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The Bullet-riddled Message

The avoidable tragedy of the death of seven pilgrims, and injuries to at least another nineteen, returning from the Amarnath Yatra raises crucial questions regarding our attitudes and orientation towards security in a situation of widespread threat. The first of these relates to the conduct of the "hero driver" of the bus that was attacked, Salim Shaikh, who is being lionized by the media and political leaders alike for his 'bravery' in 'saving' the many pilgrims. What is missed here is the criminal negligence that first put their lives at risk - the decision to ply a dangerous route, without registering with the shrine board, and outside the protection of the convoys organized by the security forces, well beyond the time that the Government has publicly advised as safe for such movement. Shaikh should, at a minimum, be charged with criminal negligence causing death. And not alone; there would be a long chain of decision makers - including the tour operator - who have chosen to remain outside the arrangements of the Shrine Board, most likely for minor pecuniary gains. The Police is now reportedly floating alibis that the bus was delayed because of a 'flat tire'; this is a claim that demands independent investigation - and would not explain why the bus was not, then, stopped for the night at a safe location. Some eyewitness reports suggest that there was a second bus fairly close to the one that was attacked, and it is likely that such tours are fairly routine, and involve a number of operators.

Authorities have, rather belatedly, announced that 'independent vehicles' such as the Gujarat bus, will now be stopped and guided to a 'safe place' after 7 pm. But why was such a system not already in place? What is the use of plying protected convoys, when 'independent vehicles' are going to be presented as easy targets for terrorists? Or was it assumed - presumably on the basis of long experience - that terrorists go to bed after at 7 pm?

Crucially, various terrorist formations had issued specific threats of targeting Amarnath Yatra pilgrims this year. There have, moreover, been at least seven such lethal attacks in the past, and several others that inflicted casualties, but no fatalities. The worst of these was on August 1, 2000, at the Amarnath base camp at Pahalgam in Anantnag District, where 32 persons were killed, including 21 pilgrims. The idea that free movement of yatris - registered or otherwise - could be permitted represents a major flaw in the security arrangements, and security forces and the administration cannot take cover behind the alibi that the registered and protected yatris and convoys have remained unharmed. If the movement of 'independent vehicles' was authorized, those responsible for this decision need to be held to account for this unsupportable decision; if it was unauthorized, those who allowed such movement in such a heavily securitized zone must identified and taken to task.

The targeting of this particular bus from Gujarat, the Prime Minister's home state, with its history of communal volatility, is also unlikely to be a coincidence. Indeed, Munir Khan, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Zone, had warned much earlier of an attack "in the form of stand-off fire on yatra convoy which they (the terrorist leadership) believe will result in the flaring of communal tensions throughout the nation." If the targeting of the predominantly Gujarati yatris was intentional the specificity of intelligence available to the attackers speaks highly of their local networks, and militates against any argument of accidental delay (the tire puncture theory) in the movement of the vehicle. Crucially, after such warning, how the local intelligence and enforcement apparatus could have remained unaware of the grave vulnerabilities of this transport, and the potential for consequent flare-ups, becomes the more inexplicable.

Happily, despite organised protests in several locations, there has - as yet - been no ugliness and violence, though some of the demonstrations have been intimidatory and disorderly.

Kashmir remains a deeply troubled place. There has been an escalating trend in terrorism-linked violence over the past four and a half years, and of vicious street mobilization over the past year. There is increasing evidence of Pakistani intent to stoke the ongoing fires, and of Islamabad's belief that it has now established a winning formula for the disorders in the Valley. Crucially, patterns of communal and polarizing politics by the principal political players in Jammu and in Kashmir have dovetailed perfectly into Pakistani and separatist stratagems.

Incidents such as the attack on the yatris at Batengoo expose the State to enormous and, in this particular instance, unnecessary risk. A measure of relative normalcy had been recovered in J&K, but has been compromised, albeit marginally, after 2012. The price of administrative incompetence and political adventurism is paid in blood, inevitably, by the security forces and by hapless civilians. Despite much talk of nationalism, the reality is, the national interest is constantly compromised. India's leadership - political, administrative and security - must hold itself to significantly higher standards than is presently the case.

(Published: DNA July 13, 2017)





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