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Jammu & Kashmir

Why do militants in J&K only seem to target Pandits and non-locals?

Print edition : Jun 14, 2022 T+T-

Why do militants in J&K only seem to target Pandits and non-locals?

Students in Srinagar offer a silent tribute to Rajni Bala, a history teacher who was killed by militants in Kulgam, on June 9, 2022.

Students in Srinagar offer a silent tribute to Rajni Bala, a history teacher who was killed by militants in Kulgam, on June 9, 2022. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Militants target Pandits and non-locals in a bid to create chaos in Kashmir, and the security administration struggles to deal with the situation amid the changing contours of militancy.

A spate of killings rocked Kashmir in recent weeks, with terrorists waging a targeted and relentless attack on Kashmiri Pandits and some non-locals, marking a retreat to the ignominious days of 1990 when the Hindu community in the Valley fled to the safe haven of Jammu.

Since May 1, nine civilians have been killed in broad daylight, leaving a trail of grisly images and videos online that prompted shocked members of the Pandit community to demand immediate relocation to Jammu. Even as they protested on the streets, raucous and often communally provocative debates on primetime television threatened to prevent a return to peace.

The worsening situation also showcases the Central government’s failures and underscores the fact that despite its many proclamations of victory, militancy festers in the Valley.

Relentless attacks

The latest to be felled by terrorists was Dilkhush of Bihar, a brick kiln labourer in Budgam, on June 2. The same day, Vijaya Kumar, a bank manager who is a native of Rajasthan, was shot dead in Kulgam. Only two days earlier, on May 31, terrorists had sprayed bullets on Rajni Bala, a history teacher, as she was about to enter her school’s premises in Kulgam.

On May 12, gunmen killed Rahul Bhat at the tehsil office in Chadoora town, where he was employed as a clerk, sparking an explosion of rage and protests by Hindus living in Kashmir.

Members of Kashmiri Pandit United Front stage a protest over the killing of Rahul Bhat in Jammu on May 25.
Members of Kashmiri Pandit United Front stage a protest over the killing of Rahul Bhat in Jammu on May 25. | Photo Credit: PTI

Few would have imagined that more fatalities would follow in quick succession. A person hailing from Jammu was killed on May 17 in Baramulla after terrorists threw a grenade in a liquor shop; on May 25, Amreen Bhat, a television artist was fatally shot outside her home in Hushroo, Chadoora.

The fact that most of the deceased belonged to the nearly 6,000-strong community of Kashmiri Pandits who were given jobs in the Valley under a 2008 rehabilitation package of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought the vexed question of the return of Pandits to their homeland into sharp focus.

It also put paid to the government’s claim that its iron-fisted, militaristic strategy, which lays emphasis on eliminating all violent actors from the field, was a better option to end insurgency than the policy of negotiation, engagement, confidence-building and force moderation nurtured by earlier dispensations.

Nityanand Rai, Union Minister of State for Home, said that terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir had steadily declined in the past few years—from 417 in 2018 to 255 in 2019, 244 in 2020, and 229 in 2021. However, these numbers must be seen in the context of the pandemic that scuppered terrorists’ capacity to wage war.

Threat to Muslim demographic

As violence resurfaces, there are querulous reminders from across the political spectrum that the BJP’s “incursions” in the Valley are responsible for the perception of a threat to Kashmir’s Muslim majority demographic. The overwhelming sentiment in Srinagar’s political corridors is that the “current backlash” is a consequence of that perception.

Following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government relaxed the norms for procuring a domicile certificate necessary for people from other States and Union Territories to settle in Jammu and Kashmir.

People in the Hindi heartland are favourably disposed to the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Kashmir.
People in the Hindi heartland are favourably disposed to the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Kashmir. | Photo Credit: PTI

People in the Hindi heartland are favourably disposed to the actions of Prime Minister Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Kashmir, but former Chief Ministr Farooq Abdullah has warned that “this ostrich-like approach will push the situation to a point of no return”.

Speaking to Frontline, Ashwini Handa, a Congress leader based in Jammu, challenged the legitimacy of the Modi-Doval doctrine. He said: “Pandits returning to the Valley were not targeted in the past 12 or 14 years; why is there a backlash now?”

He described the killings as a fallout of the government’s decision to encroach on the Muslim identity, manifest in a name-changing spree of public institutions and roads, and inundating the Jamnmu and Kashmir administration with non-locals. Handa asked: “Where are the Hindutva foot soldiers as Hindu brethren fall to bullets in Kashmir?”

The government reacted to the relentless attacks by deciding to transfer Kashmiri Pandit and non-local officials to eight safe zones spread across Kashmir’s eight districts. So far only 177 teachers from the Pandit community have been formally intimated of their relocation.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah. | Photo Credit: PTI

In a meeting chaired by Home Minister Amit Shah on June 3, senior officials in the security apparatus converged on the need to tighten security and patrolling in the routes taken by Pandits and non-local officials to commute to their offices.

Top-level security officers in Srinagar admitted off the record that they did not expect the violence to abate. A senior member of Srinagar’s district administration, who did not want to be named, said: “They [Pandits and non-locals] are easy prey with the potential to create a frenzy.”

