Indian Kashmir explodes again

Posted in India | 15-Jun-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

A peace march was organized by the Indian army to protest against a bomb explosion in the town of Pulwama south of Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital.

NEW DELHI: The explosion was the biggest in Indian administered Kashmir since the October 2001 car bomb and subsequent gunfire attack by Islamic rebels on the Kashmir legislative assembly in which 40 people were killed. Fourteen people including three police officers have been killed and 100 injured (8 in critical condition) when a powerful car bomb exploded Monday outside a school in a busy southern Kashmir town adjoining summer capital Srinagar. The car was loaded with 40 kilograms of RDX. The US has condemned the attack.

None of the over dozen militant groups active in Indian Kashmir have claimed responsibility for the explosion. The region's main militant alliance, the United Jihad Council has called it the work of Indian security forces. ``It is a clear act by Indian agencies to create a wedge between mujahedin (holy warriors) and the general masses,’’ a council statement said in Srinagar. Indian officials have dismissed the allegation.

A string of bold bomb attacks have racked Kashmir in the past couple of months, with terrorists increasingly targeting soft targets that include schools. Last month an attack on school children in the heart of Srinagar left 2 dead and more than 20 children among 50 injured. Later, a bomb wrapped as a gift exploded in a home in south Srinagar killing three family members. In April, passengers of the India-Pakistan peace bus connecting the Indian and Pakistan Kashmir, had a miraculous escape when terrorists struck the tourist quarters in the heart of Srinagar, where they were staying, despite heavy security.

The attacks come in the wake of events that only augur well for the India-Pakistan peace process. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has visited the Siachen glacier, the highest geographical point that Indian and Pakistani armies face each other on a continuous basis. Manmohan said that he wants Siachen to be converted into a ``peace mountain.’’ Then there has been the successful Pakistan visit of Leader of Opposition L K Advani, widely recognized as having masterminded the failure of the Agra summit in 2001 and now a proponent of the peace process as well as Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan; further the separatist Hurriyat leaders of Indian Kashmir have been on a historic visit to Pakistan, feted by the Pakistani establishment. To add to the high-talk, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has said that if there is political will, the Kashmir problem can be solved in two weeks.

It is to the credit of the Indian and Pakistani governments that both now view themselves as targets and victims of terrorism that has to be dealt with a firm hand. Extremists in Pakistan have attempted to assassinate Musharraf due to his espousal of the peace process as well as a public face of working towards a moderate Pakistan.

Linking Indo-Pakistan terror attacks

Indian security agencies have been linking the attacks in India to the sectarian violence and suicide attacks on places of worship of Shia’s in Pakistan. These attacks are being viewed with increased circumspection by New Delhi, with intelligence agencies as well as the foreign and home ministries closely studying the implications of the attacks on Indian security.

While the proximate cause for the attacks in Pakistan are seen to be linked to Iraq where the Sunnis have been divested of power, in the post-Saddam Hussein scenario, such bold suicide attacks do not portend well for India. The recent attack in Islamabad that killed 19 and injured 65, mostly Shi’ites is the worst attack ever in the Capital. The bomber blew himself up in a gathering of minority Shi'ite Muslims at a festival also attended by majority Sunnis.

The following attack on a mosque in Karachi is being seen as powerful indicators of the re-grouping of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which has been orchestrating suicide attacks in both India and Pakistan. Apart from links with the al-Qaeda, the JeM is also suspected to be behind the assassination attempts on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in 2003.

There have been several intelligence reports that some of the top officials of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, not necessarily owing allegiance to Musharraf, have recently met jehadi leaders like Hamid Gul, Masood Azhar and Syed Salahuddin. Indian sources believe the rebirth of Jaish as well as the attacks in Pakistan follows these meetings.

Until the late 1990s, the Hizbul Mujahideen (operating mostly in Kashmir) which had perfected the art of remote-triggered explosions, created havoc in India. It took the Indian Army years to counter the tactic. As the security forces got wiser about Hizbul’s tactic and got around its IEDs (improvised explosive devices), Hizbul was marginalized. It was then that the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and still later the JeM shot into prominence with their suicide squads. Some reports suggest that the Monday attack in Srinagar was a suicide attack as well as the bomb exploded next to a police picket that was guarding the school.

Some of the bold attacks in India include the Indian Parliament (December 13, 2001), the Akshardham temple in Gujarat (September 2002 that left 40 dead), the Jammu & Kashmir assembly (October 1, 2001, 50 dead) as well as the Raghunath temple (November 2002, 12 killed, 45 injured) in the same state. The LeT and Jaish have also been linked to the September 11, 2001 fidayeen (suicide) attacks on the world trade towers.

The recent attention on JeM has come about due to the other more international terrorist outfit the LeT facing the heat from the US as well as the United Nations. Both the US and UN have imposed bans on the group, with the UN including the LeT in the banned list recently. LeT's post-9/11 global character may have made it too hot to handle, hence the transfer of attention to Jaish, feel Indian officials.

It should, however, noted that terrorist outfits only play to the already simmering angst in Pakistani society. According to the Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis group, Pakistan's sectarian terrorists are thriving because Musharraf uses and panders to religious groups to counter civilian opposition. ``While the tentacles of sectarianism in Pakistan are spread far and wide terrorism is its most pernicious expression.’’ Thousands of Shi'ite and majority Sunni Muslims have been killed in religious unrest in Pakistan in recent years, with attacks including bomb blasts, suicide bombings and targeted killings. Last year 160 people died.

Taking note of the recent attacks in Indian Kashmir, Manmohan has also warned that that confidence building measures between the two countries were still vulnerable to the next terrorist attack. “If we have a major attack like the one on Parliament, that could upset the whole process,” Manmohan told a group of foreign correspondents he had invited to his residence to mark his one year in the office.

Although there is no foolproof protection, in the last few years India has undertaken a massive exercise to bolster security in the country to stave off potential attacks. The Indian efforts have followed orders from then home minister Advani, to clear all pending proposals for modernization of the police forces. While infiltration of militants from across the border is highest during the ongoing summer months, the fencing of the border along Indian and Pakistani Kashmir is believed to have led to a reduction of attempts to cross the border. However, there are always novel ways to circumvent a problem, one of which is the use of chemicals to melt the wire meshing of the fencing. The security forces have to be extremely nimble.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)