By Sanchita Bhattacharya
The northern District of Baramulla has been one of the worst militant infested Districts of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It is the largest of 10 Districts in the Valley, both in terms of population and area. Spread over 4,588 square kilometers, it is bordered by Kupwara in the west, Budgam and Poonch in the south, parts of the summer capital, Srinagar, and Kargil in the east, and the Neelam District in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the north. Baramulla, consequently, has immense ‘geo-strategic importance’ for the Pakistani handlers of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) and other foreign terrorist formations, as it serves as a principal route of infiltration into the Indian side. As a result, Baramulla has emerged as a nodal point of terrorism in J&K.
According to the Institute for Conflict Management database, a total of 627 persons, including 401 militants, 119 Security Force (SF) personnel and 108 civilians, have been killed in terrorist-related incidents in the District since 2001. While there was a continuous increase in fatalities till 2006 (barring 2003), the fatalities have registered a broadly declining trend since. There was, however, a spurt in 2010 to 72 killed, with SF fatalities at 22, and terrorists accounting for 45.
Significantly, 2010 also equaled the 2006 peak in the number of encounters, at 41, between SFs and terrorists. There were 26 encounters in 2007, 18 in 2005 and 17 in 2008.
In the most recent encounter, the SFs killed a foreign militant, ‘Chacha Talha’ of the LeT in Reban village in the Sopore area of the District on March 28, 2011. Talha was active in the Sopore-Rafiabad belt of the Baramulla District.
Some other major encounters since January 2010 include:
October 23, 2010: Three terrorists were killed as the Army foiled an infiltration bid near the Line of Control (LoC) in Uri sector.
August 29-30, 2010: The Army killed nine terrorists in a failed infiltration bid near the LoC in the Uri sector. Sources said the number of militants in the infiltrating group was about 15.
May 7, 2010: Seven LeT militants and two Army personnel were killed in a gunfight that lasted over 24 hours, ending in the evening in the Shiekhpora forest area of Rafiabad.
February 23, 2010: Five top militants and three SF personnel, including an Army officer, were killed and three soldiers were injured in a fierce 18-hour gun battle between the SFs and militants in the Sopore town.
Unsurprisingly, Baramulla has been notified as a ‘Disturbed Area’, along with Jammu, Kathua, Poonch, Udhampur, Rajouri and Doda Districts of the Jammu Division, and Srinagar, Budgam, Anantnag, Pulwama and Kupwara Districts of the Srinagar Division, under Section 3 of the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990. The Act came into being in 1958 and was extended to Kashmir in 1990, and has remained in force since.
Sources indicate that a large number of armed militants are present in Baramulla. Shiv Murari Sahai, Inspector General of Police (Kashmir Zone), thus noted, in November 2010, "Around 150 militants were active in three north Kashmir Districts of Bandipora, Baramulla and Kupwara. They had used the recent unrest in the Valley to regroup and reorganise their ranks." Militant outfits such as LeT and HM have been very visible, with the maximum number terrorist fatalities drawn from these two groups. Since 2001, at least 93 LeT terrorists have been killed in the District, along with 17 HM and 11 Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) cadres. The terrorists killed include one ‘Deputy Chief of Operations’, two ‘Divisional Commanders’, one ‘District Commander’, five ‘Commanders’ of LeT; one ‘Deputy Chief’, four ‘Battalion Commanders’, two ‘District Commanders’ and three ‘Commanders’ of HM; one Divisional Commander’, two ‘District Commanders’ and one ‘Commander’ of JeM; one ‘Chief Commander’, two ‘District Commanders’ and two ‘Commanders’ of Al Badr.
On a positive note, there are very few fatalities among the civilians in terrorism related incidents in the District and the general trend on this index is declining. Nevertheless, Baramulla bore the brunt of the summer unrest of 2010. Out of 104 protesters killed, 33 (31.73 per cent) died in this District alone. Though the escalation started in Srinagar in the last week of June 2010, it progressively swelled, with a large number of demonstrations erupting in Sopore in Baramulla District. Media reports indicate that, between January 1 and July 7, 2010, the town of Baramulla accounted for 46 clashes (involving violent mobs), while nearby Sopore, which has been an historic stronghold of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), witnessed 21 clashes.
This was far from coincidental, since Sopore has emerged as a significant hub of terrorism and subversion in the State. On March 2, 2010, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, had noted, "Militants are grouping in the Sopore area and Kulgam District. These areas are a challenge for us on the militancy front. We are taking extra measures to deal with the militants there." Subsequently, on June 30, 2010, Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram observed, "Anti-national elements are clearly linked to LeT, which is active in the Sopore area."
Clearly, troop cuts, long pushed by an uncomprehending ‘peace lobby’, both domestic and international, and by aggressive Pakistani diplomacy, have had an adverse impact on the security scenario in the State in general and Baramulla in particular. Significantly, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was withdrawn from Baramulla in the aftermath of unrest following the killing of four civilians in June 2009. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, however, had insisted that the disengaging of the force from law and order duties in Baramulla was part of the latest strategy agreed to by the Centre and J&K Government to "redraw the lines of responsibility" of the various forces stationed in the State. "When I visited Jammu & Kashmir on June 11 and 12, we agreed that the lines of responsibility (for maintenance of security in J&K) must be redrawn...we have been in touch with J&K to allow us to withdraw some of the CRPF companies," Chidambaram had said on July 1, 2009. He added, further, that it was only on June 30, 2009, that the Chief Minister had got in touch with him to convey that the J&K Police was ready to take over from the CRPF in Baramulla.
A confidential report by the J&K Police, however, has blamed the resurgence of militancy in Sopore on troop ‘relocation’. Yet, Chief Minister Abdullah, on March 18, 2011, boasted that, with marked improvement in the internal security situation and gradual restoration of peace, 35,000 Army personnel and hundreds of Central Paramilitary Force (CPMF) personnel had been shifted out of J&K in the preceding 15 months alone: "We have reduced thousands of troops and also decreased the number of Central Paramilitary Forces from internal duty without creating any hype... the process (of troop reduction) will continue."
In view of escalating trends in both terrorist and street violence, such a position is clearly problematic. Conspicuously, the infrastructure, logistics and human resources of Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism are entrenched and active (both covertly and overtly) in the State, with Sopore-Baramulla as their prominent hub. The events of 2010 have unambiguously demonstrated the dangers of complacence and of the hasty, politically motivated, undermining of the security grid. Such dangers can only deepen, particularly in the context of inputs that the latest strategy of Pakistan's external intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and LeT, is to combine renewed infiltration attempts by heavily-armed terrorists with escalating civil unrest, to ensure that Kashmir remains in a state of chaos, despite the loss of tempo on the terrorism front.
Author is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management