Frontline Volume 21 - Issue 14, Jul. 03 - 16, 2004
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TERRORISM

Resistance and reprisal

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Marrah is not ready to give up despite the brutal massacre, but the June 26 incident highlights the fact that the battle against terrorism is far from over.



A victim of the Teli Katha terrorist attack being treated at the Government Medical College Hospital in Jammu on June 26.

IN January this year, residents of the small mountain village of Marrah marched north to the Hil Kaka bowl and unfurled the Indian flag there for the first time in 15 years. It was, in a key sense, their own victory: without Marrah's support, successive efforts of the Army to evict terrorists from its most well guarded bastion in Poonch had failed. It was an unprecedented demonstration of Muslim resistance to the Islamist right-wing and proof, if any was needed, that terrorists did not speak for the people of the region.

Punishment came just as many had predicted. On June 26, the Marrah area saw the worst massacre in Jammu and Kashmir in recent months. Survivors' testimony suggests that between 10 and 15 terrorists, believed to be from the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizbul -Mujahideen's Pir Panjal Regiment reached Teli Katha at about 3 a.m. Teli Katha, which is home to a large high-altitude pasture, is used by Marrah residents to graze their cattle in the summer. This year, some 70 people from a dozen Gujjar families had made their way up to the meadows with their herds of buffaloes and goats. People were asleep in their dhokes, temporary earth-and-stone shelters used by pastoralists on the Pir Panjal range, when the terrorists opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

Most of the victims were killed or injured within the first few minutes of fire. Unsurprisingly, most of the victims were those slow to react: children and the elderly. Among the 11 killed were two 75-year-olds, Noor Mohd and Lal Hussain, 14-year-old Parveen Akhtar and Nazaqat Hussain, eight-year-old Niaz Ahmed and four-year-old Imtiyaz Ahmed, and a three-month-old who was yet to be named. Most of the 10 injured met the same profile: two 80-year-old men and a 60-year-old woman and three children were among those who received gunshot and shrapnel wounds. The terrorists who fired at the dhokes would have known that entire families were sleeping inside: their intention, quite clearly, was to kill.

It could have been worse if five armed Village Defence Committee members were not guarding the dhokes. Within 15 minutes, VDC members Lal Hussain, Mohd Aslam, Mohd Qasim, Aijaz Ahmed and Lal Din fired more than 360 rounds from their rifles, forcing the terrorists to retreat. The nearest Army picket was several kilometres away, which meant reinforcements could not have arrived in time to stop the massacre. It was not until the morning that members of the Marrah VDC made their way to the scene of the massacre, apprehensive that something had gone wrong. "Had the VDC members on the dhoke not fought back," said Poonch Senior Superintendent of Police Mukesh Singh, "I doubt that anyone on the dhoke would have made it out alive. They fought like heroes."

Courage, however, was not enough. In a key sense, the tragedy was inevitable. Two months ago, a terrorist attack on a wedding in Marrah was beaten off by a local woman member of the VDC. On that occasion, time was on the villagers' side. Since the attack targeted the village itself, other VDC members and members of the local Army picket could respond rapidly. Knowing that retaliation would soon arrive, the terrorists who carried out the attack fled at the first sign of resistance. Two earlier attacks on armed villagers in Marrah had also failed for similar reasons. This time, the terrorists chose their target carefully. According to the VDC members, the terrorists hid behind rocks a fair distance from the dhoke and blocked paths that offered an escape route.

Signs of a terrorist regrouping in Poonch had long been evident, something that held obvious dangers to resistance in Marrah. Winter efforts to evict terrorists from Sillan Dhoke, on the fringes of the Hil Kaka, had failed. Intelligence reports suggested that up to 50 terrorists, mainly from the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Tehrik-ul-Jehad Islami, had built up caches of rations and semi-permanent shelters to replace the facilities lost in Hil Kaka. Residents of the Marhot area said terrorists had made them haul substantial supplies of wood, grain, tarpaulin and gas cylinders up into the mountains, presumably for use in building up semi-fortified structures. After Poonch Muslims defied the terrorist fiat and voted in the recent Lok Sabha elections, it was clear that the most visible emblem of resistance would come under assault.

