By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On August 9, 2020, Abdul Hamid Najar, district president of the Budgam Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Other Backward Class Morcha, was shot at and injured by terrorists in the Mohiendpora area of Budgam District. Hamid Najar succumbed to his injuries later.
On August 6, 2020, Sajad Ahmad Khanday, a Sarpanch (head of the Panchayat, village level local self-government institution) affiliated with the BJP, was shot at and injured by terrorists at Vessu in the Qazigund area of Kulgam District. He succumbed to his injuries later. Khanday was fired upon at a distance of 20 metres from a high-security residential complex where he was staying, along with several other sarpanches.
On August 4, 2020, terrorists opened fire and critically injured, Arif Ahmad Shah, a Sarpanch, affiliated with the BJP, near his residence at Akhran Qazigund in Kulgam District.
These incidents occurred following intelligence inputs that terrorists were planning to target elected members of local bodies, especially those affiliated with the BJP, on the eve of the first anniversary of the constitutional amendments that nullified the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) under Article 370, and engineered the division of the State and its reduction to two Union Territories.
Earlier, on July 8, 2020, terrorists shot dead Wasim Ahmad Bari, BJP’s Bandipora District President, as well as his father and brother, in Bandipora District.
On June 8, 2020, terrorists shot at and injured Ajay Pandita, a Sarpanch of Halqa Lokbowan in the Larkipora area of Anantnag District and a member of the Indian National Congress (INC), in his native village Lokbawan in Anantnag District. He later succumbed to his injuries.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), J&K has accounted for a total of at least 274 incidents in which terrorists have targeted political leaders/activists since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflicts in the erstwhile State (data till August 9, 2020). In these 274 incidents, at least 194 persons have been killed and another 95 persons were injured. Five of these incidents resulting in six killings have been reported in the current year so far.
Significantly, 43 of these 274 incidents have targeted Sarpanches alone, killing 29 and injuring eight others. Three such incidents, resulting in two deaths, have been reported in the current year.
Disclosing the motive behind such attacks in recent past, The Resistance Front (TRF), while claiming the killing of Ajay Pandita on June 8, 2020, had stated,
No political stooge/collaborator who stands alongside the occupational regime will be spared. Ajay Pandita Sarpanch was one of these political leeches who tarnish the image of Jammu and Kashmir. These are the main reasons for our occupational regimes to stay on our land the JK.
The TRF further warned,
No one will be spared who is hand in glove with occupational regime and strengthen their illegal occupation. Innocents won’t be touched, so don’t drag this with religion.
TRF is a product of the Pakistan Army–Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) attempt to bring all terrorist cadres under one common umbrella and to secure deniability in terms of linkages with terrorist outfits that have long been operating under the ISI’s aegis in J&K.
After the August 5, 2019, constitutional amendments, the then existing State Assembly ceased to exist, bringing an abrupt end to democratic set up at the State-level. Most of the State-level leaders were put ‘under house arrest’ and political activities at the State-level came to a standstill.
In this situation, democratically elected members of the local bodies comprising of Panchayats, Municipal Corporations/Councils/Committees and Block Development Councils, remained the only source through which voices of the people in the Union Territory could reach to the Union Government through democratic means.
The ISI terrorist handlers appear to have realized this very well and terrorist outfits working under their direction have been instructed to target members of the local bodies, as well as local level political leaders and activists. As a result, eight local level political leaders and activists have been killed in seven incidents since August 5, 2019 (data till August 9, 2020).
Through these attacks, the ISI, which has been relentless in its efforts to push J&K back into the turbulent phases of the 1990s and early 2000s, seeks to create fear among the local leaders and to block any mechanisms of political normalization in the Union Territory. These killings also create significant hurdles for the Union Government to hold State Elections in accordance with its promise to reestablish a democratic Government. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation on August 8, 2019, had asserted,
We all want assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, that a new government is formed, that a new chief minister is elected. I assure the people of Jammu and Kashmir that you would get the opportunity to elect your representative in a fully honest and transparent atmosphere. Your political representative will be elected by you, He will be one of you. The MLAs [Members of Legislative Assembly] would be elected just as they used to be elected earlier. The forthcoming cabinet would just be as it used to be earlier. The chief ministers would just be as they were before.
Also, by singling out the leaders and activists of the BJP in particular, the terrorists are undermining the party’s efforts to establish a stronger presence in the Union Territory. The BJP would also like to take credit for having “full state status restored” just before or after the elections, in order to consolidate some political presence in the Valley, but this is unlikely to occur at a time when many of its grass root level leaders are leaving the party out of fear of being targeted by the terrorists. Moreover, by targeting BJP activists and leaders in particular, the terrorists are sending out a message that even the members of the ruling party in the Centre, which is at the helm in the Union Territory through its ‘representative’ in the form of the Lieutenant Governor, are not safe. Further, the separatist message is reinforced by each such killing at a time when terrorist losses are mounting in the face of focused Security Force (SF) action, and terrorist-initiated operations against SFs have hit rock-bottom.
Though these incidents are a cause for concern, there are visible signs of overall SF consolidation in the Union Territory. After going through a phase of rising violence between 2013 and 2018, the security situation has been brought under control. The number of overall fatalities, which had reached 452 in 2018 – the highest since 2008, at 538 – came down to 283 in 2019. More importantly, civilian fatalities, at 86 in 2018 – the highest since 2007 when at 127 – dropped to 42 in 2019. Fatalities in 2020 currently total 207, including 19 civilians, 34 Security Force personnel, and 154 terrorists (data till August 9). Significantly, terrorist fatalities account for 74.39 per cent of the total of 207 fatalities in 2020, as against 57.6 per cent of 283 fatalities in 2019.
The Centre’s failure to restore some measure of political activity in J&K has the potential to undermine sustained SF successes in the Union Territory. Absent political avenues of grievance redressal, the people see themselves with two polarized options – simply to accept the onerous circumstances currently inflicted on them, or ally with the forces of disruption and take up the gun. The Centre’s efforts to permanently marginalize the established political parties and leaders in the Union Territory and to pivot the BJP into a decisive position militate against the natural political inclinations of the majority, certainly in the Valley.
The SFs have done everything that could be expected of them, and have established clear dominance in the Union Territory. Political and administrative normalization cannot be their mandate. If anything approaching normalcy is to be restored in J&K, the current bull in a china shop approach will have to be replaced by a politics of accommodation and an urgent outreach to restore the confidence of the people. Patterns of violence in J&K have demonstrated repeatedly that terrorists retain a grip only in tiny parts of the Valley, and that in most areas, they no longer find an enabling environment for their operations. For years now, the situation has been ripe for political resolution. Unfortunately, an ideology-driven, polarizing, vengeful, BJP leadership seems to lack the vision or the political incentives to pursue rational policies in J&K. The SFs and the people continue to pay the price.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management