All acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable,” the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration read, “regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.” These words from the diplomatic high table became more salient, their resonance more sombre on Wednesday, after the killing of Colonel Manpreet Singh, Commanding Officer of 19 Rashtriya Rifles in Kokernag, Major Aashish Dhonchak, and Deputy Superintendent of Police Himayun Muzamil Bhat by terrorists in Anantnag in Kashmir. Colonel Singh became an officer in the 12th Battalion of the Sikh Light Infantry, the same battalion where his father served as a Naik. He received the Sena Medal in 2021. Like Singh’s children, Major Dhonchak’s three-year-old daughter will not get to know her father. Bhat’s father, who retired as IG Police, had to bury his son. These tragic deaths also bear a reminder: Peace and normalcy are still fragile, still all too vulnerable in Jammu & Kashmir. They must be protected through continuing vigilance.
In a sense, the killings in Anantnag run against the grain of the bigger picture over the last few years in J&K, now a Union Territory. According to Home Ministry data, there was a 32 per cent reduction in acts of terror between 2019 and 2022 over 2016-2019. Deaths of civilians were down by 14 per cent and of security personnel by 52 per cent. Data from 2020 up to June this year shows a steady decline in the local recruitment of terrorists. The increased security presence and attempts at dismantling local participation in networks of violence have had significant successes. However, there have also been some disturbing straws in the wind. Recently, there have been attacks on security targets south of the Pir Panjal range in Jammu, Rajouri and Poonch, which indicate a departure from the militancy, post-Burhan Wani. After the killing of Wani in South Kashmir in 2016, young, disaffected men were often recruited by handlers and given minimal training, before they attempted terrorist attacks. These actors also had, sometimes, a presence on social media. The shootout at Anantnag seems, more, a throwback to the 1990s, with heavily armed militants indicating a more well-equipped adversary. The successes of the security forces in recent years notwithstanding, it is clear that maintaining peace and order will require continuing alertness, a robust intelligence network and a strategic calculus that allows for nimble tactics.
The uneasy state of India’s relations with Pakistan points to the complexity of the challenge that lies ahead. The G20 declaration also said that “effective counterterrorism measures, support for the victims of terrorism and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing.” For India, the deaths in Anantnag underline this reality even as they are a grim warning of the perils of letting down the guard.