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EFSAS Commentary

Terror attacks in J&K propound that Pakistani military establishment seems bent on sabotaging prospects of an India–Pakistan détente


The mixed results for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the recently concluded Indian general elections served to generate some hope, no matter how slim, that the long-frozen ties between India and Pakistan may eventually see a thaw – even if any potential melt could conceivably only be slow and gradual. The exchange of salutations, congratulations, and the underlying suggestion of peace between the Pakistani political leadership and Modi after the results were declared seemed to suggest that something, however preliminary, may indeed be brewing. However, the Pakistani military establishment, which has traditionally been starkly opposed to any peace initiatives undertaken by the country’s politicians with their Indian counterparts, also seemed to have got the impression that some form of engagement was in the offing. Any political thrust towards peace with India is anathema to the military establishment, whose predominance in Pakistan has been sustained since the country’s creation on the plank of seeing and projecting India as the arch enemy. Peace with India would strip the Pakistani establishment of much of its power, which reaches as far as creating and jailing top political leaders at will, and equally importantly of its financial primacy. A life constricted to the barracks has never been to the establishment’s liking. Hence, out of the blue, there has been a surge in terrorist incidents in Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) to coincide with Modi’s swearing in for his third successive term and with the exchange of messages with his Pakistani counterparts.    

A day after Modi took oath on 9 June, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif extended a brief congratulatory message to him, but Shehbaz’s elder brother and President of Pakistan’s ruling party, Nawaz Sharif, sent a more meaningful message. Unlike other leaders, Shehbaz waited till the formal swearing-in ceremony was over to send his congratulations, nearly a week after the election results came in. He posted one line on X – “Felicitations to Narendra Modi on taking oath as the prime minister of India”. A few hours later, Modi replied, “Thank you Shehbaz Sharif for your good wishes”.

In contrast, Nawaz, a three-time former Prime Minister who is known to have a decent rapport with Modi, wrote, “My warm felicitations to Modi Ji on assuming office for the third time. Your party’s success in recent elections reflects the confidence of the people in your leadership. Let us replace hate with hope and seize the opportunity to shape the destiny of the two billion people of South Asia”. The Indian online publication The Wire described this message from Nawaz as “an explicit call for outreach between the two South Asian countries, which have had minimal official contact for several years”. Earlier, a few days before the Indian election results were announced, Nawaz had stressed that it was Pakistan, through its Kargil offensive, which had violated his 1999 peace agreement with India in the form of the Lahore Declaration.

Modi’s response was equally more elaborate. He replied, “Appreciate your message, Nawaz Sharif. The people of India have always stood for peace, security and progressive ideas. Advancing the well-being and security of our people shall always remain our priority”.

The timing of the messages added to the context. There is growing recognition in Pakistani polity and society that improved relations with India would benefit the country in many substantial ways. In line with this, calls for engagement have been made by several Pakistani leaders and luminaries ever since Modi’s government, stung by a string of damaging Pakistan-backed terrorist attacks, firmly adopted the policy that terror and talks could not continue together. It has been over six years. Nawaz’s message seeks to break the deadlock, and it speaks of hope. Modi has responded by underlining peace and security, and has spoken of the well being of the people. While Modi is unlikely to budge as long as terrorism remains a factor, it is equally true that having now established himself as a popular leader, a successful peace initiative with Pakistan would be a befitting addition to his legacy, and will actually occupy pride of place in it. In fact, Abdul Basit, a former Pakistani High Commissioner to India, believes that even “re-engagement without giving an inch on Kashmir” would be a victory for Modi. Hence, there were many on both sides of the border that were cautiously optimistic at the exchange of messages.

As a 10 June editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn advised, “If Mr Modi softens his rhetoric and extends the hand of friendship, Pakistan should respond. For starters, full diplomatic relations should be restored, and the visa process — particularly for Pakistanis wanting to visit relations in India, and vice versa — should be made less torturous. Both prime ministers could also meet at the next SCO summit. Backchannel and Track II diplomacy can be revived, even if at this juncture these are just talks about talks… But for peace to prevail in South Asia, bold steps will need to be taken, in the spirit of statesmanship”. Similarly, a 12 June editorial in Dawn said, “While we should not have high hopes of any instant warming of ties, one hopes the governments begin the process of normalisation through small steps. For example, full diplomatic ties can be restored and back-channel dialogue discreetly initiated. In a world consumed by conflict, South Asia’s two biggest powers have a chance to start afresh on the path to peace”.

The optimism, however, proved to be short-lived. The day Modi was sworn in - 9 June - a terrorist attack in Reasi district of J&K killed 10 people and injured 33. At least three terrorists fired upon a 53-seater bus ferrying pilgrims to Katra, Vaishno Devi, from Shiv Khori, another Hindu pilgrimage spot. After the driver was hit, the bus veered off the road and fell into a deep gorge. That did not deter the terrorists, who kept firing to inflict maximum damage. The Reasi attack was the first in a series of four consecutive terror attacks that have killed ten civilians and one paramilitary trooper, all within a period of 100 hours, and injured 34 civilians and six soldiers. Two terrorists were killed by security forces on the ground, but J&K continued to remain on high alert.

On the night of 11 June, terrorists targeted a joint check post of the 4 Rashtriya Rifles and the police, located on the Bhadarwah-Pathankot road. Three security personnel were injured in that incident. A village in Kathua district of J&K was also attacked in the evening of 11 June, resulting in the injury of a civilian. Two terrorists opened fire on civilians in Saida Sukhal village of Kathua after they raised an alarm. One of the two terrorists, who tried to lob a grenade at the police party, was killed in the retaliation by the forces, and the police said they were searching for the other one. The village is located near the international border, and the terrorists were suspected to have infiltrated from Pakistan.

