Why Jammu's Rajouri and Poonch have become terror hotbeds

Topography and cultural similarities with locals aid foreign militants

PTI04_25_2023_000089A On the hunt: A search operation in Bhata Dhurian in Poonch. It is believed that militants have hideouts in the area | PTI

After the abrogation of Article 370, security forces and agencies like the National Investigation Agency and the State Investigation Agency probed scores of Kashmiris for alleged links with separatists and militants. Many were booked under the Public Safety Act, which entails a jail term of six months to two years, without bail, and the more stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In many cases, the properties of those arrested were attached. The Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation have also acted against many for militancy-related crimes.

Since the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, more US-made weapons have reached foreign militants in Kashmir.

Such measures dealt a blow to the separatist movement and adversely affected the recruitment of militants. According to Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dilbag Singh, militant recruitment has reduced to two digits―a record low. Moreover, militants have been restricted to targeting low-level police officers, minority community members and migrant workers. However, across the Pir Panjal mountain range that separates Kashmir from Jammu division’s Rajouri and Poonch districts, outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Ghaznavi Force and People’s Anti-Fascist Front have stepped up their activities.

In the last three years, Rajouri and Poonch have witnessed a surge in infiltration by militants and weapons drops by drones, including improvised explosive devices and sticky bombs from Pakistan. The weapons were used to carry out strikes in Rajouri, Poonch and Jammu, and target security forces and political leaders.

On April 20, five soldiers of the Rashtriya Rifles, the Army’s counterinsurgency wing, were killed by militants at Bhata Dhurian in Poonch. The soldiers were travelling in a truck carrying fruits and other items for an iftar gathering at Sangiote that evening. As per locals, invitations had been sent to several people in the village for the 7pm event, and the Rashtriya Rifles unit was making the arrangements. The attack took place at around 3pm. Two or three foreign militants sprayed the truck with bullets and lobbed grenades, giving no time for the soldiers to retaliate. On learning of the attack, Army personnel as well as locals rushed to the spot. They found the charred bodies of five soldiers, and a sixth in critical condition. A fire had gutted the truck, and damaged fruits and edibles were scattered nearby.

The Udhampur-based Northern Command said that the “unidentified terrorists” took advantage of heavy rain and low visibility in the area. “The vehicle caught fire due to the likely use of grenades by the terrorists,” it stated. The martyrs were identified as Havaldar Mandeep Singh, Lance Naik Kulwant Singh, Sepoy Harkrishan Singh and Sepoy Sewak Singh from Punjab, and Lance Naik Debashish Baswal from Odisha. The Army, police and paramilitary forces, backed by intelligence agencies, have launched a massive hunt for the militants. Sources said that the attack was being treated as a major strike and assets ranging from sniffer dogs to drones had been deployed for the hunt. The NIA and the National Security Guard conducted forensic analysis at the site.

The Northern Command tweeted the visit of its general officer commanding-in-chief, Lieutenant General Upendra Dwivedi, to the Command Hospital in Udhampur and his interaction with the survivor. The tweet said that the lieutenant general had reassured the survivor that necessary action was underway.

India Kashmir Arming Civilians Solitary sentry: Usha Raina, a resident of Rajouri, stands guard atop her house. Militants have targeted civilians in the region | AP

Preliminary investigations revealed that steel-core bullets were used in the attack. The Army has not commented on reports that the militants decamped with weapons of the deceased soldiers. It is also believed a sniper was involved in the attack. So far, the police have detained 11 people, including two couples suspected of having helped the ultras.

Investigations are on to determine whether the steel-core bullets were of Chinese or American origin. Steel-core bullets, which have armour-piercing capability, and US-made weapons have been recovered from militants in Kashmir earlier; the first time was during an attack on a Central Reserve Police Force camp on December 31, 2017. But, the US’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan seems to have made things worse. Since the withdrawal, more such weapons, including M4 carbines, M249 light machine guns, FN 509 tactical pistols and M1911 pistols, have reached foreign militants in Kashmir.

Last year, Major General Ajay Chandpuria, general officer commanding, 19 Infantry Division, based in Baramulla, north Kashmir, had highlighted the dangers of US-made weapons reaching militants in Kashmir. “Weapons/devices recovered from terrorists killed at the LoC were not commonly seen [variants],” he said. “These were [left behind] in Afghanistan by US troops. Our analysis: not only terrorists, weapons can also come to Kashmir.” To provide protection against steel-core bullets, the Army has ordered Level 4 body armour, which is the highest rating of personal armour available.

Challenges in Rajouri and Poonch

The militants are able to operate unscathed in Rajouri and Poonch because of the topography―ravines, dense forests and mountains. The mountain passes offer relatively easy ingress. Rajouri and Poonch districts, located to the northwest of Jammu, share over 200km of the LoC with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The elevations range from 2,500 feet to 15,000 feet. The western boundaries are hilly, with dense forests and elevation varies from 4,000 feet to 12,000 feet. The prominent passes in the Pir Panjal range include Haji Pir, Pir Panjal Pass and Banihal. These passes are inaccessible during the winter, but provide convenient access to the valley from PoK during the summer.

Moreover, ethnic and religious similarities with the locals, especially the Muslims, allow foreign militants to operate without raising suspicion. This is in stark contrast with Kashmir, where foreign militants encounter a language barrier as locals mostly speak Kashmiri. Residents of the valley do not share cultural or ethnic identity with residents of PoK. But, in Rajouri and Poonch, militants do not face such handicaps. Poonch is 90 per cent Muslim and Rajouri is 60 per cent Muslim and the community in the region comprises Rajputs, Gujjars, Bakerwals and Kashmiris. They have ethnic, linguistic and cultural similarities with the residents of PoK. Their food habits and clothing styles, too, match.

However, the Muslim population in Rajouri and Poonch is not hostile to security forces, as evidenced by the 1965 war when Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar to capture the Kashmir valley and Muslim-majority areas in Jammu. The operation that involved large-scale infiltration into targeted areas failed after nomads informed the police about the presence of infiltrators at Uri in Baramulla and Mendher in Poonch. The Army mobilised quickly to neutralise the threat. It also captured the strategic Haji Pir that links Poonch with Uri. Pakistan’s possession of the pass was restored under the Tashkent Agreement.

The Centre is now considering tunnelling through the Pir Panjal region to connect Poonch with Uri. The ministry of road transport and highways has initiated the process of preparing a detailed project report for a 5.5km tunnel and has invited proposals from technical consultants with expertise in similar hill road projects.

It is believed that militants have created hideouts in the dense forest and caves in Bhata Dhurian to escape the security dragnet. Before the recent attack, there was an attack last October in the same area in which nine soldiers were killed. Security forces had responded with an operation that lasted several weeks, but without much success.

The militants have also targeted civilians in the Pir Panjal region. Seven civilians, including two children, were killed by two militants at Upper Dhangri in Rajouri on January 1. The incident prompted the Union home ministry to deploy 18 Central Armed Force Personnel companies to strengthen security in minority areas in Rajouri. Top security officials are tight-lipped about the ongoing operation and investigation. However, a senior security officer said there will be a response to the killing of five soldiers.