Cover Story

Pulwama and after

Print edition : March 15, 2019

The scene of the terror attack on a CRPF convoy on February 14. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to the slain CRPF jawans after their mortal remains were brought to AFS Palam in New Delhi, on February 15. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

An injured Kashmiri (centre), who had been attacked by a mob in Delhi, being shielded by policemen, on February 17. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

Politicians and service chiefs line up to pay tribute to the slain jawans in New Delhi. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

The terror strike in Pulwama, the deadliest faced by the security forces in 30 years, and its aftermath expose the repeated failures of the Narendra Modi government and the security establishment which aided the rise of the home-grown jehadi.

“If we are to defeat terrorism, it is our duty, and indeed our interest, to try to understand this deadly phenomenon, and carefully to examine what works, and what does not, in fighting it,” said Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace laureate and Secretary General at the time of the United Nations, at “Fighting Terrorism for Humanity: A Conference on the Roots of Evil” on September 22, 2003.

Kofi Annan, who served as U.N. Secretary General between 1997 and 2006, had, as a senior international diplomat, engaged with India and its political leadership for decades (he passed away in 2018). Several aspects of his 2003 speech have been debated repeatedly in many international forums as pertinent pointers in the fight against terrorism. “If we are to fight terrorism effectively, and avoid mistakes in doing so, we need more debate, not less, regarding possible policy responses,” he said.

He added: “While terrorism is an evil with which there can be no compromise, we must use our heads, not our hearts, in deciding our response. The rage we feel at terrorist attacks must not remove our ability to reason…. There is no trade-off to be made between human rights and terrorism. Upholding human rights is not at odds with battling terrorism: on the contrary, the moral vision of human rights—the deep respect for the dignity of each person—is among our most powerful weapons against it. To compromise on the protection of human rights would hand terrorists a victory they cannot achieve on their own. The promotion and protection of human rights, as well as the strict observance of international humanitarian law should, therefore, be at the centre of anti-terrorism strategies.”

On several occasions in the past one and a half decades, many security affairs specialists, sociologists and diplomats in India have referred to these observations, especially in times of major terrorist attacks. There have been instances when Annan’s pointers were used as broad parameters to analyse the security establishment’s responses to major terrorist attacks. These analyses have periodically flagged the strengths, inadequacies and failures of successive Indian governments and the security establishments under their control in tackling terrorism.

Going by Annan’s parameters, the terrorist attack of February 14 at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir and the atmosphere in the country in its aftermath must mark an abysmal low in the handling of terror. Forty jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed when a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a convoy of the paramilitary force. Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest faced by security personnel in Kashmir since 1989.

The immediate factors that facilitated it, and the broader ones that built up the atmosphere in which it happened, expose the repeated failures of the security establishment and the political leadership. Questions have been raised about the intelligence lapse that allowed the perpetrators to smuggle in huge quantities of RDX explosives. The wisdom of having such a huge CRPF convoy (2,500 personnel) travel by road through areas without foolproof security cover has been questioned. (Paramilitary forces such as the Border Security Force had, in the past, sought airlifting of soldiers from Jammu to Srinagar but the requests were not granted.)

The personal and family background of the suicide bomber—19-year-old home-grown jehadist Adil Ahmad Dar from Gundibagh village—points to the colossal bankruptcies that have hollowed out the political and administrative structure in Jammu and Kashmir. Dar’s case is symbolic of how the disastrous political machinations in the State have given a fillip to home-grown jehadi terrorism. In effect, it debunks the government’s claims of a sustained and systematic reduction of jehadi terrorism in the State over the past few years (See “Living tragedies”, page 12, “Militant surge”, page 21). The ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir, never quite easy for security forces, has been marked by heightened animosities in the last four years, especially after the advent of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi and following the installation of the BJP-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) coalition government in Srinagar (that government fell in June 2018).

Security personnel posted in Srinagar told Frontline that the jehadi mentality brazenly on display among the youths now was a recent development. “Earlier it used to be mainly the Pakistani terrorist. There was very little local support, if any. But the phenomenon of local Kashmiri youths picking up the stone or taking up a gun to attack security forces has spread like wild fire,” said a CRPF commandant posted in the Valley.

The Pulwama attack is a composite symbol of the security mismanagement and political adventurism pursued by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre and its associates in Jammu and Kashmir over the last four and a half years.

Belligerent rhetoric

There was a conspicuous absence of objectivity and sagacity in the administrative and political responses that the governments at the Centre and in the State of Jammu and Kashmir (presently under Governor’s rule) to the social and political situations that evolved after the attack. Instead, members of the government, including Modi, used emotional rhetoric aimed at inflaming the passions of the public.

