Two masked soldiers stand guard on gun-mounted Tatra trucks stationed at the intersection of a dirt road and a highway, not far from the spot where militants ambushed an Army truck on April 20 in Jammu and Kashmir’s border district of Poonch. According to reports, the first attack on the truck was made with Chinese armour-piercing 7.62 mm steel core bullets when the truck slowed down to take a sharp turn near Bhata Durian village. The militants then blasted it with a sticky bomb and shot a video, before decamping with the weapons of the five slain Rashtriya Rifles personnel, who were part of the counterterrorist operations in the area.
Bhata Durian is tucked away in a protected area of forested hills and ridges stretching across the tri-border zone between Surankote and Mendhar tehsil in Poonch and Thanamandi in adjoining Rajouri district. After 15 years of peace, in less than two years, the area has seen some of the deadliest terror attacks, killing 33 people, including 23 Army men.
On May 5, five elite para commandos of the Army’s Special Forces were killed, and a Major injured in the Kesari Hills of Thanamandi. The area, of late a popular trekking destination, is where the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal communities settle down in summer. The People’s Anti-Fascist-Front (PAFF), a front for the banned Jaish-e-Mohammed, claimed responsibility for the attacks at Bhata Durian and Thanamandi.
The authorities recently banned the PAFF Telegram channel, which was used to circulate propaganda material. “You will have to shift resources back from Ladakh to the Poonch-Rajouri sector,” read one of the messages on Telegram, in an apparent reference to India’s face-off with China in the context of the Galwan incident in Ladakh. “And then after some time our friends will make you shift back your resources to Ladakh. Your two-front theory is now a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Significantly, former Army Chief General Bipin Rawat had said in 2017 that India was prepared for a “two-and-a-half front war” with reference to Pakistan, China, and the country’s internal conflicts.
First wave of militancy
In Bhata Durian, a dirt track zigzags off the highway for about a kilometre before leading to the double-storeyed, tin-roofed house that belongs to Fazal Hussain Shah, 75, a religious scholar and faith healer. Famous as “Pir Sahab” in these parts, Fazal Hussain is a shattered man. His son, Mukhtar Hussain Shah, 45, allegedly died by suicide on April 26 after the local police summoned him for questioning following the April 20 attack. Before consuming poison, Mukhtar apparently spoke into a camera for almost 10 minutes, accusing the security forces of harassing innocent people.
Mukhtar was among those summoned to the Gursai police station for questioning on April 21 and released on April 23. He was summoned again the next morning, and left home on a motorcycle with his brother-in-law, before being picked up by the police at Jarranwali Morh 3 km away.
On April 26, a police Special Operations Group and Army officers reached Mukthar’s house at around 8 a.m. After two hours of searching, they left, and then Raftar Hussain Shah, another of Mukhtar’s brothers, received a call from Kallar Morha residents that Mukthar was lying unconscious near Nar High School, 4 km from the police station. Raftar took him to the Sub District Hospital in Mendhar. An Army man in civil dress accompanied him to the hospital and later to the Government Medical College and Hospital in Rajouri, where Mukhtar was pronounced dead.
During the search operation, the family claims, the security personnel thrashed them and broke open wardrobes and lockers. “They were misled by a local man. When they didn’t find anything, the informer was also beaten up in my house,” said Fazal Hussain, who wants a probe into his son’s death.
Years ago, in the first wave of militancy in the 1990s, militants killed Fazal Hussain’s brother’s entire family. “Those who supported militants in the 1990s are now working as informers with the Army,” Hussain said, recalling how police and Army personnel would stay at his home like welcome guests during the month-long operation to flush out militants in October 2021 following the death of nine soldiers in an attack.
At the time, Army Chief General M.M. Naravane had visited the area for a review. Though some arms and ammunition were recovered, the militants disappeared into the forests and caves in the surrounding ridges.
Over the next 15 years, peace slowly returned to the Jammu region and troops were withdrawn in a phased manner. But now, militancy has returned, especially in the hilly districts of Rajouri and Poonch along the 225 km Line of Control (LoC) in the Pir Panjal region. “This appears to be with an eye to coordinate it with potential Khalistani activities in North Punjab and spread into the Kathua-Samba-Akhnoor-Udhampurarea where the security dragnet is weaker,” said Lt. General (retd.) Syed Ata Hasnain.
Read the full interview: ‘Deployment of Rashtriya Rifles must not be disturbed’
According to observers, the militants are tech-savvy now, better trained and equipped, and their handlers in PoK make sure they do not come in direct contact with local sympathisers. They seek local support only when forced to do so, Jammu and Kashmir police chief Dilbag Singh told reporters. “Drones from across the LoC are used to supply arms, ammunition, cash, and even food,” he said.
The Army has shot down drones carrying magnetic IEDs and drugs on many recent occasions. Last July, it held training sessions with Village Defence Committee members in Rajouri and Poonch to help them spot drones and handle sophisticated weaponry.
Confirming the arrest of six people, Dilbag Singh claimed to have uncovered the terror plot behind the April 20 attack. The arrested included three Over Ground Workers (OGWs), he said. “The militants must have been aware of the movement of the vehicle owing to a local network [of informers].”
“Drones from across the LoC supply arms, ammunition, cash, and food.”Dilbag SinghDGP, J&K
Former RAW chief A.S. Dulat told Frontline,“The Pir Panjal region of Rajouri-Poonch has been home to a transient population of militants who sneak into these areas from across the LoC. After a strategic timeout, they cross over to the Kashmir Valley. In this region, residents in many cases work as informers for agencies on both sides.”
