The Ghost of Pulwama: Questions dying to be answered

A slew of questions remain unanswered four years after a suicide bomber rammed his RDX-laden car into a bus carrying CRPF jawans returning from leave, killing 40 soldiers

A still showing the aftermath of the Pulwama attack (Getty Images)
A still showing the aftermath of the Pulwama attack (Getty Images)

NH Political Bureau

Four years after a lone suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden car into a bus bringing CRPF jawans back from leave, killing 40 jawans, the controversy around it refuses to die.

The attack on 14 February 2019, barely two months before the Lok Sabha elections, was a real shot in the arm for Narendra Modi’s BJP, seeking a second term in office. Two weeks later, a bunch of Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets reportedly crossed into Pakistan to bomb a terrorist camp in Balakot. The specter of a full-scale war loomed as Pakistani planes entered Indian airspace a few days later. The bringing down of an IAF helicopter with six of its personnel by an IAF missile was counted as collateral damage.

The ‘friendly fire’ controversy was revived this week by the then J&K governor Satya Pal Malik.

While the former BJP leader reiterated several suspicions raised at the time about security lapses and intelligence failure, in recent interviews, he claimed he was being asked not to dwell on the lapses.

The attack could have been avoided, he added, if the then home minister Rajnath Singh had not turned down requests for aircraft to move the jawans from Jammu to Srinagar. Malik also claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called him up from a dhaba outside Corbett National Park to enquire about the incident. When Malik said lapses had led to the loss of lives, he was told, “Tum abhi chup raho” (You better keep your mouth shut). He received similar advice from the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

The mystery of the Pulwama attack remains unsolved despite the voluminous chargesheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). With the government maintaining a studied silence on the issue, here are some of the questions crying to be answered:

1. Why were all the suspects killed in encounters?

If even one of them had been captured alive, the conspiracy might have been unravelled. Two prime suspects—Mudassir Ahmed Khan, who had allegedly arranged the explosives, and Sajjad Bhat—were killed in an encounter with security forces in March and June 2019 respectively; Qari Mufti Yasser in an encounter in January 2020; and Kamran in March 2019. On 29 March 2019, Mohammad Umar Farooq (24), identified as one of the key planners, was also killed. Farooq was said to be a nephew of Masood Azhar. His father Ibrahim Ather was one of the main accused in the IC-814 Kandahar hijacking case of 1999 and was in-charge of a joint training camp of Al Qaeda–Jaish in Afghanistan.

2. What was the role of Pulwama DSP Davinder Singh?

The police officer was arrested while travelling in his own car with two Hizbul Mujahideen militants. Curiously, charges were not pressed against the officer ‘in national interest’. Satya Pal Malik, however, dismissed doubts about the DSP’s involvement in the attack but did not explain why. “He wasn’t that kind of anti-national,” is all that he said. While the officer’s role has never been satisfactorily explained, Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “Who wants terrorist Davinder silenced and why?”, after the NIA was asked to probe the DSP’s role. “The best way to silence DSP Davinder is to hand the case to the NIA. The NIA is headed by another Modi, YK, who investigated the Gujarat riots and Haren Pandya’s assassination. In YK’s care, the case is as good as dead,” Gandhi said on Twitter.

3. How did military grade explosives reach Pulwama, 180 kilometres into India?

While it is assumed that the explosives originated in Pakistan, nobody quite knows how it got into India. “It was a collective failure. The car carrying 300 kilograms of RDX remained undetected while travelling around in Kashmir for 10-15 days.” Malik blames it on negligence. If enquiries were indeed made by the Border Security Force (BSF), which patrols the international border, much of which is fenced, and if the NIA did track the trail, that information is not available in the public domain.

4. Why were intelligence inputs ignored?

While officials claimed that no specific inputs were made available, Malik is emphatic that these inputs existed. This was corroborated by an investigation carried out by Frontline magazine, which reported a year after the attack, ‘There were at least 11 intelligence inputs between 2 January 2019 and 13 February 2019, pointing to a macabre ‘Qisas (retribution) mission’ in the making, one that culminated eventually in the attack on a security convoy in Lethpora, Pulwama.’

The report claimed that the agencies were aware that a terror strike might be launched on the route taken by the security forces. They also had information that Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror commander Mudassir Ahmed Khan, who was later identified as the mastermind behind the Pulwama attack, was moving around in Midoora and Lam Tral villages in late January 2019. Importantly, as per the Frontline report, the agencies were also aware that Mudassir Ahmed Khan was working with four foreign mercenaries on a ‘major fidayeen attack’.

5. Were Road Opening Parties sent in advance to sanitise the convoy’s route?

Malik says, “The route wasn’t sanitised. There are at least 8-10 link roads connected to the route, and specifically in that area, these junctions should have been manned to ensure that nobody could enter that route. But nothing was done.”

6. Why did the Union home ministry turn down the CRPF’s request for aircraft to transport the stranded jawans?

Malik attributes it to “incompetence” and “negligence” on the part of both the CRPF and the MHA under Rajnath Singh. He maintains that the CRPF had made the request but it was rejected by the ministry. It would have been a relatively simple affair to mobilise transport planes at the disposal of the IAF and the BSF. On what grounds they were not made available remains obscure.

7. Why wasn’t the movement of the convoy kept under wraps?

Troop movements in convoys are usually undisclosed, decided at the last minute in order to minimise the likelihood of attack and ambush. Soon after the attack, an unnamed official was quoted in the media as saying, ‘The movement of convoys was not a secret and to target the convoy, one did not require any advance information or intelligence input. Convoys keep moving on a daily basis on the highway. However, the possibility of the terrorists conducting a recce to carry out this attack cannot be ruled out.’

8. When was the Prime Minister informed of the attack and by whom?

Satya Pal Malik claims the Prime Minister called him for details from a dhaba outside the Corbett National Park, three hours after the incident. Why would he call the Governor and why from a dhaba? Wouldn’t the NSA have contacted him immediately and conveyed the details? Didn’t the PM and the entourage accompanying him on a shoot for Discovery channel have access to satellite phones? Did the PMO lose contact during those three hours after the attack?

9. What were the PM’s movements after receiving information on the attack?

“He [Mr. Modi] had tea and snacks in the Circuit House till 6:45 p.m. Not only this, he was enjoying a boat ride from the Kalagarh dam to Dhikala along with the Discovery channel head and the camera crew who were filming him,” claimed Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala. Former Union minister and MP Manish Tewari played a Doordarshan clip from 14 February 2019 which showed Mr. Modi addressing a public rally via his mobile phone at 5:10 p.m. Referring to the clip, he said Mr. Modi must clarify what he was doing between 3.10 p.m. and 5.10 p.m. on the day of the attack. “Because the Doordarshan clip shows that he was addressing a rally through his phone,” he said.

“There are only two possibilities: one, even after learning of the attack, he continued with business as usual. The second possibility is even more dangerous,” Tewari said. “For two hours, the Prime Minister remained unaware and that is frightful.”

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