I am reminded once again of the famous ghazal, “Sarakti jaye hai rukh se nakab ahista, ahista.” What Satya Pal Malik said in an interview to Karan Thapar on the Pulwama tragedy has raised the veil of secrecy shrouding the tragedy that occurred on February 14, 2019.
Malik as a key dramatis personae has confirmed what I and many others have been consistently stating – that the cause of tragedy lies in incompetence and failure of those involved at each level, from the Ministry of Home Affairs to the intelligence fraternity and the Central Reserve Police Force.
Malik’s comment that the prime minister told him to remain quiet on ascribing the tragedy to non-provision of aircraft – using words to the effect “Tum ye sab mat bolo, ye kuch aur cheez hai, hamein bolne do (Don’t say all this, this is something else, let us speak)” – is loaded with implications which are not in the scope of this article to discuss.
However, it is obvious to a discerning mind that the government of the day created a narrative of “desh ke liye balidan (sacrifice for the country)” to hide its failures, with the purpose of cynically exploiting the tragedy of 40 soldiers dying to reap political advantage, which they did with impunity and succeeded too.
Incompetence is writ large in the incident – from how the tragedy was allowed to happen in the first place to the manner in which it was subsequently handled.
The first and most important question is why were the desperate pleas of the IG CRPF Srinagar for providing an aircraft to move thousands of troops stranded at Transit Camp (TC) Jammu not acceded to? The TC meant to accommodate just a couple of hundred men was having to cater to over 2,500 (as per reports, this was the number of troops moving in the convoy on that ill-fated day), thus forcing them to live in sub-human conditions. It would have taken ten sorties of an Airbus to ferry them to Srinagar – an insignificant cost to the exchequer when compared to the value of 40 lives and the loss of man hours that the force was being compelled to face because of their non-availability for operational duties.
Why were the fixed wing aircraft of BSF’s Air Wing (controlled by the MHA) not pressed into service? These are aircraft meant for the troops, not just to ferry VIPs on their public and private jaunts. I remember these were regularly available for the movement of troops in the Northeast as well as in J&K till early in the last decade. The argument that the convoys were the regular mode of transport between Jammu and Srinagar, and so there was no need for airlifting, is facile because the prevailing circumstances warranted airlifting. The joint secretary in the MHA who put a veto to this genuine request from the CRPF must have merrily got promoted or even been moved by now to a cushy post-retirement job without his conscience being pricked.
Failure is also at the operational level by whosoever was responsible to clear the road of any threats in the patch where the attack occurred. Road Opening (RO) is a fairly common operation in any militancy prone area. Troops are earmarked to clear the roads of any threats in shape of IEDs or fire of small arms on convoys moving on the road. This is done in advance and troops are placed there till the convoy has passed from their area of responsibility. Barriers are also placed at appropriate places to carry out screening of other vehicles passing on that road. However, the standard routine of such operations makes the troops complacent and careless. This appears to have happened in this case too.
During my unit command tenure in militancy prone Churachandpur in Manipur, I ensured that when being inducted my troops walked the entire distance of almost 70 km from Imphal to Churachandpur spread wide on both sides of the road, thus ensuring that militants, if any, could not come close to bring down small arms fire on the convoy. This also helped troops familiarise themselves with the area, besides giving an impression to the militants that here is a professional force which means business. It thus also instilled confidence amongst civilians. While doing RO duties, it was ensured that the troops after clearing the road did not occupy the same position every day. The Road Opening Parties (ROPs) in this case do not appear to have followed these drills. If they had, there was no chance of the vehicle loaded with 300 kg of explosives (as reports suggested) coming to the route of the convoy and approaching roads being left uncovered, as claimed by Malik. If the initial reports attributed to CRPF sources are to be believed, the explosion was accompanied by firing. The matter attains more serious proportions if that be the case. How could the ROP not detect the collaborators of the bomber in spite of being in place for a better part of the day?
Failure of the intelligence machinery is beyond imagination. How did the famed intelligence agencies of our country fail miserably in reading the signs of impending catastrophe? Malik rightly says that 300 kg of explosive could not have been procured locally. It must have come from across the border. What were the sources of these agencies doing all this while? Could the sources of agencies be complicit – which is a real danger – and if so why couldn’t the agencies properly verify their credentials? It was reported immediately after the incident that the mastermind of Pulwama was on the radar of the intelligence and the car bomber too was apprehended by security forces on several occasions in the past, but let off without charge.
It is in this context that Malik’s statement mentioned above attains significance and gives credence to the widespread belief that the government is hiding facts about from the general public. As is their wont, the commanders of all security agencies including the Corps Commander came out all guns blazing the very next day to claim that the mastermind of the incident has been eliminated! Such tall claims after the horse had bolted were nothing but pathetic attempts at a cover up.
Forty people died due to the negligence and irresponsibility of this government, as confirmed by none other than the governor. Were those lives so cheap and expandable that not only is there no accountability – but the deaths can be used as political fodder?
To borrow the words from a tweet by Sudheendra Kulkarni, “India belongs to we the people. Our Constitution speaks in the name of we the people. Therefore, we the people have a right to know (a) What happened in Pulwama, (b) How did it happen, (c) Why did it happen and most importantly (d) Could it have been prevented?”
Hopefully, Malik’s revelations prove to be a tipping point, and the veil of secrecy shrouding this tragedy of humungous proportions will finally come off.
Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as additional director general, Border Security Force.