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Thursday, February 14. Ayesha Begam, 43, was on the terrace of her house when she heard a loud explosion that shook the whole building. Nothing like anything she had heard before. As she rushed out of her house with her two children, she heard “two or three bullet shots”. That was more familiar—an encounter, she thought. Perhaps bigger than usual. “We live in south Kashmir and also on the highway…we are used to it,” she says. Lethpora, just 25 km or so south of Srinagar, is bang on the highway going through restive south Kashmir all the way to Qazigund, the last town before the Banihal tunnel that connects the Valley to Jammu across the Pir Panjal mountains.
Thursday’s car bombing, which killed 40 CRPF personnel, was indeed out of the ordinary—the deadliest militant attack ever in Kashmir. The suicide bombing carried out by 19-year-old Adil Ahmad Dar, a Kashmiri militant affiliated to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, has also come at a time when India is headed for general elections. With PM Narendra Modi promising a “jaw-breaking” response to Pakistan, Kashmir has fed right into the mainstream political discourse.
At Gandibagh village of Pulwama, however, Adil’s father, Ghulam Hassan Dar, says, “He had never seemed inclined to join militancy.” Adil, a teenager doing odd jobs, until some unpleasant encounters with the forces ‘turned’ him onto the path families dread, had left home this March, and had only once contacted the family since, adds the bereaved father. He recalls Adil’s love for cricket and that he was a Dhoni fan.
The spectre of India and Pakistan going to war over Kashmir has long been a staple of foreign policy scenario-makers. Kashmir has been through many phases in the two decades since the two belligerent neighbours went nuclear. How does it now react to the prospect of an Indo-Pak war?
People here are stoically numb—“let there be a war,” is the commonest response. “Not a day passes without gunfights and encounters and funerals here. Let there be a war and settle it once for all,” says a youngster at Tengmohalla locality of Lethpora. Others say they have seen so many funerals all these years that the fear of death has gone. “I wish there is war now,” says another youngster, perhaps not seeing any difference between peace and war.
At Lethpora, a youngster points to the camp housing the CRPF’s 185 Battalion at the foothills of a mountain locally called Wastuwan, just a mile from the highway where the CRPF convoy was attacked. The last edition of Jaish’s works was seen there, early in the morning on January 1, 2018, when a 16-year-old Jaish militant called Fardeen Khanday, the son of a police head constable from Tral, entered the camp and carried out an attack in which five CRPF personnel were killed. Khanday had joined the Jaish in October 2017. In a pre-recorded video, Fardeen had claimed militancy is not the result of unemployment, but “a reply to Kashmir’s illegal control by India”. He also asked Kashmiri youth to join the “fight against India”. Besides Afzal Guru, whose hanging turned him into a martyr in Kashmiri eyes, Fardeen hailed Jaish supremo Maulana Masood Azhar.
Adil was only born in 1999, the year India released Masood Azhar after the IC-814 hijacking. Last Thursday, he joined a script written in blood. Classified as a category-C militant, he rammed his Echo vehicle, filled with what police sources say was ammonium nitrate, into the ill-fated CRPF bus. He is said to have entered the highway at Awantipora from a left bylane to join the CRPF convoy of 78 vehicles that was transporting 2,547 paramilitary jawans. The convoy had left Jammu around 3 am. At Lethpora, the militant overtook the fifth bus in the convoy, and rammed his vehicle into it, blowing it into pieces and damaging the sixth bus coming up behind it.
The remarkable fact about the incident, at first glance, is that it happened at all—the highway being dotted with security forces. The CRPF’s 10th battalion is just 100 metres ahead of the point on the highway where the incident took place. The army’s 50 Rashtriya Rifles camp too is just 400 metres ahead. But in recent years, this highway has seen militant attacks despite the heavy deployment. In June 2016, LeT militants attacked a CRPF convoy comprising six vehicles at Frisal village at congested Pampore, killing eight CRPF personnel. In July 2017, militants opened fire on a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims, killing seven yatris, at Botengo in Anantnag. Both spots were on the old highway—the new one bypasses them.
