As terrorism re-emerges in Jammu & Kashmir, the cowardly targeting of women is an attack on the region’s social fabric
The past month has been one of disquiet in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), which after a relatively sustained period of successfully keeping large-scale terrorism at bay has had to endure a spate of targeted terrorist attacks. These attacks appear to follow a clear tactic in which soft and vulnerable civilian targets, including from the minority community, are being specifically identified and then killed in small, uncomplicated, terrorist actions often at their homes or workplaces and involving mostly a single pistol or a hand grenade. The sophistication with which these attacks are being carried out seems to suggest Pakistani involvement in their conception, planning and execution. While the attacks have rattled society and created an atmosphere of fear across J&K, the specific targeting of innocent civilian women and children by the terrorists has been received with loathing by many in J&K, and several have begun to question whether this represented the beginning of the end of the age-old social fabric of J&K and the birth of one in which even women and children were fair targets for violence.
The most recent terror attack in J&K, the 2 June killing of Vijay Kumar, a manager at the Areh Mohanpora branch of the Ellaqui Dehati Bank, inside the bank premises, was the eight such killing since 1 May. CCTV footage from the bank showed a single masked gunman enter the premises, fire rounds from a pistol and walk out. Kumar was shot multiple times and he died on his way to hospital. A resident of Hanumangarh in India’s western Rajasthan state, Kumar had joined the branch only a week ago. He had earlier been working in the Kokernag branch of the bank, which is co-owned by the Indian government, the J&K administration, and the State Bank of India (SBI).
In other earlier incidents this month, a policeman, Saifullah Qadri, was killed outside his house on 24 May in Soura near Srinagar after terrorists opened fire on him and his seven-year-old daughter. Qadri was on his way to drop his daughter for a tuition session. His daughter was injured in the incident. On 17 May, 35-year-old Ranjit Singh, a resident of Rajouri who was working at a newly opened wine shop in Baramulla's Dewan Bagh, was killed and three others were injured when an unidentified terrorist, masquerading as a buyer, entered and hurled a grenade inside the shop. On 12 May, Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit and an employee of the revenue department in Budgam district, was deliberately selected and attacked at his workplace at the Tehsildar’s office in Chadoora. He sustained serious injuries and was rushed to a hospital in Srinagar, where he later died. Earlier, on 7 May terrorists shot dead an off-duty policeman at Aiwa Bridge, close to Anchar, while another policeman was shot dead in Pulwama district on 13 May.
While these killings have led to a sense of foreboding in J&K, and have been condemned strongly by the entire political spectrum, it was the killing of two women in separate incidents of terrorist madness that elicited the strongest responses from the political leadership and the public alike. On 25 May, a female television actor Amreen Bhat was shot dead by terrorists in cold blood in Budgam. Police officials said that the terrorists fired upon the actor and her 10-year-old nephew Farhan Zubair outside their residence in Hishroo Chadoora. Both of them were rushed to a nearby hospital, and while Amreen Bhat was declared brought dead, her nephew received treatment for bullet injuries to his arm. According to the police, the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) was involved in the attack.
Bhat’s brother-in-law Zubair Ahmed, describing the incident, said that “Two people came to her house to call her for a shoot. When she stepped outside the house they killed her. What harm had she caused to anyone?” Khazir Muhammad, Bhat’s father, was distraught after the killing. Saying that killing people was “not freedom but terrorism” as such attacks make a house desolate, he added, “My daughter used to run my house and now I am dead because of her death”. He appealed to the government to end terrorism in J&K at the earliest so that no other family was forced to endure such a horrific incident.
The impact of Bhat’s killing was such that even the Lieutenant Governor of J&K, Manoj Sinha, the highest ranking administrator there, took note. He tweeted after the incident that “No words are strong enough to condemn heinous terror attack in Budgam. Deepest condolences to the family of Amreen Bhat and prayers for fast recovery of her injured nephew”. Sinha subsequently visited the family personally to offer his condolences and support. He tweeted after undertaking the visit, “Met the family members of Amreen Bhat at their residence at Budgam. She was a strong-willed woman and a pillar of support to her family. The administration will provide every possible assistance and support to the family. We shall forever remember Amreen’s indomitable spirit”.
In a similar incident on 31 May, Rajni Bala, a teacher from Jammu’s Samba district, was shot dead by terrorists at a government school in Gopalpora area of Kulgam district just as she was about to enter the school, where she taught. The incident was witnessed by several students who had assembled outside their classrooms for prayer. The school is only about 100 meters from a residential area, and is surrounded by dense orchards. It was also about 7 km from the family’s rented accommodation in Chawalgam village. Bala’s husband, Raj Kumar, was working as a teacher at another government school in Mirhama, less than 4 km away from where Bala’s school was located.
