Deepening unease

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Communal killings and attacks on police stations indicate a change of tactics by the Kashmir militants. The attempt seems to be to expand the conflict to the Jammu region.

EARLY in August, people from the tiny village of Nadihal, near Rafiabad in northern Kashmir, showed up at the local police station to lodge an unusual complaint. Masked ghosts, they claimed, were stalking the Vramul area. Gulzar Ahmad Ganai said a ghost broke the windowpanes in his home and knocked him over.

Outside a women's educational institution in Srinagar. Unchallenged by mainstream democratic parties like the National Conference, right-wing groups such as the Dukhtaran-e-Millat have been able to terrorise the people of the State into falling in line with their prescriptions.-NISSAR AHMED/AP

If nothing else, the incident illustrates just how deeply fear today dominates the consciousness of rural Jammu and Kashmir. A month after the State government added Doda, Udhampur, Jammu and Kathua to the list of districts it considers to be disturbed by terrorism, and enforced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act there, most people seem unconvinced that they have come any closer to peace.

Last month saw a string of high-profile attacks on security installations and a spate of communal killings. Perhaps the most spectacular attack came on August 24 in Poonch, where two terrorists entered the police station and shot seven policemen. It started with a grenade attack at the police station's gate, which killed the guard on duty. The Jammu and Kashmir government's subsequent responses illustrate how symbolic gestures have triumphed over meaningful security management. Station House Officer (SHO) Behari Lal was promptly sacked for having barricaded himself in his room during the attack. Since the SHO was engaged in paperwork at the time of the 7-40 p.m. attack, and had no weapon on him, it is unclear just what the government expected him to do - other than perhaps bayoneting the terrorists with his ballpoint pen.

As if to illustrate the meaninglessness of such gestures, more attacks on police installations followed. On September 2, two terrorists attacked the District Police Lines in Doda town, killing a sub-inspector and injuring eight policemen. The terrorists arrived wearing police uniforms and asked for two members of the Special Operations Group, which has carried out a series of successful operations in the area. Some 24 hours later, at the other end of the State, terrorists attacked the District Police Lines in Poonch. Both sides exchanged machine-gun, rocket and grenade fire through much of the night, even as the security forces killed five terrorists in another operation, near Azamabad village. It is believed that these terrorists had intended to target the local Budha Amarnath shrine.

Meanwhile, the communal killings that sparked the enforcement of the Disturbed Areas Act throughout Jammu continued. Terrorists in the Ramban area of Doda killed four shepherds at a high-altitude pasture on August 23. Two of the victims, Avtar Chand and Bhagat Ram, were over 70. Five days later, two temple priests, Narottam Das and Devi Das, were killed in the Surankote area of Poonch. Communal riots followed, with Hindu fundamentalist protesters targeting Muslim shops and homes in Poonch. Nobody saw it fit to note that Muslims were also being butchered by terrorists. Even as the priests were being killed, terrorists murdered the parents, wife and two children of a Hari Marhot trader, Basharat Ahmed. This was among a string of killings of Muslims, driven by local feuds and terrorism-linked extortion.

WHAT sense might be made of this carnage? For one, there seems to be an effort to spread terror in Hindu-dominated areas that were until now unaffected. On September 2, the Nowshera area of Rajouri saw its first serious terrorist attacks, when a Hindu couple was shot after an exchange of fire with the local Village Defence Committee, which also claimed the life of a terrorist. The Jammu region has seen a series of engagements, with an August 23 encounter at Sapuwal, less than an hour's drive from Jammu, claiming the lives of three soldiers. Read in the context of the string of communal killings during this summer, such attacks seem designed both to provoke ethnic-religious violence and to prepare the ground for India eventually agreeing to a sundering of Kashmir from Jammu.

More important, the communal attacks reflect the general ideological ascendancy of fascist organisations on active duty in Jammu and Kashmir. Most of the terrorist organisations, ranging from the Hizbul Mujahideen to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, condemned last month's acid attacks in Srinagar on Muslim college girls who had chosen not to wear the veil. Some people even suggested that the organisation that claimed responsibility, the until then unknown Lashkar-e-Jabbar, had something to do with Indian intelligence. On September 3, however, senior All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leader and Jamaat-e-Islami political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani made clear his support for the Lashkar-e-Jabbar's position, saying that it was mandatory for all Muslim women to wear the veil. Geelani even suggested that action taken against those who defied the dress code was legitimate.

