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Terrorist Attack at Reasi Sets Alarm Bells Ringing in India’s Security Establishment

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Terrorist Attack at Reasi Sets Alarm Bells Ringing in India’s Security Establishment

The targeted attack on Hindu pilgrims traveling by bus to a revered temple came weeks ahead of the start of the annual Amarnath Yatra.

Terrorist Attack at Reasi Sets Alarm Bells Ringing in India’s Security Establishment

Security men inspect a bus that fell into a deep gorge on Sunday after it was fired at by suspected militants in Reasi district, Jammu and Kashmir, June 10, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Channi Anand

Last week was a bloody one in Jammu and Kashmir. Between June 9 and 12, militants carried out four attacks in the union territory’s Jammu region, three of them in a span of 24 hours.

A fifth attack happened in Bandipora in the Kashmir region on June 17.

The serial bloodletting began in Reasi district on June 9, when terrorists opened fire on a bus carrying Hindu pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi shrine. The driver lost control of the bus, causing it to veer off the road and plunge into a gorge. Nine people were killed and 33 others injured.

The attack in Reasi happened at around 6:15 p.m., less than an hour before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a third consecutive term in New Delhi.

Three attacks followed in quick succession on June 11-12. One was at a village in Kathua near the International Border between India and Pakistan. Two militants and a Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in the gunfight that followed. There were two separate attacks on checkpoints at Gandoh and Chattergala in Doda district resulting in injury to seven security personnel.

The attacks in Jammu, especially the one at Reasi, have set off alarm bells in India’s security establishment.

Following the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019, the Modi government stepped up its crackdown on militants and the separatist ecosystem in the Kashmir Valley. On the run from the counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir, militants began to shift their operations to the Jammu region. Jammu, which had been relatively militancy-free over the preceding 15 years or so, began to see militant attacks from 2021.

The first signs of the shift to Jammu came in February 2021, when J&K police seized 15 sticky bombs (magnetic IEDs) in Samba district along the International Border.  On June 27 of that year, low-flying drones dropped IEDs on the Jammu Air Force station, the first time that militants had resorted to this tactic in India.

Several attacks followed in the years thereafter. According to official figures, 29 terrorist-related violent incidents have taken place since early 2021 in the Jammu region. And the number of civilian casualties is rising. The number of civilian deaths in all of 2023 was 12, compared to 17 in the first six months of this year.

A June 2023 report in Indian Express pointed out that although Kashmir saw “a significantly higher number” of “terrorist-initiated incidents” and civilian casualties, India’s security establishment noted that attacks in the Jammu region were “high-impact incidents that have ended up inflicting the maximum damage.”

The attacks in Jammu have raised concern as they have the potential to set off communal riots.

Unlike the overwhelmingly Muslim (96.4 percent) Kashmir Valley, Jammu’s population is more mixed. While Hindus comprise 62.5 percent of the region’s population overall, the proportion of Hindus to Muslims varies from district to district. A terror attack targeting civilians could prompt Hindu-Muslim tensions and violence.

Indeed, the aim of militants carrying out attacks in the Jammu region has often been to stir communal tensions.

On August 14, 1993, terrorists targeted a civilian bus at Kishtwar. Hindus among the passengers were identified and 17 of them were shot dead. The first of several massacres of Hindus in Jammu, the Kishtwar attack triggered Hindu-Muslim clashes. So volatile was the situation that authorities had to rush in troops and declare a curfew to calm tensions.

In 1998, 26 Hindus were beheaded in the villages of Prankote and Dakikote in Udhampur district (now in Reasi district)

Terrorists have also targeted Hindu temples in the Jammu region. Suicide bombers struck the Raghunath Temple in Jammu city in February and November 2002, leaving over 26 worshippers dead and scores of others injured. Hindu pilgrims have been targeted as well. In May of 2022, four Hindu pilgrims were killed and over two dozen injured when a bus returning from the Vaishno Devi shrine caught fire near Katra in Reasi district The incident was initially believed to be an accident; investigators subsequently found that militants had attached a sticky bomb to the bus’s fuel tank.

The recent attack on the passenger bus at Reasi is worrying for several reasons. First, it signals the expanding area of operation of terrorists in the Jammu region. Most attacks in the Jammu region post-2021 were in Rajouri and Poonch districts, which lie along the Line of Control. Could the recent attacks in Reasi and Doda signal the spread of the militancy to Jammu’s interior districts again?

More importantly, the targeting of a bus carrying Hindu pilgrims is concerning, given its potential to trigger communal violence. Besides, the attack came just weeks ahead of the Amarnath Yatra. An annual pilgrimage that hundreds of thousands of Hindus undertake to a cave temple high up in the Himalayas, the Amarnath Yatra is scheduled to begin on June 29 and end on August 19.

Logistics and security arrangements for the Amarnath Yatra are challenging at the best of times, given the number of people undertaking the arduous trek and the terrain and weather conditions; the task has become all the more difficult in recent decades, with terrorists targeting pilgrims. On July 10, 2017, for instance, terrorists shot dead seven Amarnath pilgrims and injured 30 others. Security officials are apprehensive that terrorists will target the upcoming Amarnath Yatra.

Importantly, Jammu and Kashmir is scheduled to vote in assembly elections soon. The election is an important step toward the restoration of normalcy in the strife-torn union territory.

The last assembly election was held in 2014, when Jammu and Kashmir was a state. J&K has not had an elected government since 2018 as New Delhi has been putting off conducting assembly elections there. Last year, the Supreme Court directed the Election Commission of India to hold assembly elections in J&K by September 30, 2024.

Apprehensive of electoral defeat, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party refrained from fielding candidates from the Kashmir Valley in the parliamentary elections in April-May. The candidates believed to be its “proxies” were routed.

Although the BJP did well in the Jammu region in the general elections, it could face a tough fight here from the INDIA bloc in assembly elections. The BJP and its proxies or allies are likely to be rejected by voters in the Kashmir region again.

More terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in the coming months could make the conducting of elections difficult. It will be a handy excuse for the Modi government to postpone assembly elections yet again.