About an hour before Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister in New Delhi on the evening of June 9, a bus carrying pilgrims from Uttar Pradesh and Delhi fell into a gorge after terrorists fired on it. At least nine people were killed and 43 others injured.

The terror attack has triggered enormous anger, especially as photos of the gruesome victims circulated on social media. The Reasi attack reiterated the fact that addressing the security challenges in Jammu and Kashmir require more than just a military approach; it must be embedded in local politics and a delicate societal equilibrium.

Since August 5, 2019, when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was abrogated, the militants’ strategy has been to carry out targeted killings in the Valley and inflict losses on security personnel in the mountainous districts south of the Pir Panjal, the range that divides Kashmir valley from Jammu.

In 2023, a total of 59 people – 24 security personnel, seven civilians and 28 terrorists – were killed in Rajouri-Poonch. The attacks have continued across the belt this year.

Psychological warfare is a component of the militant strategy. Militants have sometimes used body cameras to film attacks and then uploaded videos on social media, accompanied by provocative commentary.

Officials claim that around 25 militants are active in the region, but that does not adequately explain why substantial losses are being inflicted from time to time. One explanation is that in 2020, India had diverted troops from the Rajouri-Poonch belt to the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh sector as tensions flared between India and China. But other factors must also be understood.

The thinning of troops in the hilly areas of Jammu and Kashmir has had consequences. Since the mid-1990s, road-opening patrols that secure routes used by the security forces have been a crucial part of the counter-terrorism strategy. Unlike Kashmir, where the terrain consists of plains and a road network has been built, the transportation system in Reasi-Rajouri-Poonch is underdeveloped. Therefore, the formulation of an effective counter-terrorism strategy will have to factor in the new set of challenges.

By the mid-1990s, as I noted in my book Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir: The Uncovered Face, the challenge intensified for the security forces in the religiously heterogeneous hilly area. Militants who did not speak Kashmiri had started establishing their bases there. This challenge was addressed by a strategy that had a political component.

In an environment of militancy, the political class is well aware of developments on the ground and is able to contextualise this information. But now, when the macro contours of decision-making are determined in Delhi, there appears to be a void in terms of policy calibration and execution.

In terms of geography, Rajouri-Poonch and even Reasi, which adjoins Rajouri, is an extension of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The only difference between the two areas in demographics is the presence of a significant number of Hindus and Sikhs, many of whose families migrated from across the Line of Control in 1947. Most of them live in Rajouri and Poonch towns in a region that otherwise has a Muslim majority.

Reasi, meanwhile, is a Hindu-majority district. The hilly Reasi district, which also is an abode of revered Vaishno Devi shrine nestled in the Trikuta hills, is a vast district that borders Kotranka area of Rajouri, which was often the scene of battle between army and militants in the 1990s. Civilians were also attacked.

Since Jammu and Kashmir has not had a legislative Assembly for the past five years, the feedback loop of the political class to sensitise the security apparatus has been ominously missing.

In addition, India’s ruling elite have been unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the situation. Perhaps this will become possible if the elite gives up the incentive to deploy Kashmir as an electoral issue across India, particularly in the Hindi heartland. It is essential for impartial expertise, sensitive to granular and societal nuances, to be accommodated if the highest quarters of decision-making are to be sensitised and influenced in a timely fashion.

Another factor that has weighed on the situation is the one-sided narrative, domestically as well as internationally, that has harped on the seeming benefits of having abrogated Article 370. The fact is the abrogation of Article 370 had no relation with the security challenges on the ground.

In fact, since the abrogation of Article 370, a number of ill-thought announcements have disturbed the delicate societal equilibrium of the region. One of them was granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Pahari-speaking community, a diverse group that includes upper-caste Muslims as well as Hindus, brought together by a shared language.

However, an impression spread among the strongly-knitted Gujjar-Bakarwal community that the decision was detrimental to them. The community is spread across the hilly areas across the former state and have proved to be a deterrent to terrorists establishing bases. It was not wise to upset them.

All this has made it clear that security is not merely a military problem. The Reasi terror attack, which was clearly timed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony to get maximum attention internationally, has reinforced this fact at a great cost.

Luv Puri’s book Across the Line of Control has been published by Columbia University Press.

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