BJP supporters light candles as they pay tribute to the slain CRPF jawans during Pulwama terror attack, in Kolkata, Monday, Feb 18, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

The Pulwama terror attack in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14 — which involved a suicide bomber crashing a car full of explosives into a convoy of Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) and killing more than 40 Indian paramilitary personnel — continues to play out as a game of one-upmanship between India and Pakistan.

Patriotic Indian TV anchors have threatened to decimate Pakistan. Pakistan has retaliated over the air waves. It is in many ways the extension and imitation of the exaggerated antics that go by the name of a flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border in the west between India and Pakistan.

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Pulwama is in the south of Kashmir. It is a militant-infested area, and heads the table of casualties in the last several years, including an attack in 2017 on a convoy of devotees ofAmarnath (a Hindu shrine), seven of whom were killed. The anfractuous highway connecting Jammu to the Kashmir valley trundles through Pulwama. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a militant organisation based in Pakistan, whose stated mission is to “free Kashmir from India”, has been active in these parts.

JeM claimed responsibility for the bombing and released a video in which the bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, a 20-year-old school dropout, in full battle gear and posing behind a row of scary looking guns, said he hoped to reach heaven by means of his attack on the Indian convoy.

Across India, there has been a predictable reaction and calls for war with its neighbour. So much so that the mongering persuaded Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to go on TV and make a short speech, in which he said the war talk should stop and that by attacking a convoy of soldiers within India, Pakistan stood to gain nothing. He was convincing except that Masoud Azhar, leader of JeM, is widely believed to be functioning out of Pakistan.

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So far he has not been touched by Pakistani authorities.

The fact, nevertheless, as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said, is that there has been an intelligence failure.

When 78 buses transporting 2,500 soldiers move through an attack-prone terrain, some planning would precede it. That planning seemed to have been somewhat vague. The convoy moved in a close line, offering what must have been a target weak in the flank. There were no escort vehicles, or pilots. It is not clear if the front, rear and the middle of the convoy were in constant radio contact. When the bomber car joined the highway from a slip road, and drove alongside the convoy for a while before ramming into the target bus, fifth from the front, according to one report, there was no alert from a single soldier.

190216 thousands mourn
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat shoulders the coffin of a slain CRPF Jawan Mohan Lal for the last rites after the wreath-laying ceremony, in Dehradun, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Lal lost his life in Pulwama terror attack. Image Credit: PTI

On the other hand, if the progress of the convoy was being monitored in some quarters (army or any other national security body), the suspect movement of the suicide bomber was not taken seriously. Military convoys move up and down the highway at regular intervals. The predictability of the movement must have come in handy for the militants.

The Maruti Suzuki van that rammed into the convoy reportedly carried around 300kg of explosives, which must have been smuggled into Pulwama over a period of time. But all of it had to have reached a single destination. That this lethal courier service went undetected doesn’t speak highly of the information network of the army.

This is perhaps the right time to ask what exactly led to the attacks and aftermath at Uri (2016) and Pathankot (2016) on a military camp and air base, respectively. The Uri attack in Jammu and Kashmir killed 23 soldiers. A parliamentary standing committee on defence headed by Major General B.C. Khanduri (retired) had criticised the government for laxity in follow-up actions as well as the country’s general defence preparedness. Maj Gen Khanduri lost his job as the panel head.

Nitika Kaul, wife of Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal
Nitika Kaul, wife of Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal, who lost his life in Pulwama attack gestures while paying her last respects to him ahead of his funeral, in Dehradun, Tuesday, Feb 19, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

Convoy between war and peace

Days after the convoy attack, Pulwama observed a funeral for the suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar. Thousands attended, including hundreds of women. A school dropout became a ‘martyr’ out of nowhere, and most likely would inspire more young boys to choose blood and warpath.

In April 2017, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had released Rs190 billion, out of a corpus of Rs800 billion, as part of a special development package for Jammu and Kashmir. It would be good to know how much of that money has reached whom. How many schools and roads and industries were built? If that money indeed found its way to its targets, the question would be of efficacy of integration and development activities. If the money was diverted, as often happens, it would mean that corruption could fuel a war.

Between war and peace, then, there is a long convoy moving, and all the time. And in that you can’t tell soldiers from civilians. India has a problem in Kashmir. So, unfortunately, has Kashmir in India. Meanwhile, the motley convoy is taking the hits.

C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.