The targeting of non-Kashmiris by terrorists in South Kashmir and the killing of 11 persons in less than two weeks could seem puzzling to observers. However, this is nothing new. It just revisits a tactical method that terror groups, under the guidance of Pakistan’s ISI, employ to remain relevant and promote Pakistan’s interests. It has happened many times in the past too. So, the question should be: Why should it be allowed to happen today?
In the late Nineties, while I coordinated operations in South Kashmir from Avantipur’s Rashtriya Rifles headquarters, we were suddenly hit by a spate of two kinds of incidents — minority killings and targeting of non-Kashmiri labour. The two prominent minorities in Kashmir — Kashmiri Hindus and Sikhs — live in pockets of both urban and rural areas. The urban areas are relatively safe, it’s the rural pockets that pose a challenge. While there may have been an exodus of Kashmiri Hindus in1990 under a focused Pakistani strategy, some of them did stay back, and the Sikhs hardly migrated. Both communities became the target of attacks by Pakistani terror groups from time to time. Who can forget the Nandimarg (2003) and Wandhama (1998) killings of Kashmiri Pandits and the Chittisinghpura massacre of the Sikhs in 2000. Since the latter occurred just as the-then US President Bill Clinton was to address India’s Parliament, the motive behind the attack was obvious. In 1999, just as the army was redeploying troops from Kashmir to Kargil to meet the sudden occupation of winter-vacated areas, labour from Bihar working at brick kilns and in the construction industry were targeted with mass killing, leading to their exodus.
A careful analysis of the trends at that time led to the conclusion that the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had decided to execute a high-profile attack against soft targets in certain areas to announce its arrival and demonstrate its domination of the terror scene. It was almost akin to an unfurling of the LeT flag in areas of its choosing and became a signature method.
Migrant non-Kashmiri labour in those days, too, were accommodated in small camps but the security for them was always insufficient. Security could have been strengthened by recognising that there was a major threat to them and gathering them into camps which were well protected and organising their secure movement to orchards or construction sites. Yet, the nature of the terror threat at that time — with more terrorists and lesser number of troops on the ground — prevented any such counter measures. The J&K Police (JKP) on its own could not provide the necessary security. Minority killings and targeting of non-Kashmiri labour tapered off in the early part of the first decade of the millennium and did not come to the fore despite the obvious soft nature of targets available. I, however, continued to harbour fears that the tactic would be used again when the levels of frustration of the Pakistani terror groups or the more radical of the Kashmiri terror elements would cross limits.
The recent targeting of non-Kashmiri labour and others such as truck drivers took place just when the curbs on postpaid mobile telephony were lifted. There really is no connection between the two occurrences in this case, as some are attempting to deduce. What Pakistan, through its proxies, wants to try and propagate is the idea that return of normalcy in Kashmir is yet very far away and that the security space is in their hands even with a limited number of terrorists. It wants to send the broad signal that the abrogation of the special constitutional provisions for J&K is meaningless and changes nothing.
With the numbers of terrorists down but some quantum of successful infiltration, as admitted by the JKP, the terrorists have had some time to reorganise, recalibrate and reselect their targets. Intelligence during the last three months has been of a lower order with a not-so-free movement of sources and non-availability of mobile communication. What we are witnessing in South Kashmir is a manifestation of this.
The focus of the security establishment would unmistakably have shifted towards the prevention of street agitation and mass protests. This was the correct response, as it responded to what was the bigger threat from 2008 onwards. Thereafter, the focus has been on counter infiltration — not that the army and police cannot perform multiple tasks and they have done so creditably in the past. However, such situations do result in a shift of priorities and balancing them is a challenge. Much of this happened in 1999-2000 when the counter terror space was severely challenged after the shift of the army’s focus to Kargil. Countering an aggressive terrorist phase involving so called “fidayeen” suicide attacks on government and other security targets proved more than challenging. The security establishment bounced back very quickly to neutralise 2,100 terrorists in 2001, the highest number ever. I have no doubt that with a little recalibration, the same will happen this time too. However, what has to be realised is that this takes away the larger focus from the more important factor of comprehensively neutralising the general ecosystem which enables the Pakistan-sponsored proxies and separatists to challenge the Indian nation’s will.
The “tactical pause”, so to say, must not allow for a return to the situation at the end of 2016 when the army and the police jointly launched Operation All Out. The latter was a very successful operation but we must not be drawn once again into the game of just neutralising terrorists. What the government had correctly done was to pay equal attention to dismantling financial networks and high-profile over-ground worker’s networks. That is still a work in progress as it cannot be an overnight affair. Any slippage in this is bound to embolden the Pakistani sponsors and give a boost to their capability.
India goes beyond just neutralising terrorists. It’s the elusive “terrorism”, which we have rarely targeted, that should be the priority. By giving leeway on potential minority and current non-Kashmiri targeting, we may hand the initiative back to the other side. The security establishment should heed the warning that not only migrant non-Kashmiri labour but also minority elements in Kashmir are currently vulnerable.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 1, 2019 under the title ‘Warning in the Valley’. The writer, a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is chancellor, Central University of Kashmir.