A growing toll

Print edition : November 13, 1999

Amid spurious post-Kargil euphoria, the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir face a fresh terrorist offensive.

ON the morning of November 3, 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal held a press conference to denounce media reports of an imminent escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The Army, he said, had reversed early insurgent successes after the Kargil War. Journalists, he continued, had wrongly claimed that several Army camps had been stormed by terrorists in recent weeks.

Hours later, eight Army personnel were shot dead by a Lashkar-e-Taiba suicide squad inside the Badami Bagh cantonment, a mere 10-minute walk from Kishan Pal's office.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on the military operations headquarters in Kashmir, housed in a maximum security zone on the fringes of Srinagar, began at 5-45 p.m. At least three terrorists came in a hired minibus and parked the vehicle a few hundred yards from the cantonment's main entrance. One of them shot off a rifle-fired grenade which fell on a vacant plot of land. Guards responded to the explosion with confused and undirected fire, killing one Border Security Force jawan who happened to be passing by. In the melee, the hit-squad scaled the four-foot wall into Badami Bagh and hid themselves behind shrubs.

A building used by the Cantonment Board that was destroyed by terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Srinagar on November 3.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

From the park, the terrorists moved forward to the Defence Ministry's public relations office, an unguarded facility. Sensing trouble, the 15 Corps' Public Relations Officer, Major P. Purushottam, locked three visiting photographers in his office toilet and went out to see what was happening. His decision saved the lives of the three photographers. The officer himself, along with seven members of his staff and a military intelligence official who happened to be in the area, were shot dead. All were unarmed. Purushottam, survived by his wife and infant daughter, was due to be posted out of Srinagar the following week.

Soldiers proceeded to cordon off the area, but exchanges of fire went on until 4-30 a.m. on November 4. The terrorists blew up a building used by the Cantonment Board, next to the public relations office. The firing ended after the terrorists were attacked with rockets. At the time of writing, the body of one terrorist - identified by Army officials as that of Lashkar-e-Taiba operations chief Abu Talha - had been recovered; another body was believed to be buried under rubble. Intelligence officials, however, told Frontline that the terrorist's features did not correspond with their informant's descriptions of Abu Talha.

The storming of Badami Bagh could just be the first scene of Pakistan's executive head General Pervez Musharraf's script for the Kashmir theatre. While Musharraf has engaged in skirmishes with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which accuses him of harbouring a Mustafa Kemal Ataturk-style secular agenda, here are signs that the General is promoting other fundamentalist organisations, notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its parent religious body, the Markaz Dawa wal'Irshad. On October 26, the Pakistani newspaper Nawa-e-Waqt reported that the Lashkar was planning a series of major attacks in the State to coincide with its congregation at its Muridke on the outskirts of Lahore.

It is clear that Musharraf's hawkish rhetoric on Kashmir is not just polemic. Interestingly, the Markaz convention, from November 3 to 5, had been banned by the Nawaz Sharif regime. The Markaz's chief, revanchist preacher Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, was interviewed on Muzaffarabad-based Radio Kashmir shortly after the coup in Pakistan. The broadcast reversed the Sharif regime's efforts to distance itself from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, partly under pressure from the United States. Hundreds of Lashkar activists had been jailed in a post-Kargil crackdown on chauvinist organisations critical of the deposed Prime Minister. More than 130 Lashkar members, Indian intelligence officials say, have now been released.

In some senses, the storming in itself is of more political than military significance. Such actions seem driven in part by the need to carry out high-profile actions to offset military losses. According to Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat, some 1,800 terrorists are believed to have made their way into the State this summer, taking advantage of gaps created by Kargil-period troop withdrawals. Between May and September alone, 550, or almost a third of the terrorists, were shot dead in encounters. The Badami Bagh storming was preceded by an October 28 attack on the Civil Secretariat in Srinagar. Days earlier, the State Police had announced the arrest of four terrorists involved in a similar attack on September 29.

Yet it is evident that spurious post-Kargil euphoria led military officials in the State to ignore signs of trouble and instead focus on the good news. In June, following troop withdrawals, security forces lost 33 personnel in the Kashmir region, the highest figures for any month since 1996. But the return of soldiers to counter-terrorist duties, officials pointed out, had led to rapid results. September saw 159 terrorists eliminated, the highest figures for a single month in three years. Between August and October 20, security forces eliminated over 347 terrorists, again a record figure for a three-month period.

A sketch detailing the area in Badami Bagh where the terrorists struck.-

Gross numbers were not the only evidence military officials used to suggest that the renewal of the Army's presence in the State had helped undo at least some of the Kargil damage. In June, at the height of the Kargil conflict, the ratio of terrorists killed for every security force jawan lost had dipped to the lowest level since 1990. In the Kashmir region, only 1.82 terrorists were killed for every Indian security force personnel who died in combat. The figures were even worse in Jammu, with 12 security force personnel lost and 14 terrorists killed, a ratio of 1:1.14. By September, the ratio in Kashmir had gone up to 1:4.05, and to 1:5.83 in Jammu.

