The situation in Jammu and Kashmir has taken a sudden and violent turn for the worse

The spate of targeted killings in the Kashmir Valley has sent alarm bells ringing. Security forces have pinned the attacks on hybrid terrorists -- operatives who are not on any terror lists but are radicalised enough to carry out a strike and then slip back into routine life.

On Thursday, an alleged hybrid terrorist took out a pistol and killed Vijay Kumar, a manager at Ellaqui Dehati Bank (EDB) in Areh Mohanpora village of Kulgam. Less than 12 hours later, two labourers were attacked in Budgam, and one of them succumbed to his injuries.

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir has taken a sudden and violent turn for the worse. Just last month, Union Minister Jitendra Singh made a statement that Jammu and Kashmir was fast returning to normal as the decades-long terrorism was on its last legs. Srinagar was declared 'terror-free' by police in August 2020, but now there has been a swell in terror ranks, with missing local youth from the Valley posing a major security challenge.

"With the crackdown on separatists, the recent sentencing of Yasin Malik, and the Centre's move to restore land of Kashmiri Pandits, there is pressure on terrorists to make their presence felt in the form of fear,” an officer told India Today.

Around 160 terrorists are active in the Valley, among them 70 are local militants and 90 are foreign operatives. The number of hybrid terrorists may close to 50, by conservative estimates. Sources said Pakistan is ensuring that weapons, mostly pistols and sticky bombs, make it into the hands of these hybrid militants.

Lt Gen KJS Dhillon (Retd) stated, "Pakistan is escalating terror-related violence in Kashmir. This has been happening in the last three to four weeks and it is coinciding with the situation in Pakistan. Their economy is in doldrums, inflation is at its peak, the army is being openly questioned. These instances have never happened in Pakistan. So a diversion is created by engineering attacks in Kashmir."

An officer in the Jammu and Kashmir Police said Pakistan has been sending consignments of pistols every single day from across the International Border. Although several consignments have been seized, many have made it into the hands of hybrid terrorists, who are now unleashing terror, he added.

"I don't recall this sense of uncertainty even in the 1990s,” the policeman said. “It is impossible to go out with my family now. Even though I have tried to change my routine, anyone can be a target now. I have a domestic help who is a migrant. I have told my family there are only two possible targets in the house - him [domestic help] and me, and both of us have to be extremely careful henceforth.”

Security forces have been guarding camps where migrant workers live, but several of them have already left, choosing life over livelihood. Most of the victims were targeted at work, be it a bank manager on his way to the bank, a teacher going to school, or labourers at work or returning home. But as the fear psychosis grips Kashmir, a senior cop says the Jammu and Kashmir Police has also been at the receiving end. Off duty cops have always been soft targets. There have been nine cop killings this year alone, whereas 20 were killed in 2021.

A senior officer said, "We don't want to sound insensitive but there is pressure on everyone. The cops and locals have not left the Valley out of fear. Officials are trying to convince the non-Muslims to stay on."

Since August 2019, when the Centre abrogated Article 370, 90 Kashmiri Muslims have been killed in terror-related violence. Comparatively, 18 Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus have been killed in the Valley in the same period. Sources said, "The Kashmiri Pandit employees, recruited under the Prime Minister’s special rehabilitation package from 2008 onward will eventually have to return as they are government employees. The administration cannot agree to the demands of them completely shifting out of Kashmir Valley. The government employees can be posted in district headquarters and at places where adequate security is available. We have been conveying this to them.”

Additionally, security forces are on tenterhooks ahead of the Amarnath Yatra, for which a record number of 8 lakh pilgrims are expected to turn up. While J&K Police says all forces should contribute in operations, over 80 per cent of counter-terror operations are generated after intelligence inputs by the police force. The forces believe that the onus is on the J&K Police to take the lead and think out of the box. To counter the rise in recruitment, the Home Ministry has asked police to work on multi-dimensional fronts to prevent local youth from joining terrorist ranks. But with few surrenders, and high level of radicalisation and alienation, the security forces are looking at an uphill task.

Security forces have kept up a sustained pressure on militants. In May,14 encounters took place in which 27 terrorists were neutralised; of these, seven were Pakistani while 20 were local terrorists. This is the highest number of kills in a month this year.

In May, two security personnel and three civilians died in targeted killings. An official told India Today on condition of anonymity that the muscular policy doesn’t seem to be working. “We are killing terrorists but till the root cause of alienation and radicalisation is not addressed, we will not be making much headway,” he said.

LT Gen KJS Dhillon (Retd) asserted that there has to be responsibility and accountability fixed at the local, district and SHO level. He said each officer knows his area well. The officers should be held accountable and strict action should be taken against people in whose jurisdiction the incident has happened, he added.

On his part, Kashmir Zone IGP Vijay Kumar said, "We are working on several fronts to prevent local terrorist recruitment. The support of parents is absolutely necessary. Parents have played a vital role in bringing a large number of youths back from terrorist ranks. We are also tracking new recruits through technical surveillance.”

On Thursday, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval briefed Union Home Minister Amit Shah regarding the recent targeted killings in Kashmir and also updated him on the efforts being made to settle the fears of Kashmiri Pandits. The situation in the Valley is at a tipping point; the Centre’s next move may well determine whether balance is restored or Kashmir goes over the edge.