National

Unquiet Flows The Tawi: Back-To-Back Militant Attacks In Jammu Amid Claims Of 'Peace'

The recent attack on a bus carrying pilgrims in Reasi district spotlights Jammu’s increased vulnerability to militancy

Photos: Yasir Iqbal
The Wreckage: The damaged bus being towed away from the site of the June 9 attack in Reasi Photos: Yasir Iqbal
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June 9 was a special day for Shamsher Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mandal prabhari of Pouni tehsil in Jammu’s Reasi district. Forty-six-year-old Singh had planned to watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony on TV with his wife and two children. In anticipation, he drove from Pouni to his home in Ransoo village, nestled in the hills, which incidentally is also a base camp for pilgrims visiting the Shiv Khori shrine.

The 20 km journey from Pouni to Ransoo is a serpentine route, characterised by its frequent slopes and sharp bends. On one side of the road lies the Kanda area, a deep gorge offering breathtaking views. The other side is flanked by towering hills called Kadol Kala, covered with dense forests. This scenic road winds through rugged terrain, eventually leading to the Shiv Khori shrine. Along the way, travellers also encounter the tranquil shrine of Pir Baba, adding to the route’s spiritual allure.

A notebook with scribbles by an unknown person found at the site
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Just as the oath-taking ceremony was about to begin, tragedy filtered into Singh’s neighbourhood. A bus carrying pilgrims had met with an accident in Kanda, located between Bhamblya and Ransoo villages, he heard. Soon, it was revealed that militants had attacked the bus. Singh rushed to the scene, where he was confronted with the sight of ambulances with blaring sirens, the wailing injured and mute bodies. He stayed awake the entire night, working with volunteers at the accident site.

The tragedy occurred on June 9, at 6:10 pm, when militants ambushed a bus carrying pilgrims from the Shiv Khori shrine to Katra. They fired at the driver, causing the bus to plunge into the Kanda gorge. Nine people were killed and 31 others were wounded. Trees in the deep gorge briefly impeded the bus’s descent, but the out-of-control vehicle fell further under its own weight.

A clay pot, part of the funeral rites, at the deceased bus driver Vijay Kumar’s home
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The wrecked bus was eventually retrieved by Balwan Motors using cranes. The company is owned by five brothers, all of whom were present at the site four days after the incident, working together under the leadership of their eldest brother, Rashpal Singh.

For Raj Veer Sharma, a 26-year-old from Bhamblya village, located 6 km from the site, the experience was harrowing. On Tuesday, June 12, he was at the scene as a crane pulled up the heavily damaged pilgrim bus up to the road.

Belongings of those who died or were injured in the Reasi attack
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Meanwhile, as soon as the bullet-ridden and severely damaged carriage of the bus was extracted from the gorge, Sharma painted its numberplate red. “I don’t want the family members of those pilgrims who died and were wounded in the incident to ever see the bus number and recognise it,” he says. “Once we move the vehicle from here, people will take photos, and when the family members of the victims see the bus number, they will be heartbroken to realise this was the bus in which their loved ones died. That’s why I erased the number.”

There was no security at the site on that Tuesday afternoon. Just two police checkpoints dotted the over 80-km stretch from Katra to the accident site.

At the Sula Stop checkpoint, local journalist Karan Deep cautions the Outlook team, which visited the site. “Don’t offer a lift to anyone, even if they appear to be in dire need. You never know who they might really be.”

Belongings of those who died or were injured in the Reasi attack
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Along the way, tourists took pictures at the Chenab Bridge. Some enjoyed rafting in calm waters. At Kanda, some pilgrims returning from the Shiv Khori shrine stopped to examine the bus’ wreck and moved on.

Sharma, one of the first rescuers on the scene, found the driver with bullet wounds in his head and groin. Some wounded passengers told him that a militant had suddenly appeared in front of the bus and opened fire on the driver. Despite his injuries, the driver managed to drive a few metres, until the conductor attempted to take control of the steering wheel. However, the bus veered out of control and plunged into a deep gorge.

“If the bus had stopped, they would have killed all the passengers,” says local resident Sunil Kumar. Kumar says militants continued firing at the bus as it rolled down, leaving locals convinced that all 50 passengers would have died if the vehicle had halted. Authorities have retrieved 25 bullets from the scene. Locals praise the bravery of the driver and conductor, who, despite being hit, managed to steer the bus a few metres further before it plunged into the gorge. Kumar believes they deserve martyr status and that job opportunities should be provided for their families.

