Outrage Is Natural But Do We Want To Learn Lessons From Pulwama?

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Pulwama’s gory spectacle is haunting. The mangled wreckage of the bus, the strewn body pieces leave behind the tell-tale signs of the lives that existed seconds before the explosion, of the brutality of loss of lives that could have been avoided. Beyond the war and stated positions is a human tragedy that stands above everything else. What is it that was lost – soldiers, mostly from poor backgrounds, who were unsuspectingly being transported for duty, not in combatant positions, but left behind mourning families. Behind the gruesome killings is the 19-years-old suicide bomber whose one move snuffed out life from over 40 people in just one strike – a militant who should have been studying and not wielding the gun in the first place.

Then come the questions. Why did the incident happen? Who is responsible? Could it have been avoided? What is the remedy to prevent such incidents from happening in the future? There are micro level and macro level questions.

The immediate questions necessitate a thorough probe into the security lapses which appear glaring and these need to address all the questions including the manner in which a huge convoy was given road clearance, the gap between intelligence outputs and the security drill, the unchecked movement of the explosive laden SUV amidst such high security, the stockpiling of explosives including RDX by the militants. If infiltrations are claimed to be at zero-level amidst heavy snowfall, how were the explosives smuggled in whether from across the borders or via Lakhanpur? Were there internal leakages from the already existing explosives in the possession of security agencies or kept for use in development projects? Is there a possibility of militants producing their own explosives? Is there some level of complicity in all of this? These questions are as vital as pinning the blame on the perpetrators.

The bomber was a Jaish-e-Mohammed operative which has base in Pakistan but is also a product of home-grown militancy. How much is the involvement of Pakistan’s agencies, if at all? Who were the master-minds and logistics accomplices and where were they operating from? These questions need to be resolved on basis of evidence and facts not by chest thumping and muscle flexing, which can only be momentarily comforting for the sense of hurt that the massive scale of killings invokes; but they end up obfuscating facts and hampering truth.

The deeper and more vital question is the continuing graph of militancy in the Valley and the additional strength it is gaining, as is evident from the Pulwama attack. The incident punctures the myth of a rosy picture off late being painted by the officials with claims of militancy being wiped out, which has been wrongly calculated on basis of number of militants killed without taking into account the new militants being born. Is the nation being mislead about low recruitment in militant groups or has the intelligence on this count failed? The ground situation today in the Valley is far more conducive for young boys to pick up arms than it was a year ago, despite the claims of the security agencies and the government. Whether the shocking Pulwama attack is an aberration or signals a new and decisive phase in Kashmir’s insurgency is too early to say, but it does reflect the strengthened roots of militant outfits in the Valley. Radicalisation of youth picks up energy from a continued muscular policy pursued without any full stops, and added to this repressive atmosphere is a huge baggage of exercise of democracy in breach, curbing of civil liberties and massive human rights excesses and above all a pending political dispute.

According to a news report, Aadil Ahmad, the suicide bomber, who picked up the gun less than a year ago, was primarily tormented by his own experience of harassment. “Once he was returning from school when he was detained by the police and asked to rub his nose on the ground. He felt it was very humiliating and would keep recalling the incident again and again,” according to Aadil’s father who said that “otherwise he had no inclination to become a militant”, as quoted by the report. Rewind to 2010 and the story is not dissimilar from Burhan Wani’s transition from a student to a militant. Many young men who joined militant ranks in recent years have done so as a reaction to the experiences of humiliation, harassment and human rights abuse with them or with people around them.

There is thus need for a deeper introspection on the Kashmir centric policies being employed now and those that have been pursued since years. Previous central governments since the last seven decades, particularly since the onset of insurgency, have resorted to managing the conflict by alternating brute military might with cosmetic political outreach. In a place that needed the important transition from conflict management to conflict resolution, the present government has followed the simple strategy of an all-out muscular policy, with the predominant echo of bullets and pellets, that has only ended up deepening the conflict. A course correction is one of the most vital necessity if attacks like Pulwama and mass-slaughter of security personnel have to be avoided.

Instead, the pre-dominant discourse ever since Pulwama attack is pushing not only Kashmir but the entire country into a much more dangerous vortex. The public outrage and collective pain is understandable but the response needs to be guided by rationale and pragmatic approach. The government and its loyalist media have focused on two basic things. One is the obsession with Pakistan bashing and making a show of efforts to diplomatically “isolate” the country. Second is the call for revengeful action built by whipping up frenzy. The first is inspired by sheer naivete of the global politics which is not shaped by moral questions but strategic interests. It would be foolish to gloss over the strategic worth of Pakistan, as compared to India, for the western powers. It would also be sheer hypocrisy to snub international powers for raking up human rights issue in Kashmir and at the same time garner international support on the question of terrorism. One can do all the chest thumping and muscle-flexing but blaring noises and sloganeering don’t create sound foundations of a good diplomatic offensive; that needs solid work through use of different channels. At best, with all these noises and despite having the high moral ground on terrorism, India may end up isolating and insulating itself from the world.

As for whipping up sentiments in favour of a revengeful backlash, it is a huge blunder on three counts. First, it hampers the image of the country internationally. Secondly, responsible and liberal democratic states are not expected to be guided by principles of vindictiveness in their policies and actions. Thirdly, the communal overtones and violence that such a sense of vindictiveness took in Jammu demonstrates the inherent dangers to the nation and its secular fabric posed by such echoes. Sadly, it wasn’t just irresponsible media and fringe politicians who spoke about avenging the attack but also some union ministers.

What India needs today is not a knee-jerk response, but one that is taken with a level head, with an open mind, by grappling with questions, some of which may seem pretty uncomfortable. Guided by a discourse that everybody but the government is wrong, we are not embarking on the journey of preventing further disasters like Pulwama, we are only camouflaging the existing failures. The conclusions on involvement of Pakistan can’t be based on emotions but on scrutiny of facts and evidence. In case there is sufficient evidence pointing to such a role, the wiser thing to do is not to turn the back on Pakistan but to launch a solid diplomatic offensive including through engagement to pressurize Pakistan into doing much more to crackdown on the terror modules operating there. Jaish has close liaison with Taliban. India has ‘unofficially’ been a part of the American backed and Russia initiated talks with Taliban. It cannot back dialogue in which Pakistan is also a part internationally but refuse to do so at the sub-continental level. There is also need to understand that for enduring peace, Kashmir issue requires a political resolution in which Pakistan again is a stake-holder. By repeating the past mistakes, there is a greater risk of perpetuating the conflict and bracing for more violence.

Precious lives of soldiers have been lost. Many more cannot be treated as cannon fodder and fed to satiate the blood-thirsting calls for revenge. By trying to convert soldiers into symbols of national pride, there is a convenient politics at play to dehumanize their existence. Pulwama, above all, is a human tragedy. Kashmir is turning into a dangerous battle-field where civilians and security force personnel are losing their lives on a daily basis and where suffocated young men are driven to the suicidal path of joining militant outfits. Where does this all end? If the soldiers have a responsibility to fight the borders and fight insurgents, it is the moral duty of the political powers to work for creating conditions where such violent situations can be avoided. The political powers cannot turn themselves into cheer-leaders for more bloodshed. How much more blood needs to be spilled before someone wakes up to the reality that the deeper malaise needs to be treated, not managed and certainly not exacerbated.