Pathankot Freezes TheThaw Again

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Security forces outside the Pathankot Airforce base
Security forces outside the Pathankot Airforce base

On  26 January 2014, when India was celebrating Republic Day, thousands attended a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) rally in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, for the release of a book purportedly written by Afzal Guru. Among the speakers were JeM operations chief Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar and Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin who delivered their respective speeches condemning India›s atrocities in Kashmir and its “unjust” hanging of Guru. However, the event’s star speaker was JeM founder Maulana Masood Azhar who was not physically present on the podium. A cell phone was held close to the microphone and Azhar›s resonant voice boomed with a clarion call for a renewed jihad against India over Kashmir.

There are 313 fidayeen (a reference to 313 Muslim warriors from the historic battle of Badr) in this gathering and if a call is given, the number will go up to 3000,” said Azhar. He also spoke of exacting a “chilling revenge” from India for executing Guru.

“Guru was not just Jaish-e-Mohammad’s fighter but of all groups fighting for freedom and his mission would be accomplished. Let it be clear to all, we are not terrorists but formidable fighters.”

By this time, Azhar had already formed the al-Shohada Brigade or Shaheed Afzal Guru Squad, which has since launched several suicide missions in Kashmir and has started foraying into Punjab now. A mission had taken place in September 2013, four months before his Muzaffarabad speech. In the Kathua and Samba districts of Jammu region in which around 12 people, including a lieutenant colonel of the Indian Army, were killed and four injured. The attacks were carried out four days ahead of a meeting between then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New York on November where they agreed to work towards restoring the ceasefire along the then turbulent loc.

More than a year later, on 5 December 2014, when J&K was in the thick of Assembly polls, JeM attacked the Mohura camp in Uri near the loc. Seventeen people, including 11 security men, were killed.

On 26 November last year, three JeM militants stormed an Army camp at Tangdhar in Kupwara district and were killed in the ensuing gunfight. A civilian was killed in the attack.

This was followed by an attack in Gurdaspur, a first in Punjab in the last eight years. Three militants in army fatigues targeted a roadside eatery, then sprayed bullets on a passenger bus and later barged into the Dina Nagar police station, which falls between Gurdaspur and Pathankot. Seven persons, including a Superintendent of Police, a Punjab provincial service officer, two home guards and three civilians, were killed.

And now, another fidayeen attack in Punjab has pushed the envelope further. On 1 January, militants stormed Pathankot airbase and held out for three days, killing seven security personnel. The attack came days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas to greet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and ahead of the foreign secretary level talks in Islamabad on 15 January.

Though the numerous attacks last year reflect an aggressive JeM takeover of J&K militancy, the perception is not borne out by the ground realities. Boasting no fewer than 20 militants in the Valley until a year-and-a-half ago, the JeM cadre is down to only five or six militants now, all operating in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. The group received its biggest jolt in October when its Pakistan based commander Adil Pathan and his close associate Abdur Rehman alias Chota Burmi were killed in south Kashmir’s Tral district.

However, security officials in the Valley play down a strict differentiation among various militant groups, saying their activities are often interchangeable. “Most often, the differences among militant groups in J&K exist only in theory,” says a senior police official wishing anonymity.

The official cited Hizbul Mujahideen’s claim of responsibility for the Pathankot airbase attack. In a statement issued to a Srinagar based news agency, Hizbul spokesman Syed Sadaqat Hussain claimed that the attack was carried out by Kashmiri militants associated with “Highway Squad”.

“The attack on Pathankot airbase by the Kashmiri Mujhadeen is a message to India that no security establishment and garrison are out of reach from militants, said Hussain. Instead of accusing Pakistan, India should read the writing on the wall and should provide an opportunity to the people of Kashmir to decide their future.”

However, security agencies in Kashmir have interpreted the statement as an attempt to give a “local colour” to the attack, something that deflects the attention away from Jaish, an internationally recognised terrorist organisation. “An attack of such sophistication is unlikely to be planned at the local level, says a police officer. Only Lashkar-e-Taiba (let) and JeM have such capability. It is difficult to also rule out an active institutional support from the security establishment of the neighbouring country.”

Earlier, Hizbul Mujahideen had also claimed responsibility for the high-profile Hyderpora attack in Srinagar on 24 June 2013 in which 11 army personnel were killed and 11 others injured. But it turned out that the ambush had been carried out by let commander Abu Qasim, who was killed in October last year. Qasim, a native of Bahawalpur in Pakistan, was also the mastermind of Udhampur attack in August 2015 in which two bsf personnel were killed.

In Kashmir, where militancy is still holding out with some recent spurt in local recruitment, the violence is generally restricted to old style encounters and an occasional ambush or two with mostly militants on the receiving end.

According to SD Goswami, PRO Defence Northern Command, more than 100 militants have been neutralised including some top commanders like LeT’s Abu Qasim. Up until the middle of last year, the number of active militants in the Valley was around 142 with around 88 local recruits and the rest from across the border. But in a recent statement, CRPF  Special Director General S K Bhagat revised the number of militants to 200 of which only about one-third are non-local. This shows that not only has the local recruitment compensated for the militant killings but the infiltration also continues to bolster ranks.

In a statement made in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary pegged a 30 percent increase in the number of local youth joining militant outfits in the Kashmir Valley this year. Compared to the 60 in 2014, as many as 79 youth have joined militancy in 2015.

What these attacks alongside the border in Jammu and now in Punjab underline is a deliberate abandonment of Kashmir as the main theatre of high profile attacks. “This may be because the Valley’s troubled image detracts from the alarming nature of even a high profile terrorist outrage, says the police officer. Hence the need to shift to other areas of the state and neighbouring Punjab, where attacks are registered and achieve their twin aim of garnering desired attention and pushing the situation over the edge.”

This view is largely shared by common people in J&K too. But despite this mindfulness with the predictable patterns of Kashmir violence, the Pathankot attack, for all its familiarity, has left both security experts and common citizens equally confounded. It has unhinged the premises on which the current Indo-Pak thaw seemed to have been founded — an engagement not only between the political leadership of the two countries but also between their security establishments. Talks between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Nasir Janjua in Bangkok last month, were expected to have ensured that the Pakistan Army was on board the fresh shot at normalisation of bilateral ties. But Pathankot has turned this hitherto resilient wisdom on Indo-Pak relations on its head.

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