published : Jun 20, 2024 15:26 IST - 7 MINS READ

A security personnel stands guard at the site where an encounter took place between security forces and militants, in Rajouri in September 2023.

A security personnel stands guard at the site where an encounter took place between security forces and militants, in Rajouri in September 2023. | Photo Credit: Sumit Bhargav/ANI

Ajeet Singh, 34, from Salal village in Reasi district of Jammu, is worried. It has been a week since his children planned to visit their grandparents in Rajouri. But after the attack on civilians in Reasi, Singh is afraid to leave his house. “The attack left behind dead bodies and fear,” he tells Frontline. “I worry that if we travel, militants might kill us.”

On June 9, a bus ferrying pilgrims from a Hindu shrine fell into a gorge in Reasi after militants fired on it. At least nine people, including a two-year-old child, were killed and 43 others injured. Reasi has been peaceful for the past two decades, but the recent attack has again brought a sense of paranoia. “A few years ago, we were worried about going to Kashmir [due to militancy],” says Singh. “But now the fear is so high here that many villagers say it’s better to go to Kashmir than stay in Jammu.”

The attack took place on the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi took oath for a third consecutive term. Two days later, militants attacked three other places in Kathua and Doda districts of Jammu, where a Central Reserve Police Force personnel was killed, and one civilian and at least seven security personnel were injured.

Also Read | Militancy returns to Jammu after 15 years of relative peace

Following the attacks, a few former military veterans called for a two-front war—with Pakistan and China—to settle the Jammu and Kashmir issue for good. But amidst the belligerence, many others have observed a shift in the dynamics of militancy, which has moved from Kashmir to Jammu where even a decade ago there were no resident militants.

Several intelligence officers believe the phenomenon has been triggered by a changing equation in the Valley. “The massive militarisation, area domination, and the growing human intelligence network in Kashmir have forced foreign militants to shift their focus to Jammu,” a senior intelligence officer said.

Changing strategies

The shift in the terrain of militancy began shortly after 2019, and it has already made Jammu a difficult confrontation zone for the armed forces due to its treacherous terrain, heterogeneous population, and the dearth of intelligence networks. 

“Militants keep changing their strategies based on their own safety needs,” Shesh Paul Vaid, former Jammu and Kashmir DGP, told Frontline. “Initially, Kashmir was their focus. After the abrogation of Article 370, there were significant changes on the ground, and they adapted by starting lone wolf attacks.”

Vaid describes how the militants’ tactics have evolved in the past three years: “They began targeted killings, focussing on Kashmiri Pandits, elected panchayat members, outsiders, and migrant labourers. It took about a year-and-a-half for our security grid to gain control over this situation, and now we have largely controlled it. Stone pelting has stopped, local recruitment has decreased, and other incidents of violence have also reduced. This is why they have shifted focus to Jammu.”

Unlike the Kashmir Valley, which is relatively flat, Jammu is rugged and mountainous. Rajouri and Poonch districts in Jammu are particularly suitable for militants due to the proximity to the Line of Control, and their hilly landscape and thick forests.

Apart from these geographical factors, Vaid also points out another critical factor aiding the militants. “There is a shortage of forces in Jammu,” he says. “These militants, trained in jungle warfare and equipped with US-made weapons and steel bullets from China have been pushed into Jammu. They ambush the army and then hide. One of their main tactics is using communication methods in the Pir Panjal range that are difficult to intercept. Unlike in Kashmir, the human intelligence network is not as strong here.”

The Rajouri-Reasi connection

The attack in Reasi was not the first incident of its kind in Jammu in recent years. On January 1, 2023, two unidentified militants entered Dhangri village in Rajouri district and killed four civilians. A few months later, in April, militants ambushed an Army truck, killing five soldiers near Bhatta Durian on the Bhimber Gali-Surankote road in Poonch district. The vehicle was carrying fruits and other goods for an Iftar gathering in Sangiote village that evening. On December 21, militants ambushed two army vehicles near Topa Peer village in Poonch district killing four soldiers.

