Revisiting Pulwama

New world order and Pulwama

Print edition : March 12, 2021

Inidan Army trucks moving towards Ladakh amid tensions on the Line of Actual Control, at the Manali-Leh highway in Kullu on July 31, 2020. Photo: PTI

A view of the Pakistani village Balakot, where India launched a “surgical strike” after the Pulwama attack. Photo: Aqeel Ahmed/AP

Ghulam Hassan Dar, father of Adil Ahmad Dar, who carried out the suicide attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy in February 2019 in Pulwama, in a tent outside his home in the district’s Gundbagh village the day after the ambush. Photo: DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS

The apparent failure to act on intelligence inputs ahead of the Pulwama attack is alarming enough, but it is downright frightening to analyse the chain effect and geopolitical ramifications of the preventable terror strike.

The recent article by Frontline’s Anando Bhakto on the Pulwama attack of February 2019 on a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was an extraordinary piece of investigative reporting. It was especially so for having emanated from Kashmir, a tightly sealed black box on any security information.

The report laid bare the following facts, backed by documentary evidence: that there were at least 12 separate pieces of communication within the security grid that incontrovertibly lead to the February 14 attack; that the identity of the assault’s planner, Mudasir Khan, was known 23 days before the attack; that his whereabouts were located 22 days before; that the specific motive for the attack was documented four days before it; and that the methodology, even if imprecise, was conjectured the day before the convoy began its fateful journey.

The article quotes a conflict management expert as defining “actionable intelligence” as one in which the identity, location and “other details thereof” are known. The information contained in the article makes clear that there was an abundance of such “other details”.

To wit: (a) the attack was planned within the framework of a rationalised institutional response named “Qisas (or retribution) Mission” which was well-known to have been coined by 2018 – and is cited no less than seven times in the 12 intelligence reports between January 2 and February 13, 2019. (b) It was known that up to 20 local youngsters were being trained between the second and third week of January 2019; and (c) the reports established explicit and detailed linkages and coordination between different strike cells and of Adil Ahmed Dar, the eventual suicide bomber, to Mudasir Khan.

In other words, in addition to a mound of quantitative intelligence there was substantial qualitative evidence to support steps towards preemptive action. However, the article points out, despite the evidence, a potential weakening of the security grid was effected with the transfer of a senior police officer under whose jurisdiction the site of the attack fell. The moot question: why was no action to preempt and prevent taken? Two answers suggest themselves: gross incompetence or deliberate oversight. Neither should satisfy civil society.

To be sure, the thrust of the article’s implication—that the intelligence reports and analytical data were ignored—was suspected and voiced in street wisdom from the get-go. However, in many such cases the absence of evidential basis for that conclusion forces a fade from memory and such episodes are doomed to languish in the dustbin of history’s countless unexcavated accusations of conspiracy theory rationales that are uncritically accepted or contemptuously endured as examples of brutal state violence that will never be held to civilised standards of accountability.

Discouraging though this may be for those who continue to believe in the idea of India as a modern state conceptualised just before 1947, it should be perplexing to recall that the re-election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came on the heels of repeated citations of the attack and the deaths in election rallies, serving the dual purposes of gaining voters’ sympathy and demonising Kashmiris.

It is much too early in history to expect material evidence to connect the last two events, but the circumstantial evidence can hardly be contested. All this despite the now documented “actionable intelligence” surrounding the Pulwama blast.

Alarming though this is, it is downright frightening to analyse the chain effect in geopolitical ramifications of the preventable Pulwama attack when we note that we continue to live with ongoing geopolitical consequences of Pulwama 2019 today.

Consequences for South Asia

The first connects are not difficult to see. As a direct response to the blast, the Indian Air Force attacked Balakot in Pakistan two weeks later. The Pakistan Air Force retaliated with an attack across the Line of Control. The BJP won the elections, but the pre-election military exchange between India and Pakistan seemed to raise South Asia to the dubious distinction of being one of the more dangerous regions in the 21st century. The BJP, emboldened by the election results which boosted its quantum in Parliament, took unprecedented measures to cut off Jammu and Kashmir from the world on August 5, 2019. The “Reorganisation of J&K Act 2019” was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on August 5 and passed the same day. Passed in the Lok Sabha on August 6, it took effect on October 31, 2019. Overwhelmed, Kashmir slid into a hush. Meanwhile, international calls for calm seemed to quieten the threats to peace in the region.

