Something very serious is happening in the Poonch-Rajouri border of Jammu and Kashmir. Since October 2021, five targeted terror attacks have been executed and at least 20 soldiers killed.
The way these strikes have been carried out are totally different from the routine terror attacks taking place in Kashmir. These attacks seem to be well-planned and executed in typical guerrilla warfare style. In all these cases, none of the perpetrators has been caught.
Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 6 rushed to Jammu division’s Rajouri district to take stock of the Army’s anti-militancy operation in the Kandi Forest, where five soldiers were killed and an officer was wounded in a blast on May 5 during a combing operation.
According to the Army, the personnel who were killed in the explosion were part of a team involved in a joint operation launched to track down the militants involved in the Poonch ambush.
This is the second major terror attack on the Army in a fortnight. On April 20, five soldiers were killed when terrorists ambushed an Army truck in Tota Gali area of Bhatta Durian in Poonch district, which is adjacent to Rajouri.
Shortly after the attack, a massive operation to track down the militants was launched. However, none could be caught. And the terrorists managed to strike again on May 5.
Since October 2021, militants have killed at least 29 people, including 20 soldiers, in this area between Bhatta Durian-Chamred forests in Poonch and Pargal-Dangri in Rajouri. On August 11, 2022, five Army jawans were killed and two terrorists eliminated during an attack on an Army camp at Pargal in Darhal area of Rajouri district.
On October 16, 2021 four soldiers, including another JCO, lost their lives in a gunbattle with terrorists at Bhatta Durrian in the Mendhar tehsil of Poonch. Army searched for the terrorists in the Pir Panjal forests for about a fortnight but they could not be traced.
On October 11, 2021, five Army soldiers, including a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) were killed in an encounter with terrorists at Chamrer forests in Surankote tehsil of Poonch district.
Besides the attacks on the Army and security forces, the terrorists on January 1 this year attacked Hindus in the Dhangri village in Rajouri. Seven Hindus, including two minors, were killed in firing and the IED blast perpetrated by terrorists.
The paramilitary forces and the Army have been launching massive search operations, but they have not had much success. The failure to locate the terrorists may have emboldened them to risk more such adventures, but there are factors that make the operation tough for the forces.
The districts of Poonch and Rajouri border the Line of Control in Jammu and therefore pose a challenge to security. The area along the Line of Control is riddled with dense foliage and forest cover where the visibility is low. And, the chances of terrorists escaping without resistance after carrying out the attacks are high due to the hilly nature of the terrain.
The two districts are very sensitive areas as they share a border with the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) areas of Bhimber, Mirpur, Kotli and Rawlakote on the other side.
Hills and forests may help the terrorists escape, but the involvement of locals cannot be ruled out. After the April 21 Poonch attack, J&K DGP Dilbag Singh said such attacks cannot be carried out without local support.
The police have said that some locals do help these terrorists move from one place to another, provide them shelter, and some people also give them information about the movement of forces.
The terror attacks that have been taking place in the Rajouri-Poonch belt show its volatile nature. This also underlines the situation in Jammu division, which was largely unscathed by the kind and scale of terror violence witnessed in Kashmir over the past three decades.
Terrorists are repeatedly showing their ability to execute carefully choreographed ambushes in this region and perhaps their sponsors in Pakistan may be wanting to create a new epicentre of militancy in the UT. Having failed to set Kashmir on fire after Article 370 was abrogated by the Centre, Pakistan has been trying to create situations areas adjacent to the LoC.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is trying to revive terrorism in Poonch and Rajouri to divert attention of security forces from the Kashmir operations as in the last two to three years the latter have succeeded in breaking the backbone of militancy in Kashmir. The ISI has been dropping weapons, ammunition and IEDs using drones, and pushing in terrorists through the LoC.
The challenges for the security forces are huge, especially because the perpetrators invariably manage to vanish.
The frequency of the attacks have increased, perhaps to cloud the G20 events are scheduled to be held in Srinagar on May 22-23. Pakistan has expressed “strong indignation” after India updated its G20 calendar to include meetings in Srinagar in J&K and Leh in Ladakh.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has asserted that Pakistan has nothing to do with G20 and that they also have nothing to do even with Srinagar and Kashmir. He also added that Pakistan should talk about when they will be vacating illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoK).
The security forces, meanwhile, are making the best efforts to curb the terror threat, but Poonch-Rajouri is emerging as one of the difficult and challenging belts for them.
(Deepika Bhan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)