Matters were not helped by the blatant communal and political exploitation of the attack by the ruling dispensation and its cohorts in outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, which started within hours of the attack and were orchestrated across the country, especially in the north. Sangh Parivar activists converted candle-light marches honouring the slain CRPF men into venomous public gatherings replete with communal and divisive sloganeering against Muslims in general and Kashmiris in particular. In the National Capital Region (NCR) comprising Delhi and suburbs such as NOIDA and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh and Gurugram in Haryana, Sangh Parivar activists organised hundreds of such candle-light marches supposedly under the umbrella of neutral resident welfare societies.

Targeting of Kashmiris

Soon, the sloganeering degenerated into targeted campaigning against Kashmiris, most conspicuously in Dehradun in Uttarakhand. First, the campaign demanded that Uttarakhand colleges stop admitting Kashmiri students, but within no time it turned into a demand for the ouster of all Kashmiris in the colleges of Dehradun. Alpine College of Management and Technology, which had around 340 Kashmiri students and a 27-year-old Kashmiri, Abid Kuchay, as the dean, was one of the main targets. A mob of about 500 people stormed the college, demanding the ouster of the dean and Kashmiri students. The management of the college succumbed to the pressure and suspended Abid Kuchay. There were ousters of students in other colleges in Dehradun.

The pattern was picked up in different parts of the north—in Gurugram, Bareilly, Panipat, Roorkee and Meerut. Among the students forcibly removed were merit-based beneficiaries of the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS), a programme that offers admission to students of Jammu and Kashmir in colleges, institutes and universities across the country and provides financial aid for their tuition and board.

Speaking to Frontline over the phone, a Kashmiri student studying in Dehradun said that he and other fellow Kashmiri students started receiving threats immediately after the Pulwama attack was reported. He identified the people threatening him as known activists of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal and said they were asking Kashmiri students to get out of Uttarakhand in 24 hours or get killed. He said that there were some thousand Kashmiri students studying in Uttarakhand colleges.

VHP-Bajrang Dal activists also made the owners of several educational institutions undertake that they would not admit any student from Kashmir in the new academic session. However, the authorities in two Dehradun colleges—Alpine College of Management and Technology and Baba Farid Institute of Technology—later clarified that they had announced the decision under pressure and that there was no policy decision to deny admission to Kashmiri students.

The campaign was not limited to frenzied mobs. Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy called for a financial boycott of Kashmir and Kashmiris. Almost on cue, attacks on Kashmiris were reported from Patna in Bihar, Raipur in Chhattisgarh and several parts of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In some places, shops owned by Kashmiris were burnt. According to estimates of security agencies, 10 States reported attacks of varying intensity.

For some 48 hours, neither any leader of the Union government nor the BJP condemned Governor Roy’s call. Opposition politicians ranging from the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah to Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury questioned his stance and criticised the Union government’s silence on it. Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad then came up with a terse statement that the BJP did not agree with Roy on the issue.

By this time, however, the campaign against Kashmiris and Muslims had risen to such levels that the Supreme Court was impelled to take note. On February 22, a bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Sanjiv Khanna, responding to a petition filed by advocate Tariq Adeeb, directed the Chief Secretaries and police chiefs of all States and Union Territories to take “prompt action” to prevent incidents of “assault, threat, social boycott and such other egregious acts” against Kashmiris, including students, and other minorities. The bench issued notices to the Centre and the States of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra and sought their reply. The court order was followed by a Union Home Ministry notification directing State governments to ensure that there were no attacks on Kashmiris and minorities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke up on the attacks on Kashmiris only on February 23; he said that the country’s fight was for Kashmir and not against the State or Kashmiris. “What happened to Kashmiri youths in the last few days…It does not matter whether the incident was small or big, such things should not happen. Kashmiri youths are victims of terror. Every child of Kashmir is with India in our fight against terror,” he said at a public meeting at Tonk in Rajasthan.

Alongside the strong rhetoric against terrorists and Pakistan, the government also initiated diplomatic moves, which resulted in widespread support from the international community. The United Nations Security Council condemned the attack. The UNSC statement forced Pakistan, which has been claiming that it had nothing to do with the attack and threatened to hit back if India took any action, to move against the JeM. (See “Terror next door”, page 18.) But the centre piece of the post-Pulwama situation was undoubtedly the social and political conflagrations in its aftermath.

Propaganda war

Notwithstanding the rather late move by the Union Home Ministry, the communal and political orchestration following the Pulwama attack has not ceased. Sangh Parivar outfits, from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh to the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the BJP, along with many other smaller units, are still actively pursuing it. In view of the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, this is hardly surprising.

