Politics of Pulwama

I remember taking a flight from Jammu airport, sometime early July 1999. The battle of Kargill between India and its neighbour was still being fought on the frontlines. The live war footage being telecast by news channels could not deter me from spending a couple of days in the troubled State of Jammu and Kashmir for a visit to the famed Vaishnoo Devi Temple in the Trikoota Hills of Katra.

All the time I was there in the region, I never heard a single gunshot or sound of an even distant heavy artillery fire, like one would normally have expected seeing what was on news. However, I did see a large number of wooden coffins draped in the Indian Tri-Colour being brought in to the airport for what would be a final journey for those braves resting in peace. I looked around to see the reaction of people at seeing what I had just seen. There was none. Not a single person stood up in respect, or stopped eating the junk they were stuffing their mouths with, or stopped jabbering or whatever they were doing — even for a second, like it did not really matter.

As a security procedure, before boarding, each passenger had to go to the cargo hold area and identify their personal checked-in baggage. Seeing the rows of coffins awaiting transportation, I could not keep myself from saluting the slain and stand there for a minute to say a silent prayer. Having just witnessed the insensitivity, I wondered if dying for this Country was worth it? Sadly, my action did not serve as an example for any of the fellow flyers. Guess to each their own. I wasn’t doing what I did to earn any brownie points or seek attention — it just felt like the right thing to do — as an Indian, the least I could do.

A couple of months earlier (April 1999), the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition that had come to power in the 12th Lok Sabha elections (1998) had been reduced to a caretaker government. One of its largest partners — the AIDMK- had pulled the rug from under it. Fresh elections were held in October of 1999. The NDA got re-elected with a decent enough majority to form a government. The election success could be attributed in a large part to the drummed up victory in the Kargill War.

If the aggressors had counted on the political chaos in India as an opportune time to strike; the strategy had backfired, putting the very “Hindu” centric party it despised back in power. Much later, quite a few skeletons hidden in the Indian Army’s cupboard sprang to life. Though none of them were scary enough to shake the nation’s faith in the institution, questions did arise on how could there have been such a massive intelligence failure, where bunkers built by infiltrators — some 10kms inside Indian territory — at multiple locations along the border — had gone unnoticed by our eyes on the ground and in the sky? On the positive side though, 1999 could be looked at as a year of the armed forces and renewed nationalism, which sadly died off within a year or two on the back of several global tragedies in years 2000 and 2001.

Fast Forward. 14th February 2019 — While people around the world were busy preparing to share love on Valentine’s day, India went into a state of shock and hate. In what was subsequently labelled as a massive intelligence failure and logistical bungle, 40 young soldiers of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) lost their lives that day. A radicalized local Kashmiri youth crashed his heavily RDX laden vehicle into their convoy. JEM, a terror outfit that is quite vocal about running a proxy way against India at the behest of Pakistan’s intelligence services took credit for the attack. It called the attack a retaliation to the “surgical strike” carried out by India against it in 2016. The following day, the nation was in a state of burning outrage. At first, social media was rife with people from all walks expressing anger at what happened, which soon escalated to street demonstrations around the country demanding a call for action by the government.

It was a free for all thereafter. Politicians from every party wanted to express an opinion on the situation. From accusing the government as inept to labeling the incident as an act of war, social media warriors with or without political affiliations began to crash the internet with how and when the cat should be belled. The Prime Minister assured the nation that a fitting reply would be given — soon. Most read that as a promise of a new surgical strike by India, like it was some on-demand video game. Unlike the unconcern I witnessed at Jammu in 1999, and it may well be an isolated observation, just the picture of the 40 Tri-Colour bearing coffins appearing in various media channels woke the patriotism in practically every Indian. It’s a different matter most did not think it important to learn the names of those resting within. After all, that why the concept of the unknown soldier came about— right? Rightfully, call for contributions to support the 40 families affected in that incident were raised. But, it did raise a question in my mind.

Loss of a life, especially one of a protector is very sad. The anguish was understandable, as was the call for support. What I could not reconcile was — why does the same level of grief, anger and call for support not manifest itself when CRPF soldiers are ambushed and killed in mass by Naxals, in incidents similar to the one at Pulwama? Is being killed by a Naxal deserving of a lesser honour than being killed by a foreign trained home grown terrorist? What are we saying then — a Naxal is not a terrorist or a home grown terrorist is not a Naxal? That’s the trouble with words, the entire narrative changes with the meaning of one.

Moving on, a couple of days later, there was news of a joint operation carried out by the Indian Army and State Police in which four high value terrorists linked to the Pulwama attack were shot and killed, albeit at a very high cost in terms of own loss including a couple of ranked officers. Perhaps it was not sensational enough for any kind of media to quell the thirst of the nation for war and blood. In fact, the Pulwama story was drummed up even more as a national sentiment — to the point where the shaky and almost financially broke neighbour began to sabre rattle, and in retaliation decided to put its forces in the state of high alert — expecting some kind of adventurism by India. Fortunately, those in the think tank have not been influenced by the reality game being played out on social media, and have chosen to adopt a very different style of warfare — one of political and economic isolation— which will actually hurt the neighbour a lot more in the long run.

2019 — just like 1999 is an election year, and just like 1999, the NDA in power. To my non strategic brain, the timing and situation is quite coincidental. Just like in 1999, the NDA is standing on shaky ground as far as being re-elected goes. It has steadily lost considerable electoral support in states which normally supported it, thanks to its failure to deliver on several key parameters promised in its 2014 poll mandate. The contraction of the economy based on certain policies implemented, unearthing of numerous scams in the banking sector, and being caught in a controversy over the acquisition of Rafale fighter jets from France are not helping it either. Further it knows that a heavy price would have to be paid should it once again exercise the “Build A Temple” card. Unwittingly I hope, the neighbour has once again “gifted” the very party it despises a golden door opportunity to pull itself up back in the elections game, and perhaps win it.

With the Rafale controversy being coffined, the demand for a Ram Mandir issue being put on the back burner by BJP’s right wing supporters, and with the opposition having no option but to act united in a situation of national calamity caused by a “foreign” hand — or be ready to be labelled as anti-national, all the BJP has to do is play smart by not shooting itself in the foot until April of 2019. IPL will take care of the rest.

As far as the neighbour is concerned, with world pressure mounting on it, it has little choice but to keep its dangerous pets boxed up, with a hope that they will not bite the hand that feeds them. More worrisome for it though, having unleased its ever hungry money guzzling white elephant of an army by putting it on full alert, there is a strong possibility of that nation going totally bankrupt by the time India decides on who will govern it next.


Author. Consultant. Entrepreneur.

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