The calm was rudely broken less than a year later, on May 5, 2020. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deliberately raised tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by intruding into Ladakh. This resulted in combat conditions between the Indian Army and the PLA. To be sure, this back-and-forth followed by a flag meeting regimen has been a common feature along the LAC. This time around, however, the intensity and brutality (hand-to-hand combat that ended in several deaths on both sides) quickly spread across the length of the Himalaya from Ladakh to Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh. It does not bode well for peace.

This is bad enough, but on June 4, 2020, an explicit statement from China’s pinnacle of foreign policy articulations, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), linked its Ladakh attack directly to the BJP government’s August 5, 2019, action. Wang Shida of that conglomerate openly stated that the PLA’s territorial intrusion was linked to India’s move to scrap Article 370 and change the status of Jammu and Kashmir, which “posed a challenge to the sovereignty of Pakistan and China”. Fighting words that have been followed up with action ever since.

Kashmir and Kashmiris remain mute spectators to this chess game, even as their voices are snatched and they are denied any representation in any form. This is a pitilessly cruel pattern of facts that the Valley has had to endure in its recent past, carries in its present and braves towards in an uncertain future. The use of Kashmir as an instrument in statist games, even when events may have nothing to do with Kashmir—or even the Central government’s Kashmir policy—is accepted almost as a fact of Indian politics.

The Pulwama blast has resulted in electoral gains for the ruling party in the national elections, set off a chain reaction that helped the government to get re-elected with enhanced powers, and intensified the demonisation of Kashmiris. There is in all this an unrecognised culpability—political, geopolitical and moral— that is suppurating into a rot with consequences not just for India but for South Asia and, with China in the mix, for the global comity of states as it searches for “a new world order” that has been elusive for the last three decades.

How is this search for a new order prejudiced by challenges faced by the “world’s largest democracy”?

The first of these is the economic and military rise of China. Having secured its boundaries to its east and west, on the Eurasian plateau, Beijing has become increasingly assertive in South Asia. It is no secret that it senses the impending power vacuum in Afghanistan, and a similar drift has been decipherable in the Himalaya for the last decade, especially since the 2017 confrontation at Doklam. We would not be too far wrong in saying that the intensified India-China confrontation in 2020 in the trans-Himalayan territories in Ladakh was a continuation of this trend, as was the ratcheting of China’s claims in Arunachal Pradesh.

New Delhi’s steady alienation from its Himalayan neighbours has not helped, allowing Beijing to make inroads into Nepal, Myanmar and, possibly, Bhutan. The prospect of the two most populous states in the world, both intent on defining themselves as civilisational nations and territorially acquisitive states, one unapologetically authoritarian and the other increasingly so, spells a real danger of turning the entire length of the Himalaya into a conflict zone. Surely this would have weighty implications for the “new world order” economically, militarily and geopolitically when we remind ourselves that the combined population of China and South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is more than three billion.

Part of the problem is that China’s rise seems to be the result of a strategy that has reached deep into its national history. It does not want to repeat a strategic error that it made in the early days of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) when it ignored maritime ventures in the late 14th century, only to be overtaken by Western gains in that arena. Similarly, it is ensuring that it does not repeat the mistake of ignoring trade as a part of its strategic planning, which it did in the century before the demise of the Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasty. It is difficult to decipher an Indian strategic response to this approach.

One argument against this bleak picture for India, and for South Asia, is that Beijing is being too ambitious and is tempting the fate of a power stretching itself too thin too early in its rise, especially when, economically, it is powerful, but dependent. As a well-known and well regarded Sinologist put it to me during a recent conversation, China is running the risk of attempting too much by (a) simultaneously trying to be a maritime and a land power, something it has never been. Similarly, it will find it, he said, difficult to (b) be powerful but dependent at the same time, referring to the global spread of its resources from east Asia to Africa to Latin America.

This is a fair assessment, and it may be difficult for China to succeed in its worldwide ambitions. But the question is: can India challenge its unilateralism in Asia, when New Delhi’s dependence on Washington, defined by its strategic alliance with the latter, seems poised to plunge the world into a new cold war paradigm for which the theatre of operation could very well be South Asia?

The emergence of a new world order, therefore, may still be a bit distant.

Siddiq Wahid is an independent academic, author, and a former professor of Central Eurasian and Tibetan history.