• 19 April, 2024
Geopolitics & National Security

Terrorism in J&K: Shifting Across Pir Panjal

Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd) Tue, 20 Feb 2024   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

The formidable Pir Panjal range, the transient home of nomadic shepherds of Gujjars and Bakarwal tribes, slices Jammu and Kashmir into two distinct areas. In the first few decades of militancy, the turbulence was mainly in the Valley, areas that lie to the North and West of Pir Panjal, with a smattering of incidents across it in the Rajauri-Poonch belt. Over the past two years, the script has changed. While Kashmir began to reap the benefits of a precipitous decline in terrorist incidents, the Rajauri-Poonch-Surankot area witnessed an uptick.

For several reasons, areas west of Pir Panjal have mostly been peaceful.  The nomadic tribes are ethnically different from Kashmiris and have seldom displayed disaffection with the policies of the Indian government. Indeed, they vote with their feet, turning out in large numbers in every election. The remaining populace of the belt, too, has seldom exhibited the sparks of rebellion that characterised some of the areas of Kashmir valley – except way back in July 1947 when it had mounted a no-tax campaign against the then Maharaja of Kashmir and even appealed to the tribes of the Northwestern Frontier for help against the government.

Compared to the mountains of Kupwara, the Line of Control (LoC) in this area, though porous, runs for 225 km through a cluster of lower mountains with fewer dense forests to offer a natural haven for infiltrating militants.  The demography, too, is less favourable for those seeking refuge. The combination of these factors appeared to result in a lower incidence of Pakistan-sponsored violence than on the other side of the Pir Panjal, e.g. in the contiguous districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Kupwara, Pulwama, Shopian and Baramulla. The only major operation in the early 2000s, Operation Sarp Vinash, launched on the reports that the Hill Kaka area near Rajouri had become a bastion of militants, did not result in significant results.

But the contrast of fatalities suffered by security forces in the past few years tells us a story: between October 2021 and April 2023, 6 army personnel lost their lives in Kashmir, while the figures for the same period in the Poonch Rajauri belt stood at 21. The unfortunate sequence continued with several high-profile violent incidents. In April, five soldiers lost their lives when their convoy was attacked in an ambush – a rare phenomenon. In August, three soldiers of the Rashtriya Rifles died in an anti-terrorist operation in the forests of Halan.  On 13 September 23, two army officers (including a commanding officer, Col Manpreet Singh) and DSP Humayun Muzzamil Bhatt were killed in the Garol forest in Kokernag. This was followed by a long-drawn cordon and search operation ending in the third week of the same month.  In November 2023, two army Captains and two soldiers were killed during an operation in the Gulabgarh area near Kalakote; the terrorists were hiding in the graziers huts.

What has led to this pronounced tactical shift by militants, leading to an upsurge in the Poonch Rajauri region?

One important reason for this pivot appears to be the changed administrative dynamic in Kashmir after the abrogation of articles 370 and 35A in 2019. The new regime spearheaded a renewed counter-terrorist effort, leading to the neutralisation of 225, 184 and 187 terrorists, respectively, in the three years following 2019. There was an equally robust drive to defang the Over Ground Workers (OGW) network; 635 OGWs were arrested. The continuous setbacks to militants have driven them to move shop elsewhere.

The post-2019 drive focused a great deal on urban centres in the Valley. These towns provided suitable places for militants to rest, reorganise and coordinate activities. Security forces have traditionally avoided large-scale operations in towns to avoid collateral damage. With the decimation of the OGW ecosystem and improved surveillance, towns in the Valley became a far less attractive option for the militants.

Historically, the Rajauri-Poonch part of J&K was treated as a transit point as the proximity of the LoC made the intrusions into the Rajauri-Poonch area relatively easier vis a vis the Valley. After infiltrating through the LoC, terrorists could stay put for a few days before completing the foray into the Valley by crossing the Pir Panjal range; the areas of Kulgam are accessible from Rajauri, and Uri can be reached from Poonch. When the situation in Kashmir began to become too hot for them, the tanzeems appeared to have decided to create mayhem in Rajauri Poonch as well. The far-flung inhabitations – much of the rural population lives in dhoks rather than villages – and availability of dense forests have made Pir Panjal a favoured route for militants. Also, from the point of view of security forces who have to chase militants, the terrain on the foothills of Pir Panjal is broken and far more challenging to negotiate than the plains of the Valley.

Some experts also point to another factor – the redeployment of some formations to Eastern Ladakh in 2020 following the outbreak of skirmishes with China. Removing these troops possibly opened up voids, making militant strikes somewhat easier. It is important to note that this region was quieter when the decision was made to move formations – including an anti-terrorist force – to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. It is fair to conclude that the puppeteers of militants would have taken the decision to up the ante when the newly opened-up spaces became visible.

Another striking change in the modus operandi of militants has been the use of the YSMS technology for communication. This form enables the use of smartphones in VHF mode without needing a network or SIM. The phone is paired to a radio set via Bluetooth. This form leaves no digital imprint, making surveillance and tracking challenging propositions. This has acted as a force multiplier for the militants who operate from mountain slopes and thus have a clear line of sight needed to use VHF communication.

What should be the way forward for the army?

It needs no reiteration that lessons must be rapidly learnt from the encounters in this region, and measures such as increasing troop density in affected areas, better protection along roads and tracks, improved coordination with local intelligence and stringent action against known OGWs be taken. Having served in the army for nearly four decades, I am sure the Army has already absorbed the lessons and adopted countermeasures.

Equally important is the issue of the use of technology and denial of the same to the adversary. Other than the sophisticated means of communication mentioned elsewhere in this article, militants have used drones for the resupply of ammunition and logistics. These flying objects must be targeted from the LoC itself.

As mentioned before, the nomadic population has traditionally been pro-India. The Army, too, has enjoyed a good relationship with this segment. It would appear that there is a need to reinforce this bond – and strengthen it wherever it has weakened. No insurgency can ever be surmounted without the support of the locals. This is an excellent time to remind ourselves of that adage.

Above all, those who study terrorism, militancy and insurgency know that it is always a long slogging fight. Wherever asymmetrical warfare is in play, the weaker opponent intrinsically enjoys a particular advantage. The great Lawrence of Arabia once said, “War upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” The Indian Army knows that well and is adept at taking the fight to the finish, no matter what it takes to do that.

(Maj Gen Neeraj Bali, SM (Retd) is the author of the bestselling book The Winning Culture – Lessons from the Indian Army to Transform Your Business)





Major General Neeraj Bali, Sena Medal, is an Indian Army veteran who served for 37 years as an Infantry officer. He has also been CEO of two companies, a global speaker and is founder of Leadscape Advisors, a corporate leadership training company. He is the author of the bestselling book The Winning Culture – Lessons from the Indian Army to Transform Your Business.


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