By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On April 8-9, 2021, seven terrorists, including Imtiyaz Shah, the chief of Ansar-ul-Gazwat-ul-Hind (AuGH), were killed in two separate encounters in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). In the intervening night of April 7-8, Security Forces (SFs) launched an operation following intelligence inputs that terrorists were hiding inside the Central Jamia Masjid in the Jan Mohalla area of Shopian District. As the terrorists rejected the offer to surrender and opened fire, a gun battle ensued and three terrorists were killed towards the dawn of April 8. Another two terrorists were killed and the Masjid was cleared on April 9. Of the five slain terrorists, two were from Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen (HM), two from AuGH and one from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Meanwhile, two terrorists, including the AuGH chief Shah, who had fled from the encounter site during the initial cordon after throwing grenades, were later killed during an encounter in the Nowbugh area of Tral in Pulwama District on April 9.
On April 2, 2021, three terrorists were killed in an encounter with SFs in Pulwama District. Two of the slain terrorists were affiliated with Al-Badr, while the group identity of third was not known.
On March 22, 2021, four LeT terrorists were killed in an encounter in the Munihal area in Shopian District.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 44 terrorists of different outfits have been killed in 2021 (data till April 11). In 2020, J&K accounted for a total of 232 terrorist killings; 163 deaths were recorded in this category in 2019; 271 in 2018; and 220 in 2017. Thus, a total of 906 terrorists have been killed in J&K since 2017.
In 2017, SFs launched ‘Operation All-Out’, as the Special Operations Group (SoG), an elite anti-insurgency force of the J&K Police set up in 1994, was re-purposed. Each SoG unit was given a list of one or two terrorists they were directed to track and “target single-mindedly.” Along with the SoG, other security agencies operating in J&K were also given the names of individual terrorists whom they were to target and neutralize. The focused operations paid rich dividend and most of the senior ‘commanders’, trainers and ‘role models’ for terrorists have been eliminated over the last four years. J&K Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh noted,
All the terror organisations are leaderless now and those militants who are recruited as leaders of any group by Pakistan-based handlers are caught or killed.
Along with the leadership elements – commanders, trainers, role models – the SFs have also eliminated a large number of terrorist cadres, resulting in a decline in overall cadre strength. According to a January 14, 2021, report, there were around 270 active terrorists in J&K, as against an estimated 300 in 2020 and 421 in 2019. The decline in the number of active terrorists is also the result of the fact that the anti-infiltration grid has been strengthened and the number of successful infiltrations has gone down. About 50 militants infiltrated in 2020 as against 138 in 2019, and 143 in 2018. Declining infiltrations have also resulted in a shortage of arms and ammunition.
Moreover, since 2017, strong action has been taken against alleged Over Ground Workers (OGWs) of various terrorist formations. The Police detained around 625 alleged OGWs in J&K in 2020. Most of the OGWs arrested in 2020 were booked under stringent sections of the law, including the Arms Act, for possession of weapons, which increases the possibility of their confinement for longer periods. An unnamed official observed,
Crackdown against the OGWs has been the priority for us. They are the sleeper cells and more connected on the ground. Besides, they have the potential to create more trouble on the ground. We have cases in the past when many OGWs formally joined the militant ranks.
These strong anti-terrorism measures have resulted in an improved security situation in J&K.
Civilian fatalities dropped from 42 in 2019 to 33 in 2020. There were 86 fatalities in this category in 2018. Similarly, SF fatalities came down from 78 in 2019 to 56 in 2020. There were 95 fatalities in this category in 2018.
Other parameters of violence also indicate sustained improvement. According to official statistics, there were 244 terrorist incidents in J&K in 2020, down from 594 in 2019 and 614 in 2018. In particular, incidents of explosion dropped from 66 in 2019 to 44 in 2020, and the resultant fatalities fell sharply, from 60 to 10.
The declining curve of violence, however, does not guarantee long-term peace, as almost all the factors which were responsible for the troubles in J&K persist.
On the domestic front, the politics of opportunism and polarization is still in play. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union Government, despite the assurances it gave on August 5, 2019, at the time of constitutional amendments, and reiterated several times thereafter, that the State Assembly would be reestablished ‘soon’, has made no genuine effort in this direction. In fact, after having failed to achieve results that the party envisaged in the first ever District Development Council (DDC) polls conducted between November 28, 2020, and December 19, 2020, the Government at the Centre seems to have put this agenda on the back burner. Further delay in reestablishing State-level democratic institutions can only serve the interest of forces inimical to peace in J&K. Attempts to directly control J&K from New Delhi may prove disastrous in the long run.
In the meantime, the primary trouble-maker in J&K, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), remains relentless in its efforts to push Kashmir back into the ‘era of turbulence’ of the 1990s and early 2000s. Working in this direction, the Pakistani Army increased the number of ceasefire violations from 3,200 in 2019 to a record 5,133 in 2020. There were 2,140 such violations in 2018. These firings, inter alia, provide cover to or create diversions for infiltrating terrorists from several ‘launch pads’ inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir. According to reports, at any given point of time around 300 trained terrorists are stationed at these launch pads, waiting to cross over.
In the meantime, after Director Generals of Military Operations (DGsMO) level discussions held on February 25, 2021, India and Pakistan in a joint statement asserted that “both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 Feb 2021.” Though no ceasefire violation has been reported thereafter, the past record does not suggest that this ceasefire is now permanent. Significantly, in a similar statement released on May 29, 2018, the DGsMO “agreed to fully implement the Ceasefire Understanding of 2003 in letter and spirit forthwith and to ensure that henceforth, the Ceasefire will not be violated by both sides.” The data, however, suggests that the number of such violations more than doubled to 5,133 in 2020, from 2,140 in 2018.
To replenish the depleting ‘armoury’ of the active terrorists on the ground, Pakistan has started supplying weapons via drones. DGP Dilbag Singh disclosed,
Dropping weapons by drones is a new strategy by Pakistan and we have taken strict measures to counter this. We have seen a lot of consignments of weapons being dropped like AK47, pistols and grenades and we have busted all these attempts.
Crucially, past trends indicate, the situation in Kashmir also depends on the situation in Afghanistan. It is not a coincidence that terrorism in Kashmir began during the period of the withdrawal of Soviet Forces from Afghanistan in 1988-89. Pakistan-backed terrorism recorded a sharp surge during the period of the Taliban’s consolidation in Afghanistan and its subsequent assumption of power under the ISI’s patronage. The violence in Kashmir, however, started to decline with the onslaught of ‘war on terror’ in 2001, and continued through 2012. The marginal surge thereafter was the result of politics of the opportunism and polarization, as well as Pakistan’s efforts to take advantages created by the consequent anger. There is reason to believe that, if an ISI-proxy is placed in power in Afghanistan, the ISI will shift focus to Kashmir, creating more chaos.
The possibility of complete withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and a collapse of the present regime in Kabul under a Taliban onslaught in the foreseeable future could create an alarming situation for the security establishment in J&K.
The extended phase of dwindling terror in J&K between 2001 and 2012 has been wasted, with the political leadership at the Centre failing to develop outreach programmes to translate pollical acquiescence into goodwill. Nevertheless, if genuine efforts to re-establish the State Assembly and initiate a meaningful political dialogue are introduced without further delay, there are strong possibilities of finding a sustainable solution to this long-festering problem, despite Pakistan’s continuing mischief.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management