Belongings of those who died or were injured in the Reasi attack
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The rescue operation was harrowing, according to Sharma. As soon as he heard about the militant attack, he didn’t think twice before jumping into his vehicle and joining the rescue efforts with friends. “They were all crying for help. I was helping a 56-year-old man, but he kept asking, ‘Mein bach jaoonga? (Will I survive?)’ and when I reassured him that he would, he asked if his son would survive. I saw the 16-year-old boy in the backseat. He was dead, with a bullet in his head.”

Rescuers lifted the injured and placed them next to concrete road barriers. Authorities then transported them to nearby health centres, apart from the Reasi Hospital and the Government Medical College, Jammu. A local resident showed photos on his phone of the injured lying next to the road barriers. “We weren’t concerned about our own safety while rescuing people; our main worry was whether we could save everyone,” he says. “It was challenging to retrieve the bodies and injured due to the crevasse, so we formed a human chain to expedite the process. All the injured were pleading, ‘Save us,’” Sharma says. “The last person we rescued was a woman, but sadly, she did not survive.”

There was no security there that Tuesday afternoon. Just two police checkpoints ON the stretch from Katra to the accident SITE.

Sharma was wearing an orange shirt, but by the time he returned home at midnight, it was stained deep red. “No one slept in the area that night,” he recalls. “I didn’t sleep either. I kept thinking of a child whose body we wrapped in white cloth and salvaged.”

Of the nine killed in the attack, the driver, Vijay Kumar (40), and his 19-year-old conductor, Arun Kumar, were locals from Reasi. The passengers on the 53-seater bus, including the seven other victims, hail from different states. Four victims were from Rajasthan and three from Uttar Pradesh (UP). Among the deceased were the two-year-old son of victim Pooja Sawhney and 16-year-old Anurag Verma from UP. At least 10 of the victims sustained bullet wounds.

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Locals believe that the timing of the bus being targeted just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oath ceremony cannot be a coincidence. They also suggest that the selection of a bus carrying pilgrims from UP, Rajasthan and Delhi does not seem accidental. “It seems they were waiting for it and had prior information,” says Kumar.

In Mourning: The family of Vijay Kumar, the bus driver who was killed in the Reasi attack, at their home
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Mann Singh, one of the five brothers of Balwan Motors, immediately began trying to contact the driver upon hearing about the accident. “When I arrived at the Teryath health centre where the bodies were kept, I was shocked by the scene,” Mann Singh recalls. “We operate around 50 buses. I have no regrets about the bus itself, but we are all deeply affected by this incident. No one deserves such a tragic death,” he adds. The Teryath medical facility is located within Rajouri district, which has witnessed increased militant activity since 2021, including attacks on the Army.

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“One high-profile incident every couple of months is enough to erode trust. We NOW See a greater security presence than before.”

At their home in Dassanoo village, about 50 km from the incident site, Vijay Kumar’s family is still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy. Their single-storey house sees men leaning against the walls and sitting on the lawns, speaking in hushed tones, while the women gather in an adjacent room. Sanjay, Vijay’s elder brother, recalls rushing to the Teryath health centre in Rajouri after hearing about the accident and finding his brother’s body. “He was naked and an ambulance took him to Reasi Hospital an hour or two later,” says Sanjay, who works as a day labourer. “He had three gunshot wounds—one in the head, one in the groin and one in the leg. He was the sole breadwinner for his family.”

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Sanjay’s primary request is for Kumar’s wife to be provided with a government job and for the family to receive compensation and martyr status for Vijay.

Vijay’s wife, Renu Devi, is in shock, unable to utter a word. Her two children, one-and-a-half-year-old Bashu and seven-year-old Anshu, cling to her as she remains in shock.

Taking note of the rising cases of terrorism in Jammu, Union Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a high-level meeting at which security agencies were directed to implement “zero-terror plans” in Jammu. In a statement issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs he said that the fight against terrorism is at a decisive phase and the government is determined to root out terrorsim.

