Terror attack on Amarnath pilgrims – What beyond?

July 31, 2017
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


The dastardly terrorist attack on the bus carrying 60 Amarnath pilgrims returning post visiting the cave on July 10 indicates more terror in the offing, requiring ramped up security and adherence to rules of movement. Seven pilgrims (five from Gujarat and two from Maharashtra) including six women were killed and 19 including three policemen were injured. The bus bearing a Gujarat number plate was ambushed near Khanabal, Anantnag. The bus had reportedly suffered a puncture because of which it got separated from the rest of the convoy, continued to move forward after the 7 PM deadline when security cover is lifted and no movement is permitted, virtually walking into the ambush site. Although it is reported that the target was police, when the bus appeared instead, there can be no discounting the possibility that terrorists had the Amarnath Yatra in their crosshairs and would have, and will continue to monitor movement of vehicles carrying pilgrims with lookout for stragglers to target them.

With the increasing spate of violence over past few months, no amount of extra caution is enough. The national highway used by Amarnath pilgrims are provided security cover from 4 AM to 7 PM. The ill-fated bus was neither registered with the Amarnath Shrine Board nor did it adhere to the movement regulations, which is a serious lapse. Whether terrorists was monitoring the bus which was in Srinagar for two days post completing the visit also remains a possibility, and if that was indeed the case then the role of the driver and the timing of the puncture needs to be probed too. Post the puncture, when forward movement beyond 7 PM became evident, was there any possibility of contacting the nearest security force – are vehicles carrying pilgrims issued emergency numbers? These are issues needing streamlining that may get discovered through the inquiry but may be buried because of politics. According to a media report, after a meeting between intelligence agencies, CRPF and J&K Police on June 25, a warning issued said, "Intelligence input received from Anantnag SSP reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 police officers.

The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on a yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tension throughout the nation." Ironically, the pathetic political atmosphere in the country keeps us divided against the terror threat, where the requirement is to stand united. Drawing political mileage from the tragedy of these victims amounts to as heinous an act as that of the terrorist strike. Some of the political statements are devoid of shame, including one after turning a blind eye to the recent communal violence in Basirhat, West Bengal, even as intelligence indicates the Basirhat violence is handiwork of the LeT. Cross-border links for the ambush on the Amarnath pilgrims have also been confirmed, Abu Ismail of LeT being the mastermind - a Pakistani national who is reportedly successor to Abu Dujana who was hunted down by security forces. A senior J&K Police official said, "We have identified Ismail and two other men who were with him during the attack. We have also identified the people who drove them to their spot and who brought them their weapons. We know the direction in which the terrorists are hidden and we'll hunt them down soon." There is no doubt that the Amarnath Yatra provides considerably money earning opportunity to the local Kashmiris. Many may not even know that all the pujaris at the Amarnath Cave who perform pooja and distribute prashad without exception are all Muslims, indicating the uniqueness of India.

But the China backed Pakistani terrorism has succeeded in radicalizing large cross-sections of the Valley-South Kashmir over the years while our intelligence agencies by design or default looked the other way. As per reports, this attack on Amarnath pilgrims was combined operation by the LeT and HuM which has happened for the first time ever. The Amarnath Yatra is to continue till August 7, hence terrorists will be looking for more such opportunities. We have to move much beyond taking stock of the situation, holding meetings and briefings, shedding tears (some crocodile) and offering condolences – a concentric cycle till the next terror attacks. China and Pakistan are out to destabilize India and the level of violence should be expected to go up with reports of Pakistan having supplied chemicals to terrorist organizations.

It would not be surprising if China is advising Pakistan how to raise the level. Zhou-en-Lai had suggested to Ayub Khan in 1965 that Pakistan should prepare for prolonged conflict with India instead of short - term wars and raise a militia force to act behind enemy lines. A year later a Pakistani delegation to Beijing was told by the Chinese that China had much experience in irregular warfare. In 2010, British media had reported Chinese military advisors working alongside Taliban battling NATO. So, let us not get carried away by the usual rhetoric of terrorists being frustrated, Pakistan's frustration over failure to capture J&K, and these being mere pin-pricks. The collusive China-Pakistan anti-India nexus is moving along a well defined path and they have no constraints of politicking and vote-bank politics like India. We have must put in place a well thought out strategy for Kashmir. This must include selective surgery against heads of the hydra within J&K (not terrorists alone) for driving the right signal home. Same should be the treatment for the anti-national elements in the rest of India including Lutyen's Delhi. Finally, the hybrid war must be carried 'inside' enemy territory, without which we will continue to remain at the receiving end. Cross-border artillery firing is no deterrence and we are not fooling a determined enemy anyway. Mere rhetoric and mudslinging within political parties of India is only portraying a 'soft' India, the stand taken by India at Doka La notwithstanding. Defence needs to be looked at much more seriously; beyond Make in India and big ticket imports; we cannot neglect soldiers at the cutting edge.