Changing tactics

The thinking within the security apparatus is that militancy sustains itself on the hysteria it creates, besides the flow of money. Senior security officials told Frontline that in post-August 2019 Kashmir, with A-list militant commanders eliminated and the rank and file of the separatist camp either languishing in jail or at large, militancy in Kashmir has been changing its contours and tactics. A key change, they said, was that most of the “funding is now courtesy narco-smuggling from Pakistan to the Kashmir Valley and then to Punjab”.

NSA Ajit Doval after a meeting to take stock of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, in New Delhi on June 3, 2022.
NSA Ajit Doval after a meeting to take stock of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, in New Delhi on June 3, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Srinagar’s top security officials told Frontline that militants were avoiding head-on collision at security installations as that was fraught with high risk and required procurement, hoarding, and transport of sophisticated firearms, besides active coordination and planning among terror modules and their handlers, all of which run the risk of getting detected by the State’s well-entrenched tiers of surveillance.

Notably, they said, Pakistan was now increasingly using drones to smuggle smaller arms such as pistols to insurgents instead of pushing massive amounts of ammunition into the Valley along the Line of Control. Incidentally, in all the civilian killings so far, pistols were used.

A security officer who had earlier headed an important department in the intelligence wing of Jammu and Kashmir, said that the security grid was finding it difficult to prevent small arms from reaching terrorists.

“A fortnight or so ago, we caught an overground worker with 34 pistols, but it was too late in the day. The worker had delivered a consignment of 25 pistols to a terrorist module,” the officer said, underlining the possibility of hundreds of pistols being smuggled into Kashmir every month.

Also, militant recruitment has not dwindled. A Srinagar district administration officer said that substantive recruitment was going on in South Kashmir. “Up to 10 locals joined the militant ranks last month,” he told Frontline. Significantly, 89 militants have been killed since January 2022 (until May 29). The corresponding figure for the last year is just 51, an indicator that militancy is not subsiding.

“Faceless militancy”

According to the officer, there is a perceptible shift in terrorist profile. He said: “The line between terrorists, who were invariably locals who would disappear and then announce on social media that they had taken up arms, and overground workers who facilitated the movement of terrorists and supplied logistics to them, has blurred. Today we have ‘hybrid terrorists’.”

He described them as “normal people reporting to work and having families, who kill and mingle with the crowd”. It is next to impossible to gauge their numbers or profile them, and that reflects the magnitude of the challenge the security grid faces in Kashmir.

The “faceless militancy”, in the absence of a salient commander, is being run by individual modules, which in turn are run by a handler, according to security officials. Apparently, there is little coordination between them. This begs the vital questions: What is Pakistan’s role in abetting militancy in Kashmir? Which of these modules pose a bigger threat to the security situation in Kashmir?

There is widespread agreement among experts that Pakistan is under increasing pressure from the Financial Action Task Force to contain terrorist modules operating from inside its territory. Over the past three years, Pakistan has consistently attempted to frame the Kashmiri resistance as entirely an indigenous one. This is essentially triggered by Pakistan’s realisation that global perception management vis-a-vis its role in Kashmir is a critical component of its warfare against India. It is a no coincidence, officials said, that militant groups with relatively secular nomenclature such as The Resistance Front (TRF) or People’s Anti-Fascist Force have emerged of late.

Most people within Kashmir’s security apparatus are of the view that the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror organisation may have floated the TRF to project it as a home-grown outfit and tasked it with giving a Kashmiri signature to terror strikes launched from Pakistan’s soil. Basit Dar, 25, from Kulgam helms the TRF and is currently at large. He took over the TRF’s reins in November 2021 after security forces eliminated its top commander, Mehran Yasin, in a gun battle at Rambagh in Srinagar.

Nirmal Singh of the BJP, a former Deputy Chief Minister of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Nirmal Singh of the BJP, a former Deputy Chief Minister of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir.

As the ominous shadow of militancy portends tough days ahead for Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals, the BJP is determined to not relocate them to Jammu. “That would be falling into Pakistan’s trap,” said Nirmal Singh of the BJP, a former Deputy Chief Minister of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State [see interview]. He said that advances made by the Modi government in containing terrorism and ushering in a business-friendly environment in Kashmir had provoked Pakistan to target Hindus and create a fear psychosis.

Vimal Dassi, director of urology, robotics and kidney transplant at the Max group in Delhi, said that he resents the idea of visiting Kashmir with security cover. “I go there to render [health care] service, driven by an emotional bond with my homeland and the people living there. The trust must not break,” said Dassi.

When nudged for more comments, he said that he was disappointed that there was no resentment from the local population against the targeted killings. “It is the logical, saner voices from among the [Muslim] locals that can end this onslaught, nothing else can,” he added.

But Muslims in the Valley say they are pained by the constant demand to show proof of secular credentials. The term “targeted killing” [of Hindus] irks many of them. Siddiq Wahid, eminent historian and political commentator, said: “I find it a loaded, and therefore, prejudicial, phrase. The obvious question is: targeted by whom? Given the majority-minority composition of J&K, the phrase implies that it is the majority community (Kashmiri Muslims) who have to supply the answer to this question. Why?”

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