Sinister Design

Rumours about Taliban coming to India may not be all that innocuous. It could be part of a design by Pakistan-based outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba to trigger fear psychosis in India
Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

Not very long ago, the Indian media was abuzz with the news: the Taliban are crossing over into India. Such reports sent the security establishment into a tizzy. Close on the heels of such reports, came an official denial.

On April 14, Army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, rubbished those reports. He said there was "no trace of Taliban in Jammu and Kashmir". However, he did mention the presence of "other elements like LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed)".

Apparently, Pashtun voices were heard in radio intercepts picked up by Indian security agencies. That fuelled speculation about the Talibans coming into India. The origin of these rumours may not be all that innocuous. "It could have been planted to trigger a fear psychosis in India," a senior officer told Hardnews.

Interestingly, infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir this year has started earlier than previous years. Usually, militants from across the border attempt infiltration when the snow starts melting around April. This time, there are two significant differences. One, the infiltration bids started in March even though mountain passes or nullahs remained snow-covered eight to 12 feet. Two, the militants are trying to sneak in through the Line of Control (LoC) and the India-Pakistan border in J&K in bigger groups of 30-40. Earlier, they came in smaller groups.

Significantly, often, the Pakistani troops gave infiltrators cover fire to help them cross over into India, said army sources. Last year, there have been 34 ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the LoC. This year's early infiltration attempts have caught the security agencies by surprise. The number of infiltration attempts this March is about three times more than that during March 2008.

The infiltrators are well-equipped with snow-gear, ice-cutters, GPS devices, satellite phones and heavily armed with sophisticated weapons as seen in Kupwara. Their white parka jackets served as a camouflage making it difficult for security forces to spot them in the backdrop of snow."They are better equipped this year to navigate and negotiate snowed passes," said a senior police officer.

A large group of 25 militants was intercepted at Kupwara on March 20. The Indian army's stand-off with the group lasted for five days. In one of the fiercest gun battles in recent times here, 18 terrorists were killed. The army lost eight men, including one officer.

The militants seem a highly determined lot ready to take on the security forces right at the LoC. They are well-trained to fight in dense forest areas and inhospitable terrain and equipped to hold off the army for days together. Why are the militants so desperate, knowing very well that this is a journey of no-return? "Militants who manage to cross over into India are either killed or are forced to remain in hiding. They can hardly ever return," a senior army officer handling conflict in J&K since several years told Hardnews.

Is it general elections in India that the militant outfits are targeting? Security agencies are yet to find cogent reasons for these desperate attempts. "It's not just the elections. They have long-term plans. They could be used to dump arms and ammunition in J&K," said Major General (retd) Afsir Karim, a defence analyst.

One plausible reason for early infiltration bids is the weather. This year, summer has come early to the Valley. According to a J&K police source, 100-odd militants have been able to enter the state. At Gurez, for instance, around 20 terrorists managed to infiltrate. Of them, two were killed and one was captured alive.

Intelligence agencies don't rule out that elections could be a target for the infiltrators who belong to outfits like the LeT, JeM and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). It could also be a means to reassert their might in J&K. Last year, assembly elections in the state went off peacefully. No political leader was killed. Security forces won praise for their role in ensuring peaceful polls, something unusual in J&K. "Election campaign preceding the first two phases of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls in J&K have been quite incident-free," said a senior J&K police officer. Compare this to 2002, when 48 political persons, including a minister, were killed during election campaign.

"Last year, the militants suffered serious losses in the state. The level of violence unleashed by the operatives was less owing to constant pressure by security forces. Their top commandos were killed and their cadres were demoralised," said a senior officer.

Also, after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan 'reportedly cracked down' on LeT. Its founder, Hafiz Saeed, was put under 'house arrest' after international pressure mounted on Pakistan. So, the militant outfits are looking for a morale booster. Through these push-ins, they could be signaling that they are still going strong and their agenda in J&K remains unaltered. Security agencies rule out the presence of Taliban, at least for now. "The Taliban doesn't have the capacity to operate in India," said Karim. They need to have a Muslim majority population to impose Sharia. So, India is not conducive to them, felt Karim.

The Taliban can only come in if the Pakistan army or the ISI coaxes outfits like the LeT, with expressed agenda in J&K, to take them along. That is unlikely for various reasons. One, the LeT wouldn't want to share their area of operation with the Taliban.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2009