The New Year Tragedy

The killing of seven civilians in twin attacks in a dusky Rajouri village marked the beginning of 2023. While the civil society ensured the targeted killings do not impact the communal amity in the sensitive Pir Panchal region, the fallout witnessed the revival of VDCs, a peak militancy tool that the government has silently abandoned, reports Yawar Hussain

The first night of 2023 brought a nondescript Dangri in Pir Panchal into global news when four civilians were mowed down and six survived injured in an attack by gunmen who had come in a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) to the village, almost 7 km from Rajouri.  Police said they were militants who disappeared in the neighbouring forests taking the cover of darkness.

The civilian killings in the Rajouri hamlet, however, didn’t stop on that Sunday night as Monday morning saw an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion killing two children while injuring five others. The device was laid by the killers in one of hamlet’s houses as a booby trap.

The slain were identified as Pritam Sharma (56) and his 33-year-old son Ashish Kumar, Deepak Kumar (23), a PHE employee, and Sheetal Kumar (48). The IED blast victims were Vihaan Kumar, 4, and 14-year-old Samiksha. Those injured in the explosion were identified as Sanvi Sharma (7), Angel Sharma, 8, Kanhaya Sharma, 14, Vansh Bhargav, 15, Sejal Sharma, 18 and Sumiksha Sharma, 20. Later, another civilian was killed in the hospital taking the toll to seven. His brother had already been killed on the first day of the attack.

Deepak was supposed to join his duty in the army’s Ordinance Service on Tuesday, the day his last rites were conducted. Residents said the masked trio with rucksacks had sought the identities of their victims before slaying them.

Militancy Free

The attack came on the heels of Jammu division being declared “almost” militancy free by Police Chief Dilbagh Singh in November 2022, and just days after an encounter in Jammu outskirts at Sidhra in which four militants, yet to be identified, were killed. Sidhra encounter, came almost a week after two civilians were killed outside the gate of a Rajouri garrison. With locals accusing soldiers of the killings and the army denying it, the government has announced an enquiry into the twin killings.

In over six months, Rajouri witnessed an attack on a military camp in Parghal three days prior to the 75th Independence Day celebrations in which four soldiers were killed along with two militants of banned Jaish-e-Mohammad. On August 15, 2022, another encounter broke out in Sujan Hills in the Budhal area.

However, all these incidents didn’t evoke protests, demands and reactions as the Dangri killings have. While political parties protested, condemned and traded charges as usual, the locals protested demanding the revival of Village Defence Committees (VDC), renewal of gun licences along with reinforcing the existing deployments in the regions that are literally living on the Line of Control (LoC).

Lt Governor Manoj Sinha personally visited the families of victims who had refused to consign the slain to flames unless they have assurances. There were massive protests cutting across faith and party lines and BJP’s top two leaders – President Ravinder Raina and Vibodh Gupta, camped in the area. Both hail from the district. Apart from Rajouri and Poonch, major areas in Chenab Valley also protested.

Protest against the killing of six people including two children in Dangri area of Pir Panchal’s Rajouri district. KL Image

LG Sinha announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh and a government job to the kin of those killed in the firing incident. Sinha assured people that those behind the attack won’t be spared. “I strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Rajouri. I assure the people that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished. My thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved families.”

DGP Singh had preceded the LG in attendance in Dangri as the police were criticised for not properly sanitising the area on Sunday evening leading to the IED blast, many hours later. He said the IED was placed to target senior officers who were scheduled to visit the area on Monday morning following the first incident.

“The IED blast was a planned attack aimed at targeting senior officers (who were to reach the site). The officers reached the spot late. The incident had happened already,” Singh told reporters in Rajouri.

The investigations into the attacks have been formally handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which has already visited the area.

Fresh Deployments

Within a day, authorities deployed Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) company in Dangri, which has a porous forest cover in its vicinity. Officials said 18 CRPF companies (over 1,800 personnel) are likely to be deployed to strengthen the security grid and provide cover to the vulnerable populace in the twin Pir Panchal districts. While eight companies will be shifted in from nearby locations, 10 companies are being rushed from Delhi.

The security grid met after the tragedy. DGP Dilbag Singh and GOC of Army’s 16 Corps Lt General Sandeep Jain reviewed the situation in the border areas of the Jammu division. Pickets of the Army, paramilitary forces and Police are being set up in sensitive villages dominated by minorities. Regular night patrolling is also being mulled in many areas in both Rajouri and Poonch districts.

CASO and Curfew

In the aftermath of the attack, District Magistrate Samba on January 4 imposed a night curfew of up to 1 km along the International Border (IB), barring unnecessary movement of the people from 9 pm to 6 am. The prohibitory order would remain in force for two months.

LG Manoj Sinha consoling the families of civilians killed in Dangri area of Pir Panchal’s Rajouri district. KL Image

“In case the movement is necessary (emergency), the person or persons are required to produce their respective identity cards to the Border Security Force (BSF) and Police authorities,” she said. “The order has been issued to deal with any kind of suspicious or anti-national movement during foggy conditions. It becomes important for the BSF to keep a check on suspicious movements on the border. Therefore, anyone found violating the prohibitory order would be dealt with the law.”

The order followed a meeting of the District Level Standing Committee on border security in which the BSF officers took up the issue of imposition of night curfew in the border areas enabling them to perform their duties effectively.

Meanwhile, government forces launched a search operation after three motorcycle-borne persons jumped a police checkpoint and escaped to a forest area in the Rajouri district on January 4.

VDCs

The government has accepted the demand for VDC revival. Last year, MHA had rechristened VDCs as Village Defence Guards (VDG) under a scheme for “vulnerable” areas in Jammu and Kashmir. A member of VDG will be given a gun and 100 rounds of ammunition. The VDG leader will get Rs 4500 per month while others will get Rs 4000 each.