As the storming of Badami Bagh illustrates, it would be facile to suggest that a dramatic military turnaround is imminent. For one, heavy insurgent losses could be argued to be the consequence of the presence of numbers unprecedented in recent years. The losses of terrorist groups are mirrored by similar figures for India's security forces; 67 security force personnel died in Kashmir alone through August and September, the highest casualty figure for two months since 1997; 204 jawans have died in counter-terrorist duties this year in Kashmir, a figure already approximately a quarter higher than those for all of 1997 or 1998. And although 379 terrorists had been killed in Jammu this year and 580 in Kashmir, the ratios of the casualty figures of security force to those of terrorists, 1:3.51 and 1:2.84 respectively, are the most disturbing in recent years.

HOW does one account for the evident escalation in the conflict after Kargil? For one, the Army appears to have been throwing significant resources at problem areas in both Kashmir and Jammu. In October, almost the entire 6 Division was used to saturate the Rajwar forests in Kupwara in an exercise code-named Operation Kaziranga. Kaziranga, sources told Frontline, was so large in scale that it almost provoked diplomatic panic after U.S. espionage satellites detected massive movements towards the Line of Control (LoC). The operation itself had few immediate results, for few terrorists were eliminated in its course. But the pressure in Kupwara led terrorists to scatter, and this snapped their communications.

Such operations, however, are not the first enterprises of their kind in post-1990 Jammu and Kashmir. If experience is any guide, they are no substitute for a cogent anti-terrorism policy. Official thought has, sadly, been remarkable for its lack of clarity. An early post-Kargil experiment in handing over the Army's internal security operations to Rashtriya Rifles Director-General Avtar Singh Gill was rapidly terminated for no evident reason (Frontline, September 10, 1999). With the creation of the 14 Corps to guard the stretch from Zoji La to the Siachen Glacier, Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal took renewed charge of anti-terrorist operations in September; the 15 Corps had earlier said it no longer wished to be engaged in the operations.

THE Farooq Abdullah Government has for its part ensured chaos in the State Police. Inspector-General of Police P.S. Gill, among the architects of the successful Special Operations Group (SOG) was moved out last month. Senior National Conference politicians had engineered Gill's removal (the Inspector-General was in charge of Kashmir in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections), claiming that the SOG's reputation for ruthlessness was giving the State Government a bad name. Gill, however, retained charge of the SOG operations. His abrupt removal has left many SOG officers convinced that the State Government wishes to have nothing to do with counter-insurgency operations.

Most disturbing of all, Abdullah seems determined to push ahead with controversial plans for autonomy to the State's regions, built around sundering it internally along communal lines. An official committee, led by academic Riyaz Punjabi, has been set up to give form to the proposals of the Regional Autonomy Committee (RAC) (Frontline, October 22, 1999). The RAC's recommendations mirrored proposals put out by several U.S-based figures, notably a think-tank called the Kashmir Studies Group, arguing for a new partition of Jammu and Kashmir along communal lines. Should the RAC proposals take effect, an escalation of communal hostilities would be almost inevitable in the State.

SO far there has been little political reaction within the State to Musharraf's rise to power. Major events in Pakistan, notably the murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the death of Zia-ul-Haq, provoked various forms of mass protest in the Kashmir Valley.

Religious leader and former All-Parties Hurriyat Conference chief Moulvi Umar Farooq restricted himself to a carefully-worded statement on the virtues of democracy, but stopped short of condemning the coup. Most ordinary people this correspondent spoke to appeared little moved by events across the LoC. "When your own house is on fire," said telephone-booth operator G.M. Butt, "you tend not to worry about what is happening next door."

That sentiment could, however, change in the not-too-distant future. For one, the arrest of the entire APHC leadership bar Moulvi Farooq has ensured that there is no focal points for anti -India protests.

Farooq Abdullah, in a tactically brilliant but perhaps strategically flawed move, had allowed the APHC to campaign vigorously for an election boycott. Low voter turnouts in urban areas aided a National Conference victory in the elections. With the objective secured, the APHC leaders were dispatched en masse to prisons outside the State, on charges of aiding terrorism. Their release from jail in the not-too-distant future, however, seems probable, and the real political fallout of Musharraf assuming power could then begin to become evident.

Major P. Purushottom, who was killed in the terrorist attack on the Defence Ministry's public relations office in Srinagar.-

As the winter snows blanket the high mountains and forests in November, violence will, as in past years, decline in its scale and dispersion. That, however, is no reason for complacency. Musharraf's need for domestic legitimacy and his right-wing ideological beliefs are certain to propel a renewed offensive in Jammu and Kashmir. The political objectives he sought to secure by occupying the Kargil heights this summer remain, and could form the centre-piece of a fresh campaign next summer. Despite the improved state of counter-terrorist operations since August, large concentrations of terrorists, armed with heavier weapons than at any point in the past, remain on their mountain perches overlooking the State.

Next summer, India's military victory in Kargil could well face many questions. Sadly, with the State's security apparatus in disarray and with a Union Government with more pressing matters on its mind, few are paying attention either to the lessons of Kargil, or the possibilities that lie ahead.

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