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Jammu’s Terror Roster

Since the abrogation of Article 370, the BJP-led Jammu and Kashmir government, under the Lieutenant Governor, has repeatedly claimed a return to peace in the region. They report over two crore tourists visiting the region annually and declare militancy a thing of the past. However, since 2021, Jammu has experienced a surge in militant attacks.

The J&K Police have arrested 50 people in connection with the Reasi attack. The investigation has spread to Arnas and Mahore, known militancy hotbeds in the mid-1990S.

On October 11, 2021, five army soldiers, including a JCO, were killed in an encounter with militants in the Chamrer forests of Surankote tehsil, Poonch district. Five days later, on October 16, 2021, another four soldiers, including a JCO, were killed in a gun battle with the same group of militants in Bhatta Durrian, Mendhar tehsil, Poonch. The search operation continued for a month in the jungle after the encounter.

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In March and April 2022, four blasts rocked Koteranka tehsil in Rajouri district. On August 11, 2022, five army men and two militants were killed during an attack on an army camp in Pargal, Darhal area, Rajouri district.

Enter 2023

On January 1, seven civilians from the minority Hindu community, including two minors, were killed in firing and an IED blast triggered by militants in Dhangri village, Rajouri district. On April 20, 2023, militants ambushed an army truck near Bhatta Durian on the Bhimber Gali-Surankote road, killing five soldiers. On December 21, 2023, militants attacked two army vehicles en route to Thanamandi in Rajouri district, killing four soldiers and injuring two.

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On May 6, militants ambushed an Air Force (IAF) convoy near Shahsitar in Poonch district, resulting in the death of an IAF personnel. The attackers used US-made M4 rifles and AK-47s.

Since the Reasi attack, Jammu has witnessed three additional incidents. This time, the footprint of the incidents has spread from the Pir Panjal districts of Rajouri and Poonch to the Chenab Valley districts of Doda.

On June 11, militants fired at a joint checkpost of the 4 Rashtriya Rifles and police at Chattergalla in Bhaderwah, Doda district. The next day, a search party in Gandoh, also in Doda district and bordering Himachal Pradesh, was attacked, resulting in injuries to seven security personnel, including a policeman.

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Later, in an overnight gun battle on June 12 in Kathua, security forces killed two militants, but a CRPF jawan was also killed in the exchange.

Pak Hand?

Director General of Police R R Swain visited Katra on June 13, accusing Pakistan of attempting to disrupt the region’s peace through mercenaries. He stated that terrorism had spread to Jammu’s Doda and Ramban regions in 1995 but was eradicated by 2005.

“We are committed to giving a befitting response and maintaining peace,” he added. Earlier, in Kashmir, Swain had mentioned the region’s shift from “resident terrorism to foreign terrorism” and disclosed that “around 70 to 80 foreign terrorists have entered J&K.”

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Zafar Choudhary, political commentator and author of Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu, critiques the misdating of Jammu and Kashmir’s security situation to August 2019. He argues it actually began in early 2017 with ‘Operation All Out,’ targeting suspected militants and their associates as ‘over ground workers’. Choudhary notes that this operation weakened militant support networks significantly. He contrasts Jammu’s response to Article 370’s abrogation with that of the Valley, where no special measures were implemented and local Muslims remained subdued. Post-abrogation, Pakistan and militants focused on Jammu to escalate conflict and challenge security forces, who are less experienced in Jammu’s terrain compared to Kashmir.

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“Another objective seems to be to reduce the heat on Kashmiris. Every incident leads to random action across a whole village in a bid to findsuspects and supporters,” says Choudhary. In fact, the Jammu and Kashmir Police have arrested 50 people in connection with the Reasi terror attack. The investigation, led by the Kanda Area Police Station, has expanded to Arnas and Mahore, known militancy hotbeds in the mid-1990s.

“One high-profile incident every couple of months is enough to erode social cohesion and trust. We now see a greater security presence than ever before. So, Jammu is once again in the spotlight,” Choudhary adds.

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There was a general expectation that if this is Prime Minister Modi’s third term, it might show a conciliatory approach towards Kashmir. Some anticipated Modi’s third term would resemble his first. There was also hope that Modi might seek to improve relations with Pakistan, especially with the Sharif brothers returning to power.

“Modi’s chemistry with Nawaz Sharif is well-established. The PML(N) government consistently made positive overtures throughout the Indian elections,” says Choudhary.