The police say there were non-specific inputs about an attack involving an IED of 10-20 kg—nothing of “this magnitude”, and at any rate not a high-impact suicide sortie involving a bomb-laden car. Even if the mode of attack was unusual, the highway is an easy target because of huge traffic movement, according to the police. “Another such incident could be a course-changer for Kashmir,” says a senior police official.
Four days after the attack, the CRPF and the army were not allowing civilian vehicles to ply on the highway when security convoys were on the move. “Nothing has changed except we have been given long lathis to keep private vehicles away,” says a CRPF jawan manning the Nowgam bypass. With even army personnel seen carrying long lathis to make private vehicles fall in line, the Srinagar-Qazigund and Srinagar-Baramulla highways are likely to witness huge jams and possible public protests. On Saturday, people complained they were thrashed by army personnel at Narbal crossing.
A residential building with militants inside is blown up.
There was obviously a gap in the SOP that allowed Adil Dar to slip through. The three-tier security SOP starts with early morning road opening parties (ROPs) to check for IEDs. The ROPs are also in charge of not allowing anyone come near the convoys during the day. The second tier is corridor protection, where the army goes 15 yards either side of the highway to check any militant movement. The third is deep deployment, where forces are placed in villages along the highway.
According to former J&K DGP K. Rajendra Kumar, till the early 2000s, civilian traffic was stopped for convoys—and night traffic not allowed either. Post-2002, these restrictions were lifted as the situation started improving, to the point when militants in Kashmir numbered in single digits. “If we start restricting private vehicle movement, people would be put to a lot of inconvenience,” he says, adding that even the strictest SOP cannot guarantee total safety. Former CM Omar Abdullah says special chartered trains should be used from Banihal to Baramulla for movement of forces. “They can move non-stop at high speed and will be much safer,” he says, adding that would free up the highway for civilian traffic.
The ‘Afzal Guru Squad’
As the attack was timed close to February 9, the day Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013, the police suspect the involvement of Afzal Guru Squad, formed by Jaish in January 2014—specifically, JeM commander Kamraan, an IED expert, who was gunned down on Monday in Pinglana. Jaish has had a chequered existence in Kashmir: its most dramatic strike before this was the October 2001 car bomb attack on the assembly complex in Srinagar that killed 38 people. Partly eclipsed after the 2003 killing of its chief operational commander Gazi Baba—thought to be behind the Parliament attack—it has resurfaced with a bang. Gazi was earlier with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, created in the ’90s for carrying out “spectacular attacks”, and IC-814 ranks high among those. IC-814 and the Parliament attack finding mention in Adil’s last message rounds off a long story.
With New Delhi following an iron-fist policy, militant deaths have been unusual high in the recent past. In 2018, over 256 militants (150 of them Kashmiri) were killed, the highest in two decades. In 2017, 85 Jaish militants were killed, including Talha Rashid, a nephew of Masood Azhar. In 2018, at least 49 Jaish men fell, including Usman Haider, another nephew of Masood Azhar. Indeed, the army had described 2018 as a “remarkable” year. Omar Abdullah was the first to question the boast, pointing out a great year would be one in which nobody joined militancy, and no Kashmiri or armed personnel was killed in gunfights. Many experts agree.
For, if 150 Kashmiri militants were killed last year, 190 also joined militancy and 300 are still active. “They aren’t often well-trained, some don’t even know how to carry a weapon and get killed within days of joining. There’s no need to show bravado,” says a senior officer, pleading anonymity.
Analysts here blame the Centre’s policies for pushing Kashmiris to extreme positions. One widespread belief is that the Centre, in the past five years, has used Kashmir in a way that would help the BJP elsewhere. That, in fact, helped “the merger of moderate and hardline separatists,” says an analyst. The party also created deep paranoia by moving for the revocation of Article 370 and Article 35A—the past two years have seen a complete strike in the Valley for every hearing of the Article 35A case in the Supreme Court. The polarisation was so complete that even those who “had fired and taken bullets for India” testified to feeling threatened. “You can blame Pakistan for everything but no country on earth can manufacture mass revolt,” says the analyst.
By Naseer Ganai in Lethpora (Pulwama)