Indian security forces inspect the remains of a bus after the attack on an army and police convoy that killed 44 troops outside Srinagar on February 14, 2019. Photo: AFP

Details emerging days after the Pulwama attack in the state of Jammu and Kashmir on Valentines’s Day reveal that there were multiple failures on the part of the government that may have added to the death toll when Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operatives killed 42 Indian police personnel.

Since February 4, the weather in Kashmir had turned for the worse, leading to the blocking of the Banihal Pass, the sole road route from the Jammu region into the Kashmir Valley through the Pir Panjal mountain ranges. Police personnel from the federal Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were in the Channi Rama transit camp in Jammu, waiting for the weather to clear before they could be transported into the Kashmir Valley.

“We have a capacity of 1000 personnel in the Jammu camp, but the number had risen to 2500 due to the inclement weather,” a senior CRPF official told Asia Times.

Meanwhile, senior CRPF officials posted in Kashmir began to ask for the airlifting of troops using fixed wing aircraft. Multiple top police sources confirmed that the Inspector General of Police of the CRPF, in charge of Kashmir operations, wrote to the federal ministry of home affairs (MHA) seeking aircraft to airlift the stranded troops from Jammu.

Letter written by Inspector General of Police of the CRPF, in charge of Kashmir operations. Source: Twitter

“His written requests were turned down by the MHA,” the officials said.

But on February 15, a day after the attack, the MHA swung into action and managed to get the Indian Air Force (IAF) to start airlifting police personnel from the Jammu sector.

“At least four flights by the IAF’s C-17 Globemaster and the IL-76 transport aircraft have lifted the personnel of the CRPF and the Border Security Force (BSF) since the attack”. The Globemaster and the IL-76 can each carry at least 130 troops without any cargo at a time. “Had the backlog in the Jammu camp not gone up to 2500, the pressure to send them all out by a road convoy wouldn’t have been required,” a senior security official said.

In fact, S P Vaid, the former Director General of Police (DGP) of the Jammu and Kashmir state, who is now the transport commissioner, also raised the lack of airlift facilities.

“The transit alone takes a lot of time, especially when the roads are closed for weeks. This exposes the soldiers for a prolonged duration. I had proposed to airlift the jawans (soldiers) during (a) high-level security meeting of joint forces more than once, and also spoke about it to representatives of state and Union governments,” Vaid told News18.

He also pointed out that as per calculations worked out when he was the DGP of the state, the costs of air travel were “comparable” to road transport.

The lack of bullet proof buses for the CRPF in Kashmir has also drawn considerable criticism. “The government has money for statues, but not for the security forces,” one senior official remarked.

Asia Times sent a detailed questionnaire to Bharat Bhushan Babu, the official spokesperson of the MHA, detailing the lack of permission for airlifts to the CRPF and BSF before the Pulwama attack. However, Bhushan did not respond to specific queries about the CRPF’s request for airlift due to inclement weather. The story will be updated if and when he responds.

Missing Prime Minister

On February 20, the principal opposition Congress party launched a salvo against the Narendra Modi government for its failure to prevent the Pulwama attack. The party’s spokesperson, R S Surjewala alleged that the prime minister was still busy shooting a documentary at the Jim Corbett National Park even hours after the attack. He also released pictures from the shoot where the prime minister is seen in the forest and taking a boat ride.

Embarrassed by these revelations at a time when the prime minister is on a visit to South Korea, government sources scrambled to respond and stated that “there was no connectivity”, which is why the prime minister could not be alerted.

However, observers have pointed out that the reaction of the prime minister and the union cabinet left much to be desired.

Following the attack, the government called for an all-party meeting, but the prime minister chose to skip it and headed off to the inauguration of India’s new, indigenously-developed train engine.

This was followed by a political rally raising questions about the government’s focus on the upcoming general elections rather than addressing a national crisis. As tempers began to rise across India, and Kashmiris began to be targeted by enraged mobs, the prime minister’s silence came in for criticism from the opposition parties.

After the September 2016 attack on an Indian Army brigade headquarters camp in Uri, Kashmir, that killed 19 soldiers, the government sanctioned commando raids into several parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

These were christened as “surgical strikes” and used extensively in the subsequent election campaign in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. The BJP then won a handsome victory in the state.

Early this year, a movie was released on the so-called “surgical strikes”, which critics pointed out, had tremendous propaganda value for the BJP ahead of the general elections slated for April this year.

A senior army official told Asia Times, “But this has limited our options and the massive political hype after the raids has now created expectations that are impossible to match. The government will have to take some kinetic action against Pakistan to satiate public anger in an election year.”

Leadership wiped out?

Earlier this week, an encounter between the Indian security forces and suspected JeM militants led to a fierce encounter that raged for nearly a day. At a press conference held after the operation, Lieutenant General K J S Dhillon, commanding the Srinagar-based 15 Corps claimed that the JeM leadership in the Valley had been “wiped out”.

Dhillon also claimed that one of those killed in the encounter was a man called Kamran, also known as Rasheed Ghazi.

However, multiple sources in India’s security establishment say that they have not been able to confirm whether the man killed is indeed Ghazi.

According to intelligence reports, Ghazi is a Pakistani and an explosives expert, one of four key JeM operatives who had infiltrated into the Kahsmir Valley from Pakistan last year to carry out terror strikes.

One of them was identified as Usman, the son of JeM founder Masood Azhar’s eldest brother Ibrahim. Usman and another key JeM operative were killed by Indian security forces in October last year, and the February 14 attack in Pulwama is believed to be in retaliation to that operation.

However, security officials also point out that a fourth key operative identified as Ismail Ibrahim is still at large, indicating that the JeM leadership in the Kashmir Valley is still present.

A detailed questionnaire sent to official spokesperson of the Indian Army Colonel Aman Anand seeking clarifications, did not yield a response.

Meanwhile, the UN security council passed a resolution blaming the JeM for the Pulwama attack and has called upon Pakistan to take action against it. Interestingly, while China continues to block India’s efforts to globally designate JeM founder Azhar as a “global terrorist”, it did sign the UNSC resolution.

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