A troubled trek

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

The terrorist attack on the Amarnath Yatra for the third straight year raises questions about the defensive counter-terrorist measures that have been put in place in Jammu and Kashmir and their level of effectiveness during the coming Assembly elections.

LIKE most tragedies waiting to happen, this one eventually did. Although an estimated 15,000 troops and police personnel were pressed into service to protect the Amarnath Yatra this year, they could not prevent a terrorist strike on the pilgrims. This year's toll - eight dead and 30 injured - is considerably lower than those of 2000 and 2001. Nonetheless, the tragedy has made it impossible to evade answers to two key questions: just what is wrong with defensive counter-terrorist measures in Jammu and Kashmir and what should be done to address these deficiencies with elections just weeks away.

The pre-dawn terrorist attack on the Nunwan camp en route to the shrine was similar to the 45-odd suicide-squad operations that have taken place in and outside Jammu and Kashmir since 1999. Two terrorists, believed to be members of al-Mansuriyan, a front organisation of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, engaged Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) pickets guarding the camp. A third member of the group, later identified as a Pakistan national code-named Abu Qasim, opened fire on the pilgrims. While guards inside the camp killed Qasim, CRPF, police and Border Security Force units in the area were unable to interdict the rest of the group.

It was not as if the attack was not anticipated. Even before the pilgrimage began, the Inspector-General of Police of Jammu, P.L. Gupta, had warned of the existence of "several discrete terrorist cells, tasked to carry out attacks on the Amarnath Yatra in tandem". His prediction proved accurate. On June 25, the Hizbul Mujahideen targeted troops engaged in sanitising the area near Chandanwari, the first major halt on the climb towards the shrine. Three soldiers were killed in the explosion. Earlier, on June 15, a grenade attack on pilgrims preparing to leave Jammu for Pahalgam left two dead. On July 24, five days after the yatra began, 24 pilgrims, security force personnel and bystanders were injured in a similar attack at Anantnag. On July 30, a grenade attack in Anantnag killed a pilgrim and a taxi driver, and caused injuries to three persons.

In a recent article, former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer B. Raman acerbically pointed to New Delhi's ostrich-like handling of its security failures. "Since September 11, 2001," he said, "I have attended over half a dozen seminars on terrorism, particularly the so-called Catastrophic Terrorism, in New Delhi. Some so-called terrorism expert in Brookings or Rand or in some other similar institution, of which, unfortunately, there are many uncritical admirers in this country, particularly in New Delhi, comes out with an esoteric, but meaningless formulation, theory or jargon and we repeat them parrot-like. Most of the items are generally copied from the agenda of similar seminars held in the West, particularly the U.S. To my knowledge, there has not been a single seminar or a single worthwhile discussion on how terrorists have been repeatedly penetrating our physical security set-up with such apparent ease."

Past attacks on the Amarnath Yatra illustrate Raman's point. On July 21 last year, a single Lashkar-e-Toiba member assaulted a camp near Seshnag, a short trek from Nunwan, at 1-15 a.m. The attack began with a single grenade attack, after which the terrorist hid inside a stable. When police personnel reached the site, he opened fire from his assault rifle in single-shot mode, injuring Deputy Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar and Assistant Sub-Inspector Sakhi Akbar. Both died an hour later because the forces in the area did not attempt to evacuate the injured. Army personnel who then reached Seshnag engaged the terrorist and killed him. But among the dead were also seven pilgrims and five workers.

No rapid-response protocols, it is clear, were put in place or practised after this one-man assault. That is not surprising, given the fact that the official doctrine on suicide-squad attacks consists, in essence, of fatalism. Paragraph 99 of the Lieutenant-General J.R. Mukherjee Committee of Inquiry Report, which investigated the August 1, 2000 killings at Pahalgam, states that "no security system can ever be foolproof and determined efforts can break the best of them". This might be true, but the Mukherjee Report side-stepped the fact that whatever was in place during the Amarnath Yatra was not, by any stretch of imagination, even approaching the "foolproof". While the report blamed the CRPF for the excessive use of fire, and the police for failing to sanitise the town adequately, it made no effort to investigate the command-level problems that dogged the Yatra.