The People’s Anti-Fascist Front, an offshoot of Jaish-e-Mohammed, claimed responsibility for both the ambushes and released purported video footage of the twin attacks.

According to retired general Deependra Singh Hooda, the groups responsible for the attacks in the Poonch-Rajouri area last year may have moved to Reasi. “Their tactics are mainly hit-and-run attacks and ambushes,” Hooda said. “They are not like the fidayeen who fight to the death. The Dhangri attack is one example. They are also targeting civilians of specific demographics.”

“Unlike the Kashmir Valley, which is relatively flat, Jammu is rugged and mountainous. Rajouri and Poonch districts in Jammu are particularly suitable for militants due to the proximity to the Line of Control, and their hilly landscape and thick forests.”

Hooda suggested that the tight security grid set up in Kashmir against militancy could be a reason why militants are shifting to Jammu. He too mentioned the topography. “The population density is low in Jammu, road connectivity is limited, and the area is mountainous. This makes it difficult for security forces to fight militants.”

He also believes that Chinese aggression on the Line of Actual Control in 2020 has contributed to the geographical shift in militancy. “In 2020, there was a sense that Jammu had relatively low militancy, so some troops were pulled out and moved to Ladakh. That period, when forces were moved out, might have encouraged militants to shift their base.”

Hooda is apprehensive that the militant incidents in Jammu could take on a communal tinge. “In Jammu, there is always a risk of these incidents taking on a communal colour. This does not happen as much in Kashmir, where the demographic is more homogenous. So, incidents where a specific community is targeted can become communal. Terrorists will do what they do—create panic and fear—but the outcome could be very different in Jammu compared to Kashmir.”

The State response

Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha described the Reasi attack “as a nefarious attempt to destabilise the peace in the region”. The DGP, R.R. Swain, called it a “security challenge” and told reporters on June 13: “We don’t know whom they [Pakistan] are sending here after picking them from jails. [But] those who are supporting them have land, children and jobs here and they will suffer.”

Swain said terrorism spread its tentacles in Jammu, especially in Doda and Ramban districts, in 1995, but it was completely wiped out by 2005. “If we are face to face with the same type of challenge, we are committed and will give them a befitting response and kill them one by one to maintain a peaceful atmosphere.”

Union Minister and MP from Jammu, Jitendra Singh, termed the militants “desperate”. In a statement, Singh said, “The militants are on the run and are trying to shift the focus of their activities to the Jammu region but the terrorist design…will not succeed.”

Despite the tough stance, observers say that militancy has become an uphill task in the region. “Militants are now using the elevated grounds of Pir Panjal, Reasi, and Doda to ambush and cause casualties,” said a retired police officer. “If a stone thrown from these heights can cause damage, imagine what a bullet can do.”

Also Read | Custodial deaths of Gujjars in Poonch puts Army and BJP in a spot

The officer also noted that the militants in Jammu are capable of surviving in the wilderness for extended periods. “They appear to be part of sleeper cells, with no more than four members in each cell.... This makes it clear that once these militants strike, they immediately shift their base.”

He also made another point, saying that after 2019 many pro-state individuals felt deceived by the government and appear to have shifted their allegiance, which benefits militants in Jammu. “It is a well-calibrated strategy made by Pakistan. The greater the escalation in Jammu, the thinner the border becomes. It’s an obvious change in strategy to send a strong message to Delhi.”

As suspects are rounded up for the Reasi attack, Ajeet Singh is unnerved by the belligerent generals and security experts rallying for Kashmir-like treatment to counter militancy in Jammu. That means area domination. “While security forces will do whatever is needed to tackle this menace, life in Jammu will not be the same,” a worried Singh said. It seems unlikely that his children will visit their grandparents anytime soon.

Zaid Bin Shabir is a journalist based in Srinagar.

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