The suspension of the cross-LoC bus service in 2019 amid incidents of shelling and firing has affected many people with family on both sides of the border. In addition, security forces have been randomly confiscating all phones that have received calls from Pakistani mobile numbers and detaining the users for questioning. In some cases, residents have been thrashed for interacting with family or friends across the border.
- The Poonch-Rajouri region in Jammu and Kashmir, which had experienced 15 years of peace, saw deadly terror attacks in less than two years, including the ambush of an Army truck and the killing of elite para commandos.
- The militants operating in the region are believed to be well-trained, equipped, and receiving support from handlers across the Line of Control (LoC). They use drones to supply weapons and communicate. Security observers believe they take the help of local informers.
- The government’s response includes measures such as revoking restrictions on individual arms licences, upgrading Village Defence Committees, and distributing weapons among civilians. However, there are concerns about the effectiveness and implementation of these measures.
According to Dulat, such harsh measures could prove counterproductive. “J&K has not had a popular government for over five years and the revocation of its special status and implementation of new laws relating to land and jobs have created resentment among a section of the people,” he said. Dulat also believes “the Central government’s decision to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Pahari community has created resentment among the Gujjar and Bakarwal, who have traditionally been pro-India”.
The actions of the security forces have alienated many people. On December 16 last, residents threw stones at an Army camp on the Jammu-Poonch highway after two men, Kamal Kumar and Surindar Kumar, both in their late 30s, were shot dead, and Anil Kumar,a labourer from Uttarakhand, was injured. While the Army attributed the killings to terrorists, residents suspect they were shot by the sentry at the camp’s Alpha gate that is used only for Army convoys. Sources in the police department told Frontline that the Army refused to share CCTV footage of the gate. Protesters removed the bodies from the highway only after the administration and the Army agreed to a charter of demands.
In another instance, on the morning of May 9, Anil Kumar, a resident of Charyala village in Nowshera, Rajouri, was shot at by Army men in a case of mistaken identity. Kumar, reportedly mentally unstable, was returning from his farm near the LoC when he was shot in the abdomen and leg. He is undergoing treatment in an Army hospital.
“The Pir Panjal region of Rajouri-Poonch has been home to a transient population of militants who sneak into these areas from across the LoC.”A.S. DulatFormer RAW chief
The return of militancy to Jammu has further restricted civilian movement in the area. During Home Minister Amit Shah’s rally in Rajouri last October, the Army closed the fence gates at the LoC in both districts, leaving a sizable section of the population stranded for at least three days.
Travellers who cross provinces have to clear digital face recognition machines at the Poshana check post on Mughal Road that connects Poonch to the Kashmir Valley.
On January 1, the Hindu majority village of Dhangri in Rajouri, which had remained unscathed during the first wave of militancy in the late 1990s, saw its first terrorist attack. Seven people were killed when militants attacked Saroj Bala’s home and two other residences belonging to her extended family. In 1947, her ancestors, fleeing PoK when the wave of tribesmen swept into the valley, had settled in this village.
Saroj, 48, the lone survivor of the attack, sits on a plastic chair in the courtyard of her home. A gun-wielding CRPF stands guard all day. From behind a sandbag bunker, another soldier keeps vigil on the road meandering through the village.
Tragically, security forces failed to find the IED the militants had planted in the courtyard before escaping. The morning after the attack, when the mourners gathered, two youngsters, Samiksha and Vihan Sharma, were killed when the IED exploded. “Why didn’t the security forces sanitise the house and the surroundings?” Saroj asked.
Saroj’s younger son Prince died in the Government Medical College and Hospital in Jammu on January 8. “His life could have been saved had the administration arranged an air ambulance and shifted him for specialised treatment,” the grieving mother said.
The police detained more than 50 suspects for questioning, many of them Dhangri residents. Following the killings, the government revoked the restrictions on District Magistrates issuing individual arms licences. The Union Home Ministry also decided to upgrade the existing Village Defence Committees and approved the creation of Village Defence Groups (with guards paid Rs.4,000 a month.) For the first time, automatic weapons were distributed among civilians alongside World War-era .303 rifles.
Ironically, at the time of the attack, a few .303 rifles were lying idle in the houses of Saroj Bala and two other neighbours. “The incident has left the villagers in a state of panic and shock. The CRPF can’t be deployed in every house in the village,” said Dheeraj Sharma, the sarpanch of Dhangri. “Six months ago, the Lt Governor promised us that the moratorium on licences would be revoked,” he said.
On January 12, after the Dhangri incident, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Manoj Pande, said Pakistan had targeted the minorities to cover up its failures in the Valley. In the late 1990s, many isolated villages in Rajouri-Poonch had seen a spate of massacres, forcing members of the minority community to leave.
On January 13, Home Minister Amit Shah talked about casting a 360-degree net to wipe out militancy from the Jammu region and strengthen the security grid in three months.
But that does not seem to have allayed fears. As Sharma said, “The government should create Village Defence Groups on the ground, not just on paper. Civil Guards need to be trained how to handle weapons. In our village, 60 new weapons have been distributed. We need 250 additional guns.”
“Our family is a direct victim,” said Koushal Kumar, one of the survivors of the Dhangri attack. “But the government hasn’t provided us weapons. Automatic weapons have been handed to those who don’t have any military background. We need weapon to save ourselves. The CRPF is not going to stay in our village forever.”