Consider, for example, some facts that did not appear in the Mukherjee Report. On July 13, 2000, the then Assistant Director of the Intelligence Bureau in Srinagar wrote to Mukherjee disputing the "optimism [which] was voiced at the recent review meeting convened by the Special Secretary [J and K Affairs] held on July 09 that the deployment of S[ecurity] F[orces] and the goodwill of the local people involved in the Yatra would combine to make it an incident-free one". The letter pointed to the movement of large groups of terrorists through areas above Pahalgam, as well as messages on the Lashkar-e-Toiba frequencies of 146.440 MHz and 147.440 MHz that an operative code-named Iqbal should "collect small arms and ammunitions" for a "pre-fixed task". A day before the letter was sent, 15 Corps Lieutenant-Colonel Gurvinder Singh passed on inputs from RAW, placing such movements in the context of terrorist efforts "to sabotage peace initiatives".

Mukherjee, as security adviser to Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, should have been made to answer why 30 people died in the August 1, 2000 attack. Instead, he and two bureaucrats authored a report designed to deflect responsibility from themselves. Last year, a supposedly-improved security system, which looked suspiciously similar to its three-tier predecessor, was put in place. When it failed, no high-level inquiry was ordered. This year's yatra saw several administrative changes, notably the issue of permits to pilgrims through branches of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank rather than the State government. No security command issues were addressed, and, as in the past, there were several ugly clashes between different organisations. In one instance, two constables were beaten up by plainclothes military intelligence personnel who sought to enter the pilgrimage route carrying unauthorised weapons.

IT is hard not to be at least a little cynical about the official failure to address these problems. The annual killings at Pahalgam seems to matter little to the National Conference (N.C.), which derives most of its support from the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu and the Kashmir valley. The N.C. is a gift to the Hindu Right, to which it offers an opportunity to consolidate the core constituency of the Right among Hindus in Jammu and Udhampur. The Amarnath attacks have also been used to generate communal chauvinism elsewhere; the 2000 tragedy was followed by attacks on Muslims in Ahmedabad. Indeed, organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have energetically organised large pilgrimage groups, marketing the yatra as a kind of counter-terrorist enterprise. And ever since 1994, when the Harkatul Mujahideen, now the Jaish-e-Mohammad, forbade pilgrims from visiting the shrine, the Amarnath Yatra has offered an opportunity for terrorist groups to advertise their resistance to supposed Hindu imperialism.

But the security problems illustrated by the yatra killings have serious implications for securing Jammu and Kashmir over the next few weeks. The Election Commission has announced four-phase elections - on September 16 and 24, and October 1 and 8. While troops should be able to secure the elections themselves, terrorist attacks on civilians have generated mass fear, which renders meaningful democratic activity near-impossible. Dozens of political activists, notably from the N.C., have been targeted this year, while killings of innocents are at record high levels. Rajouri district alone saw three major incidents over the fortnight ahead of August 7. Four members of a family, including two children, were killed at Patrada village, while two persons died and 36 were injured in separate bomb explosions. On August 8, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani announced that he was working on plans to end such attacks, which merely begs the question: What was he doing for the past two years?

No one seems clear, either, on what sort of long-term outcomes the Union government hopes will emerge from the elections. Former Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley's mission to initiate a dialogue with the N.C. on federal autonomy seems to have disappeared from the landscape just weeks after it was announced. Several senior Bharatiya Janata Party figures had emphasised that Jaitley would discuss devolution, not autonomy - a somewhat opaque distinction, but one that made clear that the party was unwilling to meet the N.C.'s minimum demand. Now, another former Law Minister, Ram Jethmalani, has initiated a parallel negotiation process with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Jethmalani claims that his Kashmir Committee, which mirrors the committee set up by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, is a non-official body. He has, however, held at least one meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, on August 6, and has been exerting pressure for the postponement of elections. Some APHC figures, Jethmalani claims, have told him that they would be willing to participate in elections after some time. "We cannot", he argues, "let this opportunity to go by just because the Election Commission has announced some dates."

It is unclear just from whom Jethmalani has received this commitment, for even APHC centrists like Sajjad Lone have made it plain that they will not participate in elections without cast-iron guarantees of India then engaging in final-status negotiations. With the Union government unwilling to discuss even autonomy, it is profoundly unlikely to be willing to make any such concession to the APHC. Interestingly, the Congress(I) has also been calling for Central rule in Jammu and Kashmir, on the plea that elections cannot be held with the N.C. in power. The party hopes to play a key opposition role in the State, and its ranks have been bolstered by former Union Minister Saifuddin Soz' decision to join it. Time, however, seems to have run out for such demands. The Union government has to buckle down to the task of ensuring that a meaningful election is possible, not simply sniping at the N.C., however appalling that party's record. All leading figures in the government, from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee downwards, have been asserting that Pakistan is determined to sabotage democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. None of them seems to know how to stop it.

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