On 22 November 2023, a gun fight ensued between the Jihadi terrorists and the Indian Army in the Bajimaal-Kalakote area of Rajouri district of JKUT. By the time the encounter ended two days later, on 24 November, we had lost five soldiers including two officers, i.e., Capt M V Pranjal and CaptShubam Gupta. Two Jihadis including a LeT commander Qari were also killed in this encounter.
Earlier, on April 23, 2023, five Rashtriya Rifles Jawans were martyred when the lone vehicle in which they were carrying gift in the form of food snd sweetsfor Iftar to a village, was blown up near Bhatta Durian on the Rajouri-Poonch road. The ambush had been laid after detailed reconnaissance near a sharp bend in the road covered on both sides by a thickly-wooded area. The ambush proved very effective, giving little chance to those in the vehicle to retaliate or escape the consequences.
Later, on 5 May 2023, another five soldiers of the Special Forces were martyred while they were involved in flushing out the terrorists in the adjacent Kesari Hill forests. Along with these five soldiers a terrorist too was killed. We might recall that early this year a group of terrorists carrying automatic rifles barged into at least three houses in Hindu-inhabited village Dangri in Rajouri district and killed seven civilians.
The People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), a proxy for Lashkar- e-Tayeba (LeT), later claimed responsibility for the April 23 attack and the latter killings. Kandi Forests, where these attacks and subsequent army operations to flush out the terrorists took place, have remained a source of trouble for the security forces for various reasons.
Official figures suggest that 37 persons, including 35 security personnel, were killed in terrorist attacks across Jammu since August 5, 2019. This included around a dozen jawans who died in multiple attacks launched in the forest areas of the Poonch-Rajouri sector last year.
While the number ofincidents involving the violent terrorist actions have steadily come down in JKUT (earlier J&K State) during the last few years, Rajouri has somehow continued to remain a hot spot for the security forces fighting the Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. In the ebb and flow of insurgency, now in its 34th year, Rajouri has rarely witnessed peace even when the other hot spot, South Kashmir, has quietened down considerably.
It is pertinent to mention that Poonch / Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir has been a frequently targeted ground of Jihadi terrorists sent by Pakistan from across the Line of Control for many years. In fact, in the whole Jammu region, Poonch-Rajouri have witnessed the larger number of Pak-sponsored terrorist activity.
The reasons for this are not far to seek. In both these districts the main line of communication for troop and civilian movement literally hugs the Line of Control, which is characterized by high and low mountain passes, fast flowing streams, thickly forested areas, isolated and uninhabited large stretches, and undulating ground having many caves, etc., which serve as ideal terrain for the terrorists to operate from. Not involving themselves in pitched battles with the security forces, such terrain provides perfectenvironment for hit and run tactics employed by the terrorists. This type of terrain, literally hugging the Line of Control in Rajouri-Poonch districts provides adequate cover to the terrorists to sneak in, particularly during night and bad weather. Once across the LoC and breaching the Anti-Infiltration Obstacle Systems (Fence), these Jihadis have many options of moving into the hinterland to attack lucrative targets or merge with the local population to bide their time, till ordered to activate themselves.
After crossing the LoC and breaching the Fence, they can head east towards Bhudal, Darhal and then move towards the PirPanjajal range through Mughal Road and cross over to Shopian in the Valley. They also have the option to go to Jammu, Nagrota, Udhampr, Reasi, Doda, Kishtwar, etc., through routes which pass through rough forested trails providing adequate cover from various surveillance means of the security forces. Rajouri is, therefore, at the heart of Pakistan’s planning and execution of its nefarious designs to bleed India through thousand cuts and keep the pot boiling in JKUT.
