The common notion that the period of cold is one of relative calm in J&K needs to be cast away.
In fact, the absence of the seat of government from Srinagar offers greater opportunity to the separatists, terrorists and their deep state supporters.
While the first phase of the local bodies’ elections may not have been a runaway success in terms of voter turnout or comprehensive political participation, at least the level of violence remained manageable. Thus it is paradoxical that two days after announcement of the results of the municipal polls, there has been a spurt of violence in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). While pre-winter is a time when violence does increase, it is the context of violence which needs a little explanation to assess its effect on a none too happy scenario in the valley. Totally seven civilians, three terrorists, three jawans and one police constable (unconfirmed) lost their lives in a single day in widely displaced incidents but each has a context which needs understanding.
In Laroo village, in the volatile Kulgam district, a routine intelligence-based response by the security forces (SF) on 20 October 2018 saw three Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists being gunned down. Subsequently, six civilians lost their lives when they rushed to the encounter site after the SF had withdrawn; casualties due to the effect of unexploded munitions at the encounter site. Mirwaiz Umar Farook, while condemning the incident and blaming the Indian SF, gave no contextual explanation to it. Even as a separatist leader he needs to realise that by not doing so and not cautioning the people he is actually criminally giving effect to more such casualties in the future.
What needs to be understood is that a copy book counter terror (CT) operation involves the point cordon of a group of suspected houses and subsequent drawing of fire of terrorists to pinpoint locations. Surgical neutralisation is then possible without an entry but after getting the local innocent inmates evacuated. Invariably, a chance is given to the terrorists to surrender but usually this option is not taken by them. The terrorists are then neutralised even as they attempt to impose casualties on the SF.
The house in which the terrorists have taken refuge may catch fire due to the nature of such buildings; fire brigade personnel do many times participate at some risk to prevent collateral damage. The search for mortal remains and unexploded munitions begins once the embers have cooled; for that duration the area is kept cordoned off by the SF. The search is risky because terrorists invariably have a large quantity of grenades and other explosives with them which remain unexploded but get activated due to intense heat if the house catches fire.
The above, as stated, is an explanation of a copy book operation. Now consider what the situation has been since 2015 due to the volatility of the environment. The separatists have instigated local people to rush to the site of the encounter and engage the SF with stone throwing and agitation to prevent them from executing their task and thereby allow the terrorists to escape. It diverts attention of the SF in a situation when a momentary loss of focus can cause intense casualties among them.
The SF in extreme circumstances and sensing personal threats to safety are forced to many times fire on the mobs in self-defence to control the situation thus causing civilian casualties. When an operation is over these flash mobs attempt to get to the burnt house in order to extricate mortal remains to be used for ceremonial funerals to instigate extreme emotions and help in recruitment of more local youth. In the face of such threat the SF are many times forced to withdraw in a hurry to avoid civilian casualties instead of proceeding with the full procedure of search for mortal remains and unexploded munitions. If the flash mobs succeed in achieving this and enter the premises of the still smouldering remains of the house they place themselves at severe risk of becoming casualties due to the effect of the explosions. This is exactly how such incidents take place.
The gullible local public is never educated by the separatists to desist from interfering with such operations; it is only the local police which attempts some form of sensitisation but that is not effective. The credibility of appeals by the separatist leaders would obviously be higher but their interest lies in more casualties as it helps the cause, throws up extreme anti-national sentiments and draws more youth to the violent movement. That makes their intent even worse than sedition as public safety and lives are played with.
The second violent incident occurred in the restive Tral tehsil. It was a typical ‘jitter type’ operation to score points in the post municipal scenario. It involved ‘standoff’ firing on an SF (police) post from a safe distance. It caused the death of a policeman. While such operations take place very often in the valley, Tral seems singled out for the most activity. There are many tactical, terrain related and demographic reasons for this which is well known to experienced hands in Kashmir but somehow the focus of intent to resolve Tral has escaped us. Perhaps this needs an intensive, very innovative series of operations of the type conducted by the Rashtriya Rifles in the equally restive and violence prone areas of the Rajwar and Hafruda forests of north Kashmir.
The third incident is not listed in terms of the casualties in the earlier summary but is equally if not of more concern. This relates to an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded against an Army Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) in Pulwama. Of concern is the fact that IEDs had long dried up in Kashmir. There were sporadic but unprofessional attempts in the interim since 2008. However, an IED attempt against an MPV spells the return of some IED specialists in the terrorist ranks and is not something which augurs well for the immediate future. What Kashmir still must be thankful for is the absence of suicide bombing. Such bombing can be without remorse about the nature of targets. It’s the public which must ensure prevention of this and from being gullibly taken for a ride in the passion of radical faith. Equally, it’s the responsibility of the SF to ensure the sensitisation of the public, which will be affected far more than the SF itself.
The last incident is of equally grave importance and relates to an area away from the valley; across the Pir Panjal in the Sundarbani area of Akhnoor sector. While details are as yet unavailable conjecture has it that three Indian Army soldiers of the JAK Light Infantry on patrol at the Line of Control (LoC) have been killed in another apparent action by a Pakistani Border Action Team (BAT). Two members of the BAT have also reportedly been killed. There are conflicting reports that it was a counter infiltration operation which somehow went awry resulting in such casualties to own troops. Either way the LoC appears to be back in the news and for the wrong reasons. Pakistan is obviously not convinced that there was sufficient turbulence in the hinterland of the valley during the recent municipal elections to send home signals of restiveness (despite the low turnout). It therefore chose to carry out an operation to project its continued interest in Kashmir in the absence of any major turbulence in the valley.
Offensive operations by the SF which result in terrorist neutralisation are not considered as incidents of terrorist initiation. An attempt to keep the pressure in the build up to the panchayat polls appears to be the intent. What is clear from this is that the effect of the financial crisis in Pakistan and the coming of the Imran Khan government have made no difference to the approach of Pakistan’s deep state. India needs to ensure the identification of the bodies of the killed Pakistanis to definitively ascertain the nature of the event at the LoC. The winter is likely to see an increase in LoC activity and the army’s trans LoC capability may have to be put to test once again if the circumstances demand it; this should be devoid of any political colour.
As the winter approaches the common notion that the period of cold is one of relative calm in J&K needs to be cast away from the minds. My experience has always been that the absence of the durbar from Srinagar offers greater opportunity to the separatists, terrorists and their deep state supporters from across the LoC/border. It needs a quiver full of arrows to counter this.
However, while the SF must remain tuned to the feasibility of increased violence this also offers splendid opportunity to the Governor’s administration to demonstrate its capability of organisation and provision of a high comfort winter to J&K. While communication arteries are down, there is yet scope for conduct of a few physical ‘meeting of minds’ events between people of the three sub regions. To supplement that technology must be exploited to conduct frequent video conferencing meetings to initiate the dilution of mutual fears of each other. It is also the time to ensure that while families reside at home in longer hours of darkness there is sufficient information on the visual media, which will help explain just how Kashmiris have everything to gain from being Indian.
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