“The recent incidents in Jammu coinciding with Modi 3.0’s inauguration could be a message from militants/terrorists or elements within Pakistan’s security establishment against the prospects of bilateral normalcy without addressing core issues. The attack on pilgrims from UP and other states appears to be a carefully chosen plan aimed at exerting pressure from the BJP’s core constituency against any progress with Pakistan,” Choudhary adds.

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He suggests that the recent incidents in Jammu during Modi 3.0’s inauguration may signal militants or elements within Pakistan’s security establishment opposing bilateral normalcy without addressing core issues.

Still grappling with fresh scars, Sunil Kumar asks why Jammu cannot have security measures similar to those in Kashmir.

The attacks in Jammu also challenge the BJP-led Union government’s narrative that peace has returned to Jammu and Kashmir after scrapping Article 370 and downgrading it to a Union Territory.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference Vice President Omar Abdullah says, “It is unfortunate to see areas that had previously been cleared of all militants now witness a return of militancy.”

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Reasi, Rajouri-Poonch, and Doda districts were considered militancy-free zones before Article 370 was abrogated. Aditya Gupta, a lawyer and PDP member, criticised the government’s counter-terrorism policy, stating that despite claims of eradicating terrorism from the Kashmir Valley, Jammu faces significant threats.

Gupta highlighted that the recent attacks in Rajouri and on an army convoy in Poonch underscore critical gaps in India’s counter-terrorism strategy, particularly in Jammu. “Despite assertions that terrorism has been largely eliminated from the Kashmir Valley, these incidents demonstrate that Jammu, previously considered more secure, is now confronting significant threats. The government overlooked early signs of terrorist infiltration in the Pir Panjal area, leading to four coordinated attacks within 72 hours across two of Jammu’s three divisions,” he says.

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Instead of addressing these gaps, Gupta insists that officials have often deflected, pointing to well-lit images of Lal Chowk adorned with the National Flag, high tourist inflows, G20 summits and more when questioned about these incidents.

In Search of Answers

A crucial question remains unanswered, as Gupta points out: “How did these terrorists manage to penetrate a region previously considered secure, especially when the official narratives suggest terrorism is a relic of the past?”

Shamshir Singh, the man who gave up watching Modi’s swearing-in ceremony to rush to the aid of injured pilgrims, believes he has answers to these questions. J&K has transformed since 2019, but long-standing conflict and ideologies persist. Singh says militancy aims to undermine Jammu’s economy, which heavily relies on pilgrim tourism. “Unlike Kashmir, which has tourism, horticulture and pilgrim tourism, Jammu relies almost entirely on pilgrim tourism,” he explains.

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Singh highlights that prior to the attack, the Shiv Khori shrine welcomed 10,000 yatris (pilgrims) daily, but this number has since dwindled and continues to decline. Reflecting on past militant activities in the region, Singh recalls a significant incident in 1998 when the Army pursued militants near the Kanda stream. “One militant was presumed dead after drowning in the river, only to open fire and kill a soldier as they approached,” he recounts.

He notes a lull in such incidents over the past two decades. Singh also references a tragic incident in May 2022, where a bus returning from the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine caught fire, resulting in the deaths of four pilgrims and injuries to about 24. Initially deemed an accident, further investigations revealed it was caused by bombs planted by militants.

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Located near Jammu district, Reasi is home to significant religious shrines, hydroelectric projects and boasts better road connectivity compared to Rajouri and Poonch. Singh advocates for increased security presence and arms for locals to combat escalating militancy in the mountains. “People are terrorised by these incidents, but their primary concern is the declining number of pilgrims. If this trend continues, Jammu’s economy will suffer,” he laments, surveying the road where remnants of the bus’ windshield were the only visible traces of the attack.

After the wreckage of the bus was cleared, Rashpal Singh sat on the roadside with only the bus number as a reminder. His brother, Sujan Singh, calls for tighter security around Jammu and its pilgrim shrines.

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Still grappling with the fresh scars, Sunil Kumar questions why Jammu cannot have security measures similar to those in Kashmir, which currently enjoys relative peace, highlighting the new security challenges posed by the Jammu hills to the government.

Naseer Ganai in Reasi

(This appeared in the print as 'Unquiet Flows The Tawi')

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