In another escalation of violence in J&K’s Doda district, terrorists launched an attack on the Indian Army’s Temporary Operating Base (TOB) on 12 June, injuring five army soldiers and one special police officer. Also, a policeman was hurt when terrorists opened fire on a search party in a village in the Gandoh area of Doda district, news agency PTI quoted officials as saying. Security forces retaliated after hearing reports of gunfire from Bhalesa's Kota top area, they said. A fierce gunfight between the forces and the terrorists broke out. During the exchange of fire, the security forces managed to kill one terrorist.  Anand Jain, a senior police officer, blamed Pakistan for these terrorist attacks. He said, “It is our hostile neighbour which always tries to damage the peaceful environment in our country. This Hiranagar terror attack appears to be a fresh infiltration. One terrorist has been killed; the search for the other is underway”.

After these attacks PM Modi, whose government had projected that the 2019 decision to revoke Article 370 would bring an end to terrorism in J&K, chaired a review meeting to assess the situation on the ground. Modi asked officials to deploy the full strength of the counter-terrorism apparatus against the terrorists behind the recent attacks. R. R. Swain, the Director General of Police (DGP) of J&K, the senior-most police official there, said after the meeting that counter-terrorism strategies were being tweaked to beat the “unique challenge” represented by the 40-50 terrorists who had infiltrated from Pakistan and were now holed up in the mountainous terrain of Jammu — where road connectivity and communication facilities do not match those in the flat-floor Valley, making it longer for security forces to respond to information. The shift in security strategy includes returning to the force deployment pattern of the 1990s, with more personnel guarding mountain tops, resuming and intensifying counter-terror operations sector-wise, and strengthening village defense committees in Jammu by refining their training and equipping them better to respond to terror strikes.

Maintaining that the attacks in Reasi, Doda and Kathua were a recent phenomenon in that particular axis, the J&K police chief told The Times of India that “After the Valley is relatively pacified, terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have shifted attention to Jammu, activating different axes that run through Chenab, Tawi and Ujh-Ravi rivers. It is a determined effort on the part of Pakistan-based elements to ratchet up things for reasons that include boosting morale of their fighters and creating inter-communal tension in a region with mixed population (by religion)”.

What is worrying the Indian security forces is that the attacks have taken place in areas that were known to be free of terrorism. They say that the theatre of terror has shifted from the north of Pir Panjal to the south of Pir Panjal in the last two years. They have had information for some time, though, that Jammu was now high on the list of targets of terrorists. Citing the difficult topography and demography of areas within Jammu, Swain indicated that the terrorists could be trying to target civilians from a particular community with a design to spark communal unrest, thus creating a law and order challenge. He, however, clarified that the lack of separatist sentiment in Jammu, unlike how things were in Kashmir, was one less headache for security forces. Regarding Reasi, Swain said that it has 70% of contiguous mountainous terrain, which offered the hiding terrorists an advantage as there was invariably a time gap between information reaching the forces and follow-up action. The plan now was to step up deployment in the mountain tops of Jammu to keep an eye on infiltration attempts and challenge the terrorists hiding there after crossing over from Pakistan.

The role that Pakistan has played in fomenting terrorism in J&K over the past 4 decades is widely known and well documented. The Indian media quoted a senior government official in New Delhi as saying that after India conducted peaceful elections in the J&K recently, “Pakistan obviously does not want this narrative to gain momentum and that’s why they have been pushing terrorists to the Jammu region”. The official added that Pakistan wanted to disprove the fact that there was total normalcy in the area.

Retired Indian Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain expressed a similar view when he said that the terrorists attacked the bus carrying pilgrims to convey a message that the Indian government does not have Jammu and Kashmir under control. He said, “Pakistan is not controlled by a monolith... it is controlled by different layers. One or a combination of those layers decided that they must convey a message, a strategic message to the world, that while India speaks about all its success and achievements, while Prime Minister Modi and NDA speak about their achievements, they haven’t got Jammu and Kashmir under control. That was the clear message that they wanted to convey. It was done deliberately”.

DGP Swain asserted that “As local (terror) recruitments have come down, Pakistan has been sending terrorists from across the border”. Another official was quoted as saying that “The four terror attacks indicate that this proxy war will continue to simmer at varying degrees of intensity and the involvement of new groups - whether it is Kashmir Tigers or the Resistance Front”.

Commenting on these terrorist attacks, former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah opined that military responses will not resolve underlying issues. He called for diplomatic talks with Pakistan. Abdullah told news agency ANI that “We continue to face problems with our neighbour. These cannot be solved through military means. Dialogue is the only solution”. He stressed that terrorism was not an issue tied to any specific government, and warned that as long as the borders remained vulnerable, terror attacks will persist regardless of which party was in power. Asserting that Kashmiris did not support such violence, Abdullah also highlighted the potential for these incidents to escalate tensions during major events like the Amarnath Yatra. He stressed, “We need to come out of these situations... We have a major Yatra coming (Amarnath Yatra). Any small incident that might take place in that will be blown up in the rest of the country. We Kashmiris are not responsible for these things. We have never favoured these things...”.

Amidst these calls for dialogue and peace on both sides of the border, the Pakistani military needs to understand that the interests of the people of Pakistan, and indeed of India, certainly ought to be more important than the narrow stakes that a self-serving establishment is seeking to perpetuate for itself.