A teacher at the Gopalpora school, describing what happened, said, “She was walking towards her school. Just when she had reached the entrance, a gunman fired from a narrow alley. She was hit on the head and fell down at the gate. We immediately took her to the hospital but she was declared dead there”. As was the case after Bhat’s killing, Lieutenant Governor Sinha led the condemnation of Bala’s murder. He wrote, “Terrorist attack on a school teacher, Rajni Bala is the most reprehensible act. My deepest condolences to the bereaved family. Terrorists and their sympathizers will be given an unforgettable response for the dastardly attack”.
All mainstream political parties in J&K have condemned the renewed spate of terrorist attacks that are taking place in J&K, but they were especially critical of the brutal murders of Bhat and Bala. The President of the National Conference and Member of Parliament (MP) from Srinagar, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, said, “I condemn the dastardly killings unreservedly and express my empathy with her family. The perpetrators who have committed this heinous act have no religion. No religion condones violence. Nothing justifies such bloodshed. I express heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family and pray to Almighty to give the strength to bear the loss in this hour of grief”. NC vice-president Omar Abdullah termed the attack on the teacher a “despicable” act. He tweeted, “Very sad. This is yet another targeted killing in a long list of recent attacks directed at unarmed civilians. Words of condemnation and condolence ring hollow”. He added, “Rajni was from Samba District of Jammu province. A government teacher working in Kulgam area of South Kashmir, she lost her life in a despicable targeted attack. My heart goes out to her husband Raj Kumar & the rest of her family. Another home irreparably damaged by violence”.
J&K Apni Party (JKAP) President and former Minister, Syed Mohammad Altaf Bukhari also expressed his deep sense of grief over the killing of Rajni Bala. In a statement, he termed the killing as a heinous crime by the terrorists, and added, “the targeted killing spree has created havoc and absolute insecurity among the masses. How long will this mindless bloodshed continue here, and what would the perpetrators achieve by killing innocent people?” He urged the people of J&K to raise their voices against the mindless violence and bloodshed, while averring that “Unless people unite to raise their voices against the civilian killings, these killings will not stop”.
J&K People’s Conference leader Sajad Lone also condemned the killing, saying “cowardice has yet again plummeted to shameless depths. A teacher, an innocent woman hailing from Samba, has been shot dead in Kulgam. May her soul rest in peace”. Lone separately said in an interview that it was not just non-Muslims who are being killed in the Valley. “Not a day passes when a Kashmiri Muslim is not killed. We are as much at the receiving end. This is a very painful moment for us in Kashmir when civilians are being killed. We’re helpless”, he said. He added that a vast majority of local Kashmiris are feeling the pain of those being targeted by terrorists in attacks. “I can tell you, my mother cried in the morning for what happened to that lady yesterday. I went to a wedding yesterday and everyone was talking about her. People are feeling the pain. They are scared”.
Meanwhile, Altaf Thakur, the J&K spokesman of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also strongly condemned the attack. He said, “Yet another dastardly act of terrorism in Kulgam. Attacking unarmed civilians, that too women, is no bravery but an act of frustration”. The BJP’s J&K President Ravinder Raina made a scathing attack on Pakistan over the killing of Rajni Bala. Raina asserted that Pakistani terrorists were behind the “inhuman and ugly” act, and warned that “These Pakistani terrorists will not be spared”. Another senior BJP leader Devender Singh Rana observed that selective killings were acts of terrorism aimed at creating disharmony, adding that the people of J&K, particularly the civil society, must come out strongly and openly against Pakistan and its proxies who are responsible for “such dastardly killings”.
Pakistan’s role in stoking the present wave of terrorism in J&K also found reflection in the recent statements of senior J&K Police officials. Vijay Kumar, Inspector General of Police of the Kashmir Zone, informed on 26 May that as many as 26 foreign terrorists affiliated to the LeT and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) had been killed in J&K during the first five months of this year. He added that a total of 27 terrorists had been killed in the Kashmir Valley in May 2022 alone, of which 17 were local residents while 10 were Pakistanis.
Islamabad’s new modus operandi, as reported by The Print while quoting J&K Police officials, has been to approach the local youth in J&K via the internet. Kumar explained further by saying that “They (local terror recruits) are operating on a case-to-case basis. Their parents, neighbours, no one knows that they are associated with any terror group. They are recruited online, given training online and even the target is conveyed online. The pistol is the new popular weapon and training to these men is given online. They don’t even meet their handlers. Even the target is conveyed through online instructions from Pakistan. The weapon is sent to them through a second person. They execute the killing and then return the pistol. They then go back to their daily lives. Three out of four killings last month were carried out by hybrid militants, who were fresh recruits and had joined militancy just 10-15 days before the killings. The terror organizations are desperate to recruit people and that is why they are picking these hybrid terrorists or part-timers, who are local residents, to widen their base. They are reaching out to many youngsters over the internet”.
If, as Kumar has suggested quite clearly, Amreen Bhat and Rajni Bala were indeed explicitly identified as terrorist targets by Pakistani agencies, the people of J&K need to be alert to the grim, dark place that Islamabad’s changed and abhorrent policy of targeting local women and children in terrorist attacks will eventually lead J&K’s already embattled society to.