Why the Jammu terror strikes call for a new resolve - Hindustan Times
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Why the Jammu terror strikes call for a new resolve

Jun 16, 2024 12:06 PM IST

The latest attacks are dark spots in an otherwise encouraging trend in the fight against terror in J&K. It is important that a swift response is mounted to maintain public confidence

On June 9, a 53-seater bus carrying pilgrims from the Shiv Khori Shrine to Katra was ambushed by terrorists near Teryath village in the Reasi district of Jammu region. The driver was killed in the initial burst of fire, resulting in the bus plunging into a gorge. At least nine people, including a two-year-old boy, were killed, and 33 injured in this cowardly attack. Survivors recounted the terrifying ordeal, describing how the terrorists relentlessly fired at the mangled bus while the victims, in a desperate bid to survive, pretended to play dead.

Reasi: The damaged inside of the bus carrying pilgrims that was ambushed by terrorists, in Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir, on June 10, 2024. (PTI)
Reasi: The damaged inside of the bus carrying pilgrims that was ambushed by terrorists, in Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir, on June 10, 2024. (PTI)

The Resistance Front (TRF), an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, initially claimed responsibility for the attack but subsequently retracted its statement after a flood of outrage on social media. While there was universal condemnation of the terrorist attack, the statements from both the government and the Opposition highlighted a now familiar pattern. The government vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice and said this was a desperate act by terrorists under pressure. The Opposition stated that claims that the situation in Jammu & Kashmir had been brought to a state of normalcy rang hollow.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. In the Union Territory (UT), there has been a sharp decline in violence and terrorist activities since 2023. Tourist arrivals have doubled since 2021, with 21.1 million visitors in 2023, of which 10 million were pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Katra. The UT also recorded the highest voter turnout in the last 35 years in the recent Lok Sabha polls, with the Kashmir Valley witnessing a 30-point jump in poll participation compared to 2019. The Chief Election Commissioner has announced that the process for holding assembly elections in the UT will start “very soon”.

Among these positive indicators, increasing terrorist activity in the Jammu region stands out as a dark spot. After many years of calm, the Jammu region has seen a surge in violence in the last two years. Of the 30 Indian Army soldiers killed in counterterrorist operations in Jammu & Kashmir in 2023, 21 deaths occurred in the Jammu region. Last month, terrorists ambushed an Indian Air Force convoy, killing one soldier and injuring four. The mixed Hindu-Muslim demographic composition of the Jammu region presents a delicate balance that could potentially be targeted by terrorists seeking to disrupt communal harmony. In January 2023, terrorists selectively targeted members of one community in the Dangri village of Rajouri district. The killing of pilgrims has led to widespread protests and shutdowns across the Jammu region.

With the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi beginning a new term in office, there is a need to take a hard look at the steps required to control terrorist activity in the Jammu region. I say hard look because the task will not be simple. Security forces operating in this area face some daunting challenges.

The terrain in the Poonch, Rajouri, and Reasi districts, where the terrorists have been active, is sparsely populated and characterised by rugged mountains, dense forests, numerous rivers and streams, and limited roads. The population density in Reasi district is 184 inhabitants per square kilometre compared to an average of about 750 inhabitants in the Kashmir Valley districts. Troops find it difficult to react speedily, and human intelligence is limited and slow to flow in. In these circumstances, we need to optimise the use of uniformed forces deployed in the area. In the last two years, both the Indian Army and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have sent additional troops to the area, but they operate under separate command channels. The government could consider appointing a unified commander who exercises command over all the Army and CRPF troops engaged in counterterrorism operations.

Such an arrangement would lead to efficient resource allocation, streamlined decision-making, standardised protocols, and a consistent strategy. A single commander would be accountable for all operations, making it easier to identify and address any issues or failures. There is likely to be resistance to this arrangement, but this would mainly be for turf protection rather than operational considerations.

In March 2022, the government revived the Village Defence Committees and renamed them Village Defence Guards (VDG). The training and equipping of VDGs should be given higher priority, as in far-flung remote villages, armed locals often provide the first line of defence against terrorist attacks.

The population of the Jammu region largely opposes terrorist activities, and the local communities have played a significant role in eliminating terrorism from the area. To address the emerging threats, it is crucial to enhance outreach efforts to various communities and involve them in counterterrorism initiatives. Some of our actions in the recent past have led to a sense of alienation in the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, who were strong supporters of the anti-militancy operations.

Pakistan’s involvement in fostering and sustaining terrorism is undeniable. The Indian government has adopted a firm and consistent policy to address this issue, achieving some success. However, terrorists on Indian soil will have to be neutralised here.

In 1975, security expert Bruce Jenkins astutely observed, “terrorism is theatre”. His assertion underlines that the real targets of terrorism are not just the direct victims but the wider audience who witnesses the brutality. The violence serves to intimidate, coerce, and instil fear among the public. In this ongoing war of narratives, persistent acts of terrorism could undermine the government’s assertions of normalcy in the UT. Therefore, terrorist activities in the Jammu region should be swiftly and effectively addressed to maintain public confidence and uphold the credibility and resolve of the State.

Lt General Deependra Singh Hooda retired as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command and is the co-founder of the Council for Strategic and Defence Research and a Senior Fellow at the Delhi Policy Group. The views expressed are personal

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