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Pakistani militants bringing communal war back to J&K. Hindu killings in Rajouri are proof

The New Year morning slaughter of six Rajouri residents by jihadists has raised fears that the murderous communal war in the Jammu region will reignite.

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Evil clouds of smoke billowed from the screaming metal bowels of the ageing local transport bus, shrouding its passengers in exhaust fumes and noise as they lurched up the churned-up mud track into a nightmare. The three Kalashnikov-carrying men who had hijacked the bus near Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar in 1993 had ordered out the children and women. Then, they told the driver to drive on. At a meadow on the edge of the Sarthal forests, the passengers were asked to call out their names and segregated into two groups.

Fourteen Hindu passengers bled out on the roadside on that sunny morning, their torn-up bodies collapsing into a single bloody heap. Two more died on the journey to a local hospital.

The New Year morning slaughter of six Rajouri residents by jihadists—the first such mass killing in years—has raised fears that the murderous communal war in the Jammu region might reignite. The killing of the Kishtwar bus passengers thirty years ago, the first of its kind, set the template for this week’s communal killings—and the many massacres which preceded it.

Facing questions in Parliament, then-Home Minister Rajesh Pilot revealed the government had few answers. “Someone told me they belong to the Afghan group,” he said of the killers. “I have been making inquiries at every hour to know their whereabouts.” Even though some Indian intelligence officials claimed the killings were ordered by Pakistani terrorist Muhammad Sajjad Khan—also known by the pseudonym Sajjad Afghani—no perpetrator was ever brought to trial.

The massacre shows the jihadist threat in the Jammu region is growing—threatening to reopen savage conflicts embedded in Partition. Like it did in the face of the long-forgotten Kishtwar massacre, the government is flailing.

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The communal war

The bullet wounds recorded the story: In 2021, five soldiers had been executed at point-blank range inside an abandoned stone hut outside the mountain village of Chamrer, where they had camped when the weather turned bad. Even though the soldiers ought to have maintained a guard, Army patrols headed in the mountains around Poonch and Rajouri had encountered no terrorists for months. Four more soldiers were killed in a failed hunt for the terrorist, who melted into the forests.

Then, in August 2022, a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) fidayeen suicide assault unit attacked an Army outpost at Pargahal in Poonch, killing five soldiers—the first attack of its kind since Kashmir’s special constitutional status was revoked in August 2019. Large numbers of improvised explosive devices began to be discovered on roads across rural Jammu, and efforts to infiltrate across the Line of Control (LoC) became more regular.

Following the massacre in Kishtwar, the mountains of Jammu had become a critical theatre for jihadists seeking to expel Hindus from Muslim-majority areas north of the Chenab river.

From 1998, communal massacres gathered tempo and scale. Figures from the Jammu and Kashmir government show that 132  Hindus in the Jammu region died in six massacres across the state and adjoining Himachal Pradesh in 1998. In 2001, 108 civilians were killed in 11 major incidents, while 83 people were killed in five incidents in 2002.

The killings were often executed with exceptional savagery. Even as women in a hamlet in Budhal prepared food for a jihadist unit, the throats of 11 Hindu men were slit. The campaign of massacres continued the following year, in 2006, when terrorists killed 19 Hindus in the hamlets of Kulhand and Tharwa. Then, as pressure mounted on Pakistan in the wake of the 26/11 attacks, these large-scale killings ended.

Even though the jihadist campaign against Kashmiri Pandits has received significant media attention, the numerically-larger killings of Hindus in Jammu was ignored. Likely, the disinterest had something to do with the lack of social capital and economic  class of the Jammu victims:  The bridegroom killed in an attack on a 1998 wedding procession in Doda’s Chapnari was wearing rubber flip-flops. Even less well-reported were attacks on anti-jihadist Muslims, like the massacre of fifteen ethnic Bakarwal at Kot Charwal in 2001.

“The Hindu is a mean enemy,” Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) co-founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed proclaimed, “and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers, who crushed them by force.” That hatred—grounded in his personal experiences of Partition—shapes the jihadist war in Jammu.

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Unfinished Partition

From the elegant mall in Muree, the fires of Partition could be seen raging in Kashmir: Early in October 1947, the Pakistan government complained that then Maharaja Hari Singh had unleashed “a reign of terror.” Ever since 1936, when the feudal principality of Poonch-Jagir had been brought under the direct control of the maharaja, local élites had chafed. Following Partition, historian Ian Copland records, the resentment flared into a rebellion, spearheaded by the zamindar Qayyum Khan and his militia of demobilised soldiers.

Even as Sikhs and Hindus were targeted in pogroms across Poonch-Jagir and Mirpur, political scientist and author Christopher Snedden writes, tens of thousands of Muslims were slaughtered in Jammu. The carnage would leave less than a thousand of the over 114,000 Hindu residents of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) living in the region. The killings in Jammu claimed over 50,000 lives and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across what is now called the Line of Control.

“The methodical attempt to wipe out whole populations,” historian Yasmin Khan notes, “depended on a well-prepared, trained, uniformed, and efficient body of former soldiers, policemen and students who took the shame, honour and protection of their communities into their own hands.” Gangs armed with machine guns in jeeps were able to inflict far more harm in one or two hours than villagers using lathis and pitchforks, Khan further notes

Following the war of 1947-1948, former United Nations mediator Owen Dixon proposed replicating the logic of Partition and dividing Kashmir along communal lines.

The idea was rejected by both countries, albeit for different reasons. The idea resurfaced in discussions held in 1955 between former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his counterpart in Pakistan, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali. Ali pushed for control of Muslim-majority regions north of the Chenab and suggested placing Kashmir “under some kind of joint control of a joint army.” Nehru, however, dismissed the idea as “completely impractical.”

The idea reemerged, though, in the 2003 negotiations between India and Pakistan, initiated by former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and erstwhile Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. Niaz Naik, Musharraf’s negotiator, called for a division of Kashmir into seven provinces, with the Chenab as the international boundary.

The US-based Kashmir Study  Group also made similar proposals, which gained backing from influential politicians in PoK and elements of the National Conference.

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Facing the threat

Led by the Lahore-based jihad commander Sajid Saifullah Jat—once the commander of LeT’s Kulgam-area networks and married to a Kashmiri woman—Lashkar has shown it is determined to resume its war in Jammu. The JeM, too, has resumed operations in Kashmir and is raising funds for expanding its jihadist infrastructure. Levels of violence did not increase last year, but that could change if Islamabad decides to ramp up support for cross-LoC operations by jihadists.

To ensure these plans fail, New Delhi must carefully consider its next steps—putting national security interests ahead of electoral politics.

Fears that India is engineering demographic change in Kashmir might be hugely overblown, but they run deep. Following the Partition violence, then Kashmir Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah observed that there was no longer “a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur.” Kashmiri Muslims, he concluded, “are afraid that the same fate lies ahead for them as well.”

The politics of communal paranoia, stoked by Hindu-nationalist propaganda and vigilantism, has stoked support for Islamists—leading several times through the last decade to explosive mass uprisings against India. Anger among Muslim Gujjars—among the most pro-India constituencies in Jammu—over new job-reservation policies could further sharpen communal polarisation.

Fighting the coordinated communal campaign by jihadists will need a political response—not just more soldiers.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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