Handwara Encounter: Memories of Kashmir’s ‘Chhota Pakistan’ Return

Killing of four Indian Army personnel, including Commanding Officer of Rashtriya Rifles 21st battalion Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, and a sub inspector of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police in an encounter in the Rajwar belt of Kupwara district in northern Kashmir on Saturday, 2 May, comes after a long period of calm, and is eerily reminiscent of the years between 1993-2003.

Defence spokesman at headquarters 15 Corps in Srinagar Col Rajesh Kalia, while confirming the five fatal casualties, said that identification and residential particulars of the martyrs will be shared with the media shortly.

Other officials in army and Jammu and Kashmir Police, however, identified them as Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Commanding Officer of RR 21 Bn, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh Kumar and Lance Naik Dinesh Singh, and SI Qazi Sageer Pathan of SOG Handwara. Two of the officers were on deputation with 21 RR from 19 Guards while two soldiers were from 3 Guards and 17 Guards. Col Ashutosh was reportedly from Bulandshahr (UP), while his family was in Jaipur (Rajasthan), and Major Ashutosh was from Shimla, with his family in Chandigarh.

Col Kalia said in a statement: “Based on the intelligence input that terrorists were taking the civilian inmates of a house in Changimul, Handwara of Kupwara district hostage, a joint operation was launched by army and JK Police on 2 May. A team comprising of five army and JK Police personnel entered the target area occupied by the terrorists to evacuate the civilians.

The team of army and JK Police entered the target area and successfully extricated the civilians. However, during the process, the team was subjected to heavy firing by terrorists. In the ensuing firefight, two terrorists were eliminated and the team of five Security Forces Personnel, including two army officers, two army soldiers and one JK Police Sub Inspector attained martyrdom in the service to the nation.”

Col Kalia said that two “unidentified terrorists” were killed but their identification and organisational affiliation was not immediately clear. Sources in police maintained that both the militants were believed to be Pakistani cadres of LeT.

They said that the police and security forces had learned about the militants having escaped from a previous encounter in the same area and taken shelter in Chanjmulla village but it was not clear in which house they were hiding.

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“Possibly it was during the daring house-to-house searches, led by CO himself, that the terrorists opened the first fire and took a toll. But we are still waiting for the details,” said an officer. Officially it was maintained that the five personnel got killed while rescuing inmates at a house.

Army Suffers 8 Fatal Casualties in 24 Hours

With the death of a soldier in an accidental explosion in Karnah, close to LoC, and killing of two soldiers in the Pakistani shelling over Hajipir in Uri, Indian Army has suffered as many as seven fatal casualties in one day. This comes days after the killing of five soldiers in an encounter in which five infiltrating militants were also killed in Jumagund area, close to LoC, in Kupwara district.

Saturday’s encounter occurred days after The Quint reported – on the basis of official communication – that as many as 120 militants were being pushed into the Valley from four launch pads across the LoC in Kupwara district. Nineteen of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, according to the communication accessed by The Quint, were being pushed in through Nowgam sector and their given destination was the Bangus-Handwara forest cover.

‘Mujahideen-Style’ Foreign Terrorists Had Headquarters in Rajwar

Three years after the armed insurgency mushroomed across Kashmir Valley, hordes of battle-hardened militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan had turned Handwara’s Rajwar belt into a sort of liberated zone. They set up bases, including concrete bunkers at some places. Sporting combat jackets and long unkempt hair and beards, with light machineguns and rocket launchers on shoulders, they would stop buses and check photo-identity cards of passengers on the Handwara-Zachaldara-Wudar road.

“For about 10 years, it looked like Khyber Pakhtunkhah and Afghanistan. It was nicknamed as Chhota Pakistan,” says Amin War, a photojournalist who has archived the pictures he clicked 20 years back.

Kupwara was ‘Gateway of Militancy’, Lolab Was ‘University’

It took the Indian Army and J&K Police around ten years to decimate the terror and wrest control of the whole Kupwara district – ‘Gateway of Militancy’. Infested with heavily-armed foreigners for several years, Rajwar came to be known as ‘Chhota Pakistan’, even as the militants’ code-name for the picturesque Lolab valley was ‘University’.

With its headquarters at Bhagatpora on Handwara-Zachaldara road, RR 21 Bn, locally known as Rajwar Tigers, played a key role in wiping out militancy in the Rajwar belt but not without making sacrifices.

Around a dozen Colonels and six officers of the rank of Brigadier in army and Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in J&K Police and BSF have been killed in 31 years of militancy in Kashmir. Until the year 2000, only one Brigade Commander had lost his life. Brig Sreedhar was killed in an IED blast in Uri in March 1994.

Two DIGs of J&K Police were killed after retirement from service. DIG SK Chakravarty of BSF was killed in Jammu and Kashmir’s first ever fidayeen attack, at Sector-11 headquarters in Bandipora towards the end of the Kargil war on 13 July 1999.

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Brig Shergill and Col Chauhan Were Killed in IED Blast in Rajwar

Three days after joining as Commander of Drugmulla-based 7 Sector, Brig B S Shergill, accompanied by Commanding Officer RR 21 Bn, Col Rajender Chauhan, was on his first area familiarisation tour of the Rajwar belt on 21 August 2000 when militants in ambush at Warpora on the road to Zachaldara targeted his cavalcade with an IED and showered bullets from several directions. Both the senior officers and their radio operator were killed. Warpora lies miles short of Chanjmulla where the five army and police personnel were killed in the encounter on Saturday.

No senior officer was killed in Kashmir after the police and security forces wiped out the core of insurgency around 2005-06. It was after a long time that security forces suffered two major setbacks in the year 2015.

A day after he was declared the recipient of Yudh Seva Medal, Col Munindra Nath Rai, Commanding Officer 42 RR, and a policeman were killed in an encounter at Midora, Tral. Two Hizbul Mujahideen militants Adil Khan and Shiraz Dar were also killed in the same encounter on 27 January 2015.

38-year-old Col Santosh Mahadik, Commanding Officer 41 RR, was killed in an encounter with militants at Manigah, Kupwara, on 18 November 2015.

Commanding Officer of CRPF 49 Bn, Pramod Kumar, was killed in a militant attack at the gate of Jamia Masjid in Srinagar on 15 August 2016.

‘Rest Assured, No More Chhota Pakistan in the Valley’

The killing of five army and police officers after a long time has sent shivers down the spine of residents who continue to be haunted by memories of the fierce gunfights, crackdowns, arrests, detentions and civilian killings in the 90s.

“In 1990s, thousands of people from here had migrated to Srinagar and other places where they felt safe. However there was gradual improvement in the situation after 1996 when Kupwara district saw Kashmir’s best voter turnout and mainstream political activity in all Assembly, Parliamentary and Panchayat elections. Let’s hope today’s encounter doesn’t come as nemesis,” said Ghulam Rasool, a shopkeeper in Handwara.

“It’s a small group of terrorists which is very much under our scanner. Setbacks do come alongside gallantry. Rest assured we’ll wipe them out soon. We can’t erase old nightmares from the sub-conscious mind of our people but we can assure them that nobody would be allowed to terrorise them with whatever action. We’ll make all supreme sacrifices for the country and its people,” said a security forces officer in Srinagar.

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