Unchallenged by mainstream democratic parties like the ruling National Conference (N.C.), the right-wing groups have been able to terrorise the people of the State into falling in line. A September 1 deadline announced for wearing the veil was extended by the Lashkar-e-Jabbar after an appeal from Asiya Andrabi, the head of the extreme right-wing Dukhtaran-e-Millat. Andrabi said that tailors in the Kashmir Valley simply would not be able to meet the sudden demand for veils, and that women should be given more time to comply. The fact that the Dukhtaran-e-Millat has been supportive of both Geelani and the Lashkar-e-Toiba indicates the emerging contours of Islamic far-right politics in the State. Sadly, no leader has chosen to defend by example the right of women not to be coerced into accepting regressive dress codes.

At least a section of the N.C., meanwhile, seems determined to make its peace with the Islamic Right. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the State government last month appointed Doda MLA Khalid Najib Suhrawardy Minister of State for Home. Suhrawardy had sparked a controversy in March 1998, after the lynching of four innocent Muslim villagers at Karara, near Doda, by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadre. For reasons the MLA has not explained, he, at a condolence meeting for the victims, shared a platform with Doda's best-known Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Sayidullah Tantrey. Both politicians, whose organisations are traditional enemies, made inflammatory speeches promising vengeance for the killings. Eyebrows were, predictably, raised when, at his first meeting with regional Superintendents of Police in Jammu on September 6, Suhrawardy asked for reports on the action taken against policemen charged with human rights violations.

MUCH of this political theatre seems to be part of a larger dress rehearsal for elections in the State, which many observers believe will be held early next summer. On August 26, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, responding to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Independence Day promise to hold "free and fair elections in Jammu and Kashmir", threatened to leave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Abdullah pointed out that the elections that brought him to power in 1996 were held under Central rule. "Does the Prime Minister mean to say that the elections held under President's Rule were rigged?" Abdullah asked. "I am not a crook, and if the government thinks the elections were rigged, I have no business to remain in the NDA." Many N.C. MLAs are unhappy with their party's presence in the NDA, arguing that it has eroded the party's legitimacy in Kashmir.

True to form, Abdullah soon backed down from his threat after the Prime Minister responded by saying that he had not suggested that the elections had been rigged and made it clear that the three N.C. MPs were free to do as they wished. Sniping has, however, continued between the alliance partners. In the face of the Prime Minister's commitment to meet Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in New York later in September, Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah said on September 6 that such "talks would serve no purpose". The experience of the Agra Summit, he told a national newspaper, had made it clear that nothing could be expected as long as Pakistan insisted on placing the status of Jammu and Kashmir at the top of its agenda. There has been considerable speculation over the past few months that Omar Abdullah may replace his father as Chief Minister after the next Assembly elections.

Lost among all this political manoeuvring, however, has been the need for a coherent security policy in the wake of the collapse of both the Ramzan ceasefire and the Agra Summit. With no prospect of APHC centrists engaging in future elections, or of any short-term rapprochement with Pakistan, the issue has become one of desperate importance. While record numbers of terrorists have been killed since the end of the ceasefire, the fact remains that most of these engagements have taken place along the Line of Control. In the interior areas, success has often proved harder to come by. Neither the 39 Mountain Division in Reasi, nor the Romeo Force responsible for counter-terrorist operations in Rajouri, for example, eliminated any terrorists through August. "Sadly," says one senior Army officer, "the enforcement of the Disturbed Areas Act has pushed us into a defensive mode, since it is felt that any major incident would be an unacceptable embarrassment."

Such postures could have calamitous consequences. At a September 4 press conference, the 16 Corps Commander admitted that media reports about high-altitude defensive fortifications were correct. One set of bunkers built in the Surankote area of Poonch was destroyed even as the Agra Summit was on, and the operation claimed the lives of 22 terrorists. A similar fortification was blown apart by troops on the Prithpal hills in the Pir Kalera area of Poonch on September 3. Informed sources told Frontline that over 200 bags of cement had been recovered during this operation, a fact of obvious significance given the growing recoveries of high-calibre weapons and mortar from terrorists over the last year. These developments, along with renewed shelling in Uri and Kargil, seem to indicate that Pakistan is preparing to take the conflict to an altogether new level. But no one in power seems clear just how they intend to respond to the emerging situation.

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