Currently, 200 odd retired Army men and paramilitary forces personnel have submitted forms for being enrolled in the VDG. Their papers are being examined and a couple of them might be issued automatic weapons in the coming days.

Besides, the police started testing the weapons of Rajouri’s VDG members. They were also supplied with fresh ammunition. Policemen cleaned the guns that have not been used for years as the twin border districts of Rajouri and Poonch were declared free of militancy. So far, 70 guns have been issued to VDC members and they are currently being trained. VDGs would be equipped with either the SLR or Insas guns instead of present .303 rifles which are now outdated.

The revival of VDG culture after years of literal abandonment is being seen as the deterioration of the security situation. At its peak, 27924 civilians were serving 4248 VDCs across the erstwhile state. Though their counter-insurgency actions were not known, police records suggest there were 221 FIRs against them, including 23 cases of murders, seven cases of rape, rioting (15), NDPS Act (3) and 169 other cases.

However, in Dangri a former VDC is said to have averted more killings on January 1, the night of the first attack. Bal Krishan, 42, a garment shop, fired a couple of rounds from his .303 rifle soon after the attack. Many villagers have said that had Krishan fired at the gunmen forcing them to flee. He had been a VDC member since 1998. Of the 100 rounds of ammunition, he had exhausted 10 during training and used a few to repulse the militant attack.

Communal Amity

Selective targeting, however, did not impact the communal amity in the region. The mourning and the protests were an all-inclusive affair. The majority Muslim community and the BJP supported the bandh call given by different branches of Shri Sanatan Dharam Sabha in different parts of Jammu province. Announcements were made from mosques across the Jammu province to observe the bandh against the gruesome killings.

The strike was observed for two days in the Poonch district while protests were held across the Jammu region. Shops and business establishments remained closed in the district as hundreds of people, braving cold weather, came out to hold protests.

In Mendhar town of Poonch district, members of all communities took out a joint candle march against the Rajouri killings. Religious leaders in one voice strongly condemned the attack.

An aerial view of Rajouri town, a major trade centre in Pir Panchal valley. Pic: Internet

In Kathua, protestors assembled on the highway at Kalibari and blocked it, thereby disrupting the movement of the traffic for an hour. Led by local BJP leaders, the protestors demanded action against “Pakistan for fomenting trouble in Jammu and Kashmir and burnt an effigy of Pakistan.”

The Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIJ) asked LG Sinha to “brace up security grid and mobilise intelligence network to deter terror attacks in future in the region.”

CCIJ President Arun Gupta said, “The situation in J&K has turned grim with terrorists now carrying out targeted killings at their will in the Jammu region as well.” He held the government responsible for “disarming” VDCs that “put their lives at risk”.

Political Reaction

The killings were widely condemned.  “Deeply shocked as more details emerge of this targeted attack in Rajouri district of Jammu. I unequivocally condemn this heinous attack & send my condolences to the families of the deceased. I hope those injured in this attack will make a swift & complete recovery. #RajouriAttack,” Omar Abdullah tweeted. After the IED explosion, he added: “This apparent carelessness on the part of the security forces needs to be probed & accountability fixed. Costly lessons learnt in the past taught us not to hand over the sites of encounters/attacks without thoroughly sanitising them. Why wasn’t this SOP followed in Rajouri?”

“Condemn this cowardly act & condolences to their families. Despite being under BJP rule & its bogus claims of ending militancy, violence continues unabated. Had J&K had its own elected government, the same media would have hauled them over the coals,” Ms Mehooba Mufti tweeted.

However, she said the move to provide automatic rifles to VDCs “will not help in the long run”. “The Dangri attack and the move to provide SLRs to VDCs deflate the claim of the BJP and the L-G administration that normalcy has returned to J&K. Arming people with weapons will only serve the BJP’s agenda of creating an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and hatred. It will pit one community against the other.”

She said the latest moves only show that the BJP has failed in controlling the situation. “J&K needed a political solution and could not be resolved militarily. No power on earth can win a war against its own people,” she added.

“I condemn the killing of innocent persons. It does not matter what religion or region the victim belongs to, an innocent is an innocent,” Dr Farooq Abdullah told reporters. “What was the fault of the victims in Rajouri? Or what was the fault of the Kashmiri Pandits killed in Shopian?” he asked.

“I strongly condemn the attack on innocent civilians in Dangri village of Rajouri in no uncertain terms,” Communist leader Yousuf Tarigami said. “The incident is at odds with the government’s normalcy narrative. Unfortunate that government has failed to contain violence despite making lofty claims about improved security situation.”

“Yet another carnage. This time in Rajouri. Condemn the cowardly act. My thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives,” People’s Conference leader Sajad Lone tweeted. “The perpetrators of this dastardly act will rot in hell.”

“Such heinous acts are condemned in the strongest possible terms,” Apni Party said in a tweet. “We stand in solidarity with the civilians and pray for peace to the deceased, and strength to the bereaved.”

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq expressed concern while condemning the killings. In a statement, Mirwaiz said that his party has been in principle against all forms of killings and violence.

“Indiscriminate and irreparable loss of human lives in Jammu & Kashmir is the tragedy of this region which we are witnessing for the last more than three decades. To break this vortex and address the root cause, Hurriyat has always advocated dialogue among stakeholders.”

Members of the IkkJutt Jammu party, led by its chief Ankur Sharma, held a demonstration at Press Club, Jammu, against the killings.

Sharma said, “Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha should apologise for falsely claiming that Jammu is free of terrorism and that there is normalcy in the UT. Genocide of minorities in J&K is continuing due to the BJP’s policy of appeasement coupled with government’s inaction against terrorists and their sympathisers.”

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