MARRAH'S extraordinary story began three years ago, when village elder Mohammad Arif heard the story of a local woman who said she had been repeatedly raped by Lashkar-e-Toiba cadre. Arif took the unusual step of complaining to their commander, a Pakistan national code-named Abu Faris. Days later, he received justice: Arif was declared an Army informer and was executed ritually by having his throat slit. Arif's killing was just one of hundreds of similar outrages that have taken place over the years in the high mountains of rural Jammu. It was, however, to have the most unusual consequences. Far away in Riyadh, Arif's brother, Fazl Husain Tahir, decided enough was enough. The marble-tile artisan decided to set up a vigilante organisation, the Pir Panjal Scouts, to hit back.

By 2002, the Pir Panjal Scouts were functioning as an undercover unit, the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Group III. Its personnel were hired as Special Police Officers and were paid Rs.1,500 as stipend a month to carry out counter-terrorist operations. The 15 Rashtriya Rifles, the Army's counter-insurgency force tasked with securing Marrah, provided muscle power; Special Group III local knowledge. When Operation Sarp Vinash was launched last summer to clear terrorists from the Hil Kaka bowl, members of Special Group III played a key role in aiding crack soldiers from the 9 Para-commando Regiment to pinpoint and destroy terrorist defences. Anger against terrorists ran so high that villagers refused to bury those killed, claiming their crimes meant they had renounced Islam.

Soon after Sarp Vinash, though, it became clear that Marrah had become a potential target of terrorist assault. A VDC was set up with a first batch of 50 volunteers, who were trained in the use of aging but effective .303 rifles. By early this year, the results were evident. In November last year, Mohammad Akbar, the headman of the village of Azmatabad, was brutally beaten by terrorists for having encouraged local men to volunteer for recruitment in new Territorial Army units. Marhot village headman Noor Ahmad had a similar experience two months earlier. Across Poonch, killings targeted at those perceived as pro-India - or just not sympathetic to Islamists - continued apace. In Marrah, however, there was quiet.

Now, however, it has become clear this peace came at great cost. Sadly, it was left to officials to help out the victims of Marrah. Not one politician saw it fit to make the six-hour walk to the village - or, indeed, to take the easier route of flying there by helicopter. Massacres of Hindus in the Jammu region have almost without exception led to visits by top politicians from New Delhi and Srinagar, but killings of Muslims by terrorists have generally provoked only apathy. Outside Jammu and Kashmir, it is little understood that the overwhelming majority of civilian victims of terrorism each year are Muslim. Muslim politicians, dependent on terrorists for election-time support, rarely speak out in favour of resistance. Hindu politicians, in turn, choose not to care about deaths that do not provoke religious ire among their constituents.

To Muslims who have chosen to oppose Islamists, the story is familiar. On the night of February 9, 2001, soldiers noticed a fire in the village of Kot Charwal. By late evening the next day, 15 bodies had been dug out. Seven were of children, the youngest of them just four years old. The victims of that massacre were the families of Bakkarwal shepherds who had dared to take on terrorist groups active on the mountains above Rajouri. The hamlet had formed the first all-Muslim Village Defence Committee in December the previous year, after one local resident was executed brutally by cadre of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. When troops were pulled out in the course of the Ramzan ceasefire, to meet commitments elsewhere, brutal reprisal followed.

Kot Charwal spelt the end of armed Muslim resistance in Rajouri and Poonch until Marrah emerged as its epicentre. What, now, of its future? "We need some more guns," Tahir said a few minutes after he arrived at the site of the Marrah massacre, "and then we need to kill whoever did this." Marrah is not ready to give up, it would seem, at least not just yet.

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