Note: This article was originally published on July 29, 2019 and is being republished on February 1, 2020, one year after the Pulwama attack
New Delhi: Months after India witnessed the deadliest ever militant attack on its security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, there still remains some mystery about what Prime Minister Narendra Modi was doing between 3:10 pm on February 14, when the suicide bombing happened, and around 7 pm, when he was seen leaving Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand that day – and when exactly he was informed of the attack.
A newly-released promo of the Discovery channel’s ‘Man Vs Wild’ show is likely to reignite questions over Modi’s schedule that day – which the opposition has said was dedicated to a public relations exercise that he preferred not to abandon despite the death of dozens of CRPF personnel in a suicide attack.
People across 180 countries will get to see the unknown side of PM @narendramodi as he ventures into Indian wilderness to create awareness about animal conservation & environmental change. Catch Man Vs Wild with PM Modi @DiscoveryIN on August 12 @ 9 pm. #PMModionDiscovery pic.twitter.com/MW2E6aMleE
— Bear Grylls (@BearGrylls) July 29, 2019
Modi’s whereabouts and actions in the hours after Pulwama have taken on enormous significance because his government did not see the attack there as a routine terror incident. The suicide attack on a CRPF convoy triggered worries about the motives behind the attack and led eventually to the Indian Air Force bombing a facility deep inside Pakistan, thereby bringing the two countries to the brink of military conflict. What was so pressing about Corbett that Modi continued his sojourn till 7 that evening, instead of devoting all his mind space to the Pulwama fallout?
A special episode of the Discovery show featuring the prime minister wading through Jim Corbett National Park to highlight “issues related to environmental change” may be part of the answer.
The show will premiere on August 12, and will be showcased in more than 180 countries. “When I was asked about a special programme focussing on life beyond politics – and that too in the midst of nature – I was both intrigued and inclined to take part in it,” Modi has been quoted as saying in a statement.
But the bigger question is: Did he choose to be “in the midst of nature” over his political duties as prime minister that day?
Soon after the Pulwama attack – which left 48 Central Reserve Police Force personnel dead and several more injured – the opposition tore into the prime minister for not cutting short his trip to Corbett.
There were also allegations that Modi was shooting “three hours after the Pulwama attack.”
Thanks to Discovery, we now at least know that Modi was on an “epic adventure of a lifetime” that day, getting survival lessons from British reality TV star Bear Grylls.
Visuals from a promo of the show, which is also being promoted by the United Nations, depict Modi – dressed in a kurta, pajama, safari jacket and scarf – navigating the wilderness, walking through knee-length shrubs, floating on a blue raft and even fashioning a weapon using a knife, rope and piece of wood.
The Pulwama strike occurred between 3:10 and 3:15 pm, according to varied reports, with video footage on some TV channels and local newspapers establishing that Modi left Corbett National Park between 6:40 and 7:30 pm that evening.
As The Wire previously reported, when the strike occurred, Modi’s scheduled visit to Corbett was already running several hours behind schedule due to inclement weather in Uttarakhand.
According to his official schedule, the prime minister was supposed to arrive in Corbett at 9 am and leave at 2 pm. So, we can safely presume that the Discovery Channel crew was given this window to shoot. However, due to rainy weather in Dehradun – where he landed from Delhi – the prime minister’s departure by helicopter was delayed by four hours.
A video clip from that day – where Modi had just alighted from a helicopter – was likely shot at Kalagarh around 11:15 am, from where he embarked by boat to the Dhikala forest guest house. The Wire reported earlier the possibility that the Discovery crew were waiting at Dhikala and completed their shooting even before the terror attack at Pulwama.
However, district and national park officials have refused to give specific details about the Discovery shoot, making it impossible to tell whether Modi filmed for the documentary after or prior to the Pulwama attack – or even after he had been informed of it.
A week or so post the attack, a former senior official familiar with national security protocols had shared with The Wire that it was hard to imagine that the basic information would not have immediately been conveyed to Modi as soon as the national security adviser had been made aware of it.
Therefore, it’s likely that the prime minister was informed of the terror strike within 30 minutes or so after the 3:15 pm bombing. Going by the assumption that he was at Dhikala in Corbett by noon – and then at Dhikala guest house by 1 pm – he had moved to the Khinanauli guest house a short distance away in the park by the time he addressed a BJP rally at Rudrapur by phone at 5:10 pm. By this time, it is more than likely that Modi had been apprised of the incident.
In that speech, however, he made no mention of the Pulwama attack – which is curious since the prime minister did not shy away from raking up the deaths of CRPF men during his entire campaign for the 2019 general elections, which saw him returning to power with a massive majority.
So was Modi unaware of the attack on Pulwama, or just chose to not speak about it for fear of the opposition seizing upon evidence that he knew what had happened and yet was still spending time with the Discovery crew in Corbett?
While we may never get a clear answer on that, we at least now know that on the day of the deadly strike, he was on “an adventure into the Indian wilderness”.