Over four days in June, Jammu saw four incidents of militant violence.

Nine civilians, one soldier and two militants were killed in the incidents, and at least seven security personnel and 42 civilians were injured. Militants and security personnel were engaged in gunfights in Chattergala and Kota Top in Gandoh district and near a village in Kathua district.

On June 8, militants in Reasi district fired on a bus of Hindu pilgrims, killing nine civilians.

The attacks have led to concern about what many are calling the shift of militancy from Kashmir Valley to Jammu.

While this is not new – Scroll has reported on how the Pir Panjal region has become a staging ground for precision militant attacks since 2021 – there is a discernible unease about the attacks and gunfights widening to other districts of Jammu, such as Reasi, Kathua and Doda.

Union minister Dr Jitendra Singh, who represents Jammu in the Parliament, however, claimed that the focus on Jammu was a result of setbacks to militancy in the Valley.

“Terrorists shifting focus from Kashmir to this [Jammu] region is indication that they are under pressure in the Valley,” Singh told reporters in Jammu on Wednesday, June 12. “The way they are being pressurised (by security forces) in Kashmir, they were compelled to shift their focus (to this region) but they will not succeed here.”

However, former senior army and police officers who have dealt with the previous stint of militancy in Jammu region in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, told Scroll that the government has a challenge on its hands. They said it needs to take steps on both the security and political front to control the violence.

“The wisdom that military problems can be solved through a military solution does not fit in the context of Jammu and Kashmir,” a retired senior police officer, who served a long tenure in Jammu division during the peak of militancy in the 1990s, told Scroll.

More troops on the ground

The evolving challenge in the Jammu region has to be seen in the context of a realistic, not emotional, assessment of Pakistan’s strategy towards Jammu and Kashmir, experts said.

“Pakistan’s situation is bad but it’s not as bad as many assume it to be,” said a former commander of the Indian Army who served in the region in the mid-2000s, wishing not to be named. “There is a national consensus in Pakistan that Kashmir has been snatched from them and they should get it back.”

Therefore, the shift of violence to Jammu may be part of its “recalibrated strategy”. “Pakistan may be keeping it low deliberately in the Kashmir Valley because there is a large presence of security forces there,” the former commander said.

The growing number of militancy-incidents, particularly in the Pir Panjal belt of Jammu region since 2021, is also directly related to the withdrawal of troops from some regions of Jammu to eastern Ladakh following the eruption of border tensions between India and China in 2020.

“The pattern is that they are coming to the side where the troop density is low,” the former commander said. “There was a huge presence of the Army in this region prior to the India-China border standoff. Since nothing was happening there, they were shifted to Ladakh. Once they left, a void was created and we began to see attacks.”

In terms of tactics, the former Army officer said, the militants operating in the Jammu region are different from the ones seen in the Valley. “In Kashmir Valley, terrorists stay in houses or closer to human habitations. In Jammu, they live mostly in jungles. They are better trained than indigenous terrorists,” he pointed out.

When it comes to targets, the militants seem to have directed most of their energies on attacking security forces personnel – civilians have been targeted in only some cases. “They are not many in number,” the ex-army officer said. “Either they are conducting well-planned ambushes on security forces or waiting for the forces to go looking for them so that they can surprise them in a location where they have an advantage.”

The former Army commander said that there is a “proven method” to deal with such a challenge. “You have to increase the density of troops,” he suggested. “Once that happens, the entire region has to be put on a counter-insurgency grid, where it is divided into specific zones or bases [to be assigned to] each company. They should be in such a manner that if an input is received, the reaction time of the security forces should be less than half an hour. In that case, you are likely to trap them.”

A brief history

In 1989, when an armed insurgency backed by Pakistan erupted in Kashmir Valley, Jammu was peaceful. Even though some of the border districts in Jammu like Rajouri and Poonch were on infiltration routes, the centre of violence was the Valley.

But in about four years, militants began making their presence felt in Jammu.

As author Luv Puri has noted in his book, Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, an armed movement in Jammu erupted in spurts.

In 1993, militancy reared its head in the hilly Doda district and took root in Rajouri and Poonch districts around 1995. By 2001, it reached its peak when attacks began to take place in Jammu city and its suburbs.

There was a difference between the armed movement in the Valley and in Jammu.

“…As long as militancy comprised of the youth from the Kashmir Valley and was inspired by the ideology of Kashmiri nationalism, it did not have much appeal in the ethnically different region of Jammu,” Puri wrote. “But when the youth from Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir and the province of Punjab in Pakistan joined the militant movement, it changed from a Kashmiri to a Muslim movement,” Puri writes.

The ethnic connections of the new group of militants with the local population of Jammu’s mountainous regions would prove costly. “In Jammu, the appeal [of the armed separatist movement] increased,” Puri said.

Apart from targeting security forces and individuals they accused of working as informers, militants carried out a number of massacres of Hindus in far-flung areas of the region. Targeting of temples in Jammu city in early 2000s by militants, Puri writes, was in line with the “larger design provoking a religious conflict.”

The red flag

While strengthening the security grid in Jammu is one aspect of the strategy, the retired senior police officer, who served in Jammu in the 1990s, said the government has to adopt a “multi-pronged” approach.

“The government needs to engage with the people and their sentiments,” the former police officer who served in Jammu said. “Engagement does not mean you have conceded anything. What it will do is that people, particularly Kashmiris, will get a feeling that they matter to New Delhi,”

One easy way for New Delhi to begin that process is through the restoration of statehood and holding Assembly elections. “What’s stopping them from declaring statehood? If New Delhi can adopt an iron-fist approach in Jammu and Kashmir for the past five years, they can also try a tactic of engagement with the people, even only for a period of five months and see what happens,” he said.

According to the retired police officer, the resurgence of violence in Jammu signals the government cannot afford to ignore the core issue of Kashmir.

The Union government’s incautious policymaking has also impacted the situation in Jammu region, particularly in Pir Panjal, said the experts.

The senior police officer referred to the grant of Scheduled Tribes status to Paharis in Jammu and Kashmir, a move vociferously protested by Gujjars and Bakerwals.

Even though the government created a separate quota for Paharis, Gujjars and Bakerwals, the third largest ethnic group of Jammu and Kashmir, have not been happy with the BJP-ruled Centre of late. They have also challenged the extension of reservation to Paharis before the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

“It’s on record that the Army as well as the government has said that Gujjars and Bakerwals are the country’s first line of defence against cross-border terrorism,” said the former police officer. “Not only would they help security forces with information and help them guide the topography, they would often fight side by side with the security forces against terrorists.”

The change in reservation policy has triggered a “silent war” between Paharis and Gujjars who mostly inhabit the border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, he said.

But more than the anger against each other, it is the attitude of Gujjars and Bakerwals towards the Centre that is worrying, the ex-cop remarked. “If a Gujjar is angry with the government, it’s a red signal.”