On Sunday evening, as Narendra Modi was about to take oath as prime minister for his third term, a bus carrying pilgrims from a Hindu religious shrine was attacked by suspected militants in the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir.

At least nine passengers were killed and more than 40 injured. The victims included the driver, the conductor of the bus as well as a two-year-old child.

This is the most lethal militant strike on civilians in Jammu and Kashmir this year. What is more concerning is that the attack has taken place in an area which is widely considered militancy-free, suggesting that the growing militancy activities in neighbouring Rajouri and Poonch districts have spilled over to Reasi.

Given its proximity to Jammu district, important religious shrines and hydroelectricity projects, Reasi is relatively better developed in terms of infrastructure and road connectivity than Rajouri and Poonch.

This is the second attack on pilgrims in Jammu’s Reasi district since 2022. In May that year, four pilgrims were killed and 24-odd injured when a bus returning from the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine caught fire. While the incident was initially categorised as an accident, subsequent investigations found that militants had attached bombs to the bus.

The attack on Hindu pilgrims in Reasi is likely to put the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government in a spot, as the party has claimed that its decision to scrap Article 370 and downgrade Jammu and Kashmir into a Union territory has brought peace in the strife-torn region.

The party has also argued that the surge in the number of tourists to the Union territory is more proof of normalcy since 2019. On Monday, the Congress slammed the Modi government for the worrying security situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

The attack has evoked widespread condemnations from local Opposition parties in Jammu and Kashmir too.

“It is unfortunate to see areas that had previously been cleared of all militants see a return of militancy,” former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah said in a post on social media platform X on Sunday.

Hub of religious tourism

When it comes to religious tourism in the Hindu-majority Jammu region, Reasi district tops the chart.

According to the 2011 census, Muslims comprise 50% of the population of the district, while Hindus are 49%. Every year, more than 1 crore pilgrims from across the country pay obeisance at the shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi in Katra. The entire Katra town is dotted with hundreds of hotels, dhabas and guest houses.

It is common for pilgrims visiting Vaishno Devi to plan a trip to the Shiv Khori cave. The common base camp for such pilgrims is usually Katra town.

The annual footfall at the Shiv Khori shrine in Ransoo – where the victims of Sunday’s attack had gone to pray – is nearly 20 lakh.

Popular legend has it that the cave which houses the shrine was discovered by a Muslim shepherd while he was looking for his lost goats.

While it is one of the most revered Shiva shrines in Jammu region, its management and functioning was institutionalised only in 2008 when the state government passed The Jammu & Kashmir Shri Shiv Khori Shrine Act.

The act, meant for “better management, administration and governance of Shri Shiv Khori Shrine”, came into force in April 2010.

Pilgrims make their way to the Vaishno Devi shrine from Jammu, in this photograph from June 2004. Credit: Reuters.

The attack

According to the police, the bus came under attack around 6.10 pm on Sunday when it was returning from the Shiv Khori shrine to Katra town, some 72 km away.

Eyewitnesses told Daily Excelsior that a group of two to three masked militants opened fire on the bus near Kanda village of Taryath area.

The road on which the attack took place connects Reasi with the neighbouring Rajouri district. Much like the rest of Pir Panjal region, the terrain of the area is mountainous and treacherous, with dense forest cover usually working in favour of the assailants.

Since 2021, Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu’s Pir Panjal region have witnessed multiple precision strikes by militants resulting in huge losses to security forces. The militants have also resorted to targeted attacks on civilians.

At least 50 people were on board when the incident took place. While the driver and the conductor of the bus were local residents of Jammu, all the passengers were from different states of the country including Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Among the deceased pilgrims, four were from Rajasthan while three were from Uttar Pradesh.

Following the attack, pictures of empty bullet cartridges collected by the police provided some sense of the sophisticated weapons used by the militants.

So far, the police have not officially blamed any particular militant group. However, given the scale and nature of the attack, it is likely that foreign militants active in the Pir Panjal region are behind the attack.

“The idea [behind the attack] is to instill fear among people, particularly pilgrims,” said a former police officer, who requested not to be identified. “But the larger message seems that terrorists operating in the belt are feeling a bit emboldened. Security agencies need to do more.”

Last month, militants had targeted a convoy of the Indian Air Force in Surankote area of Poonch district, resulting in the death of one airman and injuries to four others. While the security forces had launched a massive search operation in the belt that continued for days, there was no trace of militants.

On May 31, a brief exchange of fire between militants and security forces had taken place in Poonch’s Marha Buffliaz after security forces had launched a night search operation in the area. Once again, militants managed to give slip to security forces by taking advantage of darkness.

A new challenge

Sunday’s attack has emerged as a fresh challenge for the security forces in the Pir Panjal region. The fact that militants have been able to strike in Reasi is worrying given the more than two-decade-long peace in the region.

The last time Reasi had experienced the horrors of militancy were in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when militants carried out several massacres of Hindus in the region. In that period, as security forces carried out a brutal and sweeping crackdown on militancy in Kashmir Valley, the armed insurgency spilled over to Jammu region of the erstwhile state.

A similar pattern has been evident since the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and the end of its statehood.

With New Delhi cracking down on the support system of militancy and separatist politics in the region, the armed violence in Kashmir Valley has come down heavily. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of militant attacks in the mountainous Pir Panjal belt of Jammu region.

On Monday, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha said culprits behind the attack won’t be speared. “The attack is part of a nefarious design to somehow spread turmoil to the Jammu region but we are determined to thwart such an attempt,” Sinha told reporters in Jammu.