Over the last two years, the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar have been building up a campaign on the “nationalism versus sedition” theme, investing it with communal and divisive propaganda. After the fall of the BJP-PDP government in Jammu and Kashmir in June 2018, Sangh Parivar insiders across northern India were discussing a potential new angle to this propaganda. It revolves around the projection of a new polarising narrative pitting “Hindu India driven by the forces of Hindutva against Muslim Kashmir, which is in collusion with the enemy country Pakistan”. According to this narrative, the “only possible denouement of this situation would be in establishing the absolute supremacy of Hindutva forces over the political establishment of India, consequently resulting in the total subjugation of Muslim and Pakistan-aided Kashmir”. The Pulwama attack seemed to catapult this campaign, until then conducted over social media, into the the real world.

Speaking to Frontline, Omar Abdullah of the N.C. and Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, State secretary of the CPI(M) and a four-time MLA representing Kulgam in the State Assembly, said this vile campaign was bound to push not just Jammu and Kashmir but the whole country into a state of volatile sectarianism. Tarigami was of the view that the post-Pulwama Hindutva politicking was in line with the general political adventurism of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that had pushed the strife-torn State into greater unrest and chaos.

Omar Abdullah questioned the priorities of the BJP leadership. He said: “Modi wants detractors of the Vande Bharat train to be punished but says nothing about people targeting innocent Kashmiris. I have no firm evidence to suggest that the BJP is behind the attacks on Kashmiris, but they [BJP leaders] are silent about what is happening, and that silence is clearly helping those who are fanning the attacks and the communal campaign. There is only one electoral beneficiary from such anti-Muslim communal posturing.”

In private, Sangh Parivar insiders, including many leaders of the BJP, admit that the post-Pulwama scenario has helped the party and the Modi government stave off the growing political challenges ensuing from the debate on the Rafale deal. A group of Sangh Parivar activists gathered at the Delhi residence of a former BJP MP a week after the Pulwama attack expressed satisfaction that the minute examination of the Rafale details by the public had now been replaced by patriotic fervour and an anti-Pakistan sentiment.

Critical voices persist

Yet, critical voices persist within the security establishment, some of them belonging to senior officers of the Army and the paramilitary forces, questioning the government’s response to the Pulwama attack. Retired Colonel Subash Chandra Deswal has some questions: “The Prime Minister has said after the Pulwama attacks that the Army has been given full freedom to retaliate as and when it decided to do so. But what is the meaning of this full freedom? It has been known for decades that Pakistan is promoting jehadi terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Putting an end to it once and for all was the major plank on which the BJP fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Evidently, the Prime Minister has not been able to give full freedom to the Army to eradicate jehadi terrorism in the last four and a half years. So what new freedom is going to come to the Army now? The fact of the matter is that the Modi government has turned out to be like earlier governments in its failure to tackle terrorism. Coffins continue to come back to remote villages and towns with the dead bodies of jawans. And politicking continues as usual.”

This sentiment was echoed in the views of V.P.S. Panwar, retired Inspector General of the CRPF. He also expressed concern about the inadequacies in infrastructure and about welfare issues. Pay scales and and poor perquisites added to the sense of hopelessness in the security machinery, he said. “We are supposed to be in a battle-like situation 24x7, but our benefits are similar to civilian staff posted in urban or semi-urban areas. By virtue of being posted in battle-like conditions, we are not able to avail ourselves of many of these perks meant for civilian staff, and on top of that we are denied any other risk or hardship allowance because our service rules consider us on a par with babus,” he said. Panwar is chairman of the National Coordination Committee of Central Armed Police Forces Organisations, the umbrella body of all central police organisations—the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the Central Industrial Security Force, the CRPF, the BSF, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the National Disaster Response Force.

According to him, the service rules for these forces do not even consider them an “organised service”, which deprives them of routine service benefits such as pension, house rent allowance, and so on. This provision was challenged in court, and the Supreme Court recently directed the Centre to accord them the status of an organised service. Officers say the order is yet to be implemented. Besides, though the personnel of these forces are shifted continuously from one corner of the country to another, there is no provision for them to be airlifted. It is this lacuna that made the Pulwama attack possible. Also, there is no provision for these personnel to be rotated between disturbed area posting and peace posting. They end up spending 14-15 years of their initial career in field duties, away from their families. Unfortunately, there is no provision of accommodation for their families, no educational facilities exclusively for their children, and no exclusive medical facilities. Jawans are permanently housed in tents, and officers’ accommodations, too, are dreary.

The most unfortunate part, say several officers, is that the men leading these forces are completely cut off from the ground realities because they are not cadre officers and are drawn from the Indian Police Service. “This results in a situation where there is nobody to speak for us. We are nobody’s children. Our issues get discussed only when something as horrific as this happens,” says Panwar. It is a situation that leads to suicides and fratricides. According to government figures, 123 personnel from these organisations committed suicide during 2016-18, a number that exceeds that of men killed in field operations. Evidently, none of these issues has been addressed by the Modi government at the Centre and by the Jammu and Kashmir government over the last four and a half years.

With inputs from Purnima S. Tripathi and Anando Bhakto.

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