It must be remembered that over the last decade the Jihadi infiltrators are finding ingress across the LoC/Fence rather difficult due to heavy deployment of security forces equipped with modern means of all-weather surveillance equipment, better intelligence and more efficient coordination among the myriad security agencies operating in the area to maintain peace. Under the circumstances, those of the infiltrators who manage to sneak through the LoC/Fence, lie low and stay inactive for long periods rather than take the risk of confronting security forces and getting killed in the bargain without achieving their objectives. Known as ‘sleeper cells,’ these terrorists cultivate local sources and lie low till ordered by their masters from across to carry out strikes at the most appropriate time to derive maximum political/military advantage. As we have noticed, the spurt in the activity of these sleeper cells came weeks ahead of the foreign delegates Working Group meeting on tourism in Srinagar on May 22, as part of the run up to the G 20 Summit and has continued since then in fits and starts.
Indian security agencies, including the IB, Military Intelligence, local police forces, troops deployed on ground, etc., have acquitted themselves with great merit and have not allowed the Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorists to gain upper hand during the last 34 years of ongoing insurgency. However, there have been occasions when the terrorists have succeeded in achieving complete surprise resulting in casualties among our security forces. It must be noted thatover the last over three decades of the ongoing insurgency in the State, the terrorist organisations have built up a network of their sources by infusing fear or by earning their loyalty in the name of religion or through inducements.These cultivated people, also known as their over-ground-workers (OGWs), provide the terrorists with logistic support, information on the deployment and movement of troops, as also shelter. It will be no surprise if we find some of these sources having been cultivated by the terrorists even among the local police cadres. Without questioning the loyalty of the state police forces, let us not forget that at the start of the insurgency in the state in 1989-90, Pakistan and its proxies in the state, particularly in the Valley, had, in some instances, succeeded in subverting the loyalty of a few police personnel.
The State Police, of late, have carried out bold and successful operations against the terrorists, gaining an upper hand over them. They are today in the forefront of India’s war against terror in JKUT. However, the existence of a few black sheep within the force cannot be ruled out.
As far as the intelligence agencies at state/local level are concerned, they need to put the different pieces of information, obtained through various sources, in the proper order to complete the jigsaw puzzle. The most complicated task that intelligence agencies face is to piece together random information for it to become credible intelligence. Its further refinement, as also regular updating through human intelligence (Humint), makes it actionable, as also real-time. There is also a tendency among intelligence agencies to indulge in one upmanship which leads to disastrous consequences.
At the security forces level, where troops deployed in the area are the ones to pay the heaviest price, it is difficult to always maintain the highest level of alertness, 24x7x365. In the Bhatta Durian incident, it appears that a tactically important area was perhaps combed by the Road Opening Parties (ROP) but was not kept under surveillance till the targeted vehicle had passed the area safely. Also, I am not sure if it was wise to let a single vehicle move on a road that falls in a very sensitive area. There is also a tendency on the part of troops to become complacent when doing the same thing repeatedly without witnessing any untoward happening. The routine nature of ROP becomes monotonous over a period of time, leads to slackening of the guard. This is the opportune moment for the sleeper cells to strike. Frequent change of troops in such monotonous duties, coupled with supervision at every level, is a key to preventing recurrence of such incidents.
Loss of five Special Forces’ personnel after the Bhatta Durian incident and now in the latest incident, is even more alarming. Personally, I do not understand the logic of committing such Special Forces personnel to counter what must remain the basic responsibility of the troops deployed around the incident site. Special Forces are a strategic asset meant to be used for achieving strategic results of national importance. It may be better to let the troops deployed in the area carry out the task of eliminating the jihadi terrorists in their own area of operational responsibility as they are better placed to carry out such operations. Besides, the level of training and motivation of all troops deployed in the insurgency grid, including the Rashtriya Rifles, is such that they can counter all types of threats posed by the Jihadi terrorists. As a matter of fact, a unit that has lost its men in a terrorist activity are best placed to avenge the killings. This will not only help rebuild their morale, it will also obviate the necessity of bringing in Special Forces’ personnel to do someone else’s job.
The security forces’ commanders on ground need tore-emphasize the need for carrying out proactive operations on ground rather than be reactive and wait for the terrorists to hit first. For this,it is also necessary to build a robust intelligence network in their own areas to remain two steps ahead of the terrorists.
Having been involved in fighting this proxy war for the last over three decades, Indian security forces are capable of successfully meeting any challenge posed by the terrorists. Incidents referred to above are occasional and exceptions.