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Revelations on Pulwama Attack Return to Haunt Indian PM Modi

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Revelations on Pulwama Attack Return to Haunt Indian PM Modi

A former governor of Jammu and Kashmir has said that the Modi government refused to provide aircraft to lift paramilitary personnel traversing a risky route.

Revelations on Pulwama Attack Return to Haunt Indian PM Modi

Family members and colleagues of an Indian policeman who was killed in a gun battle in Pulwama pray near his coffin during a wreath-laying ceremony in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Feb. 18, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/ Dar Yasin

Four years ago, a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy at Pulwama in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The attack resulted in the death of 40 police personnel and the suicide bomber. The incident, which became an emotive election issue for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to general elections months later, has returned to haunt Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a recent interview with the news portal The Wire, Satya Pal Malik, who was the governor of Jammu and Kashmir at the time of the Pulwama attack, alleged that there was a massive security lapse on the part of the Indian government in Pulwama and that Modi subsequently tried to silence him.  National Security Advisor Ajit Doval too instructed him not to speak about it, Malik asserted.

Ten days after Malik’s explosive interview, he was summoned by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in New Delhi over an inquiry into an insurance scam in Kashmir during his tenure.

Expectedly, the opposition has hit out at the Modi government. Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera termed the CBI summons as a “vengeful move” and said that Malik was paying the price for speaking out. “We don’t know why it took 10 days for the Prime Minister. Normally he is very prompt in silencing his critics,” Khera said. “What did Satya Pal Malik do? He asked some very relevant, very pertinent questions… related to national security.”

The Pulwama attack was described as the worst terror attack in Kashmir in three decades. With Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claiming responsibility for the attack, tensions soon escalated tensions with neighboring Pakistan.

Malik’s disclosures highlight the gross security and intelligence lapses by the Indian government. The former Jammu and Kashmir governor revealed that a threat was already perceived and the CRPF had asked the Home Ministry for five aircraft to transport personnel.

However, the request was denied, and the 2,500 personnel traveled by road, which Malik stated was not even adequately checked.

Malik recalled that he called up the prime minister, who was away then on a visit to Corbett National Park. When he finally spoke to Modi the same evening, Malik told him, “This is our fault. Had we given them aircraft this would not have happened. He told me to be quiet.”

Malik said that he then realized that the onus for the attack was being shifted to Pakistan, and with less than two months to go before the general elections, it was being astutely turned into an election issue by the BJP.

The retaliatory air strikes by India on reported Jaish-e-Mohammed training camps in Balakot in Pakistan on February 26, 2019, catapulted Modi into the role of an unassailable national savior.

The BJP was re-elected with a larger mandate than what it received in 2014.

Soon after Malik’s recent revelations, Pakistan’s Foreign Office issued a statement of how it had been “vindicated.”

“His [Malik’s] disclosures demonstrate how the Indian leadership has habitually used the bogey of terrorism from Pakistan to advance its sham victimhood narrative and the Hindutva agenda, clearly for domestic political gains,” it said.

Security analysts and opposition leaders had questioned how a car filled with 300 kg of explosives was not detected in a high-security region like Kashmir. However, anyone who pointed to intelligence failures and lapses on the part of the Modi government in connection to the Pulwama attack was swiftly branded as “anti-national.”

Scathing editorials in leading national newspapers are now demanding that the Modi government break its strategic silence and answer the allegations leveled by Malik, wherein 40 valuable lives were lost due to the “incompetence” of the government.

Interestingly, in the only reaction from the Modi government thus far, Home Minister Amit Shah questioned the credibility of Malik’s comments.  “Why don’t their (Malik) consciences awaken when they are in power?” he asked, adding that the BJP “has done nothing that needs to be hidden.”

In his interview, Malik also said that although he was then the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, he was not consulted on the decision to abrogate Article 370 and strip the state of its autonomy.

Mounting a personal attack on the prime minister, Malik described Modi as “arrogant.” In a damning indictment, the former governor further said that in his several interactions with Modi he found him to be “ignorant” and “ill informed” on matters relating to Kashmir. Malik said that Modi appeared disinterested on the issue.

Highlighting Malik’s accusation that Modi himself “does not hate corruption,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, a staunch Modi critic, who has been accused of involvement in the Delhi liquor scam, pointed out that “a person like Modiji, who is steeped in corruption from head to toe himself, cannot really consider corruption to be an issue.”

Kejriwal even lauded Malik for “showing great courage in these times of fear.”

Satya Pal Malik, 76, is no political lightweight. A former vice president of the BJP, he belongs to the powerful Jat community, who are agriculturalists in the northern belt. He was appointed governor of Bihar in 2017 and governor of Jammu and Kashmir in 2018, a gubernatorial tenure that lasted for 14 months. When Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood and became a centrally-administered Union Territory, Malik was appointed governor of Goa and thereafter of Meghalaya.

During the mass protests over the farm laws in 2020-21, Malik left the BJP embarrassed when he broke ranks with the party and supported the agitating farmers, the majority of whom were Jats, an agricultural caste. He demanded scrapping of the controversial farm laws and said that arrogance had blinded Modi.

A rebel now, Malik finds himself stripped of security and of government accommodation. The “government wants me to be killed. It has not provided me security despite a threat to my life,” he alleged in the interview.

Soon after the Modi government resorted to its routine ploy of harassing dissidents and critics through CBI summons, Malik hit back with some muscle-flexing. In a show of strength, members of 36 Jat clans arrived at Malik’s residence in New Delhi, but the meeting was broken up by Delhi Police. Jat farmers of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh have threatened to storm the capital and block the roads if need be. Malik has claimed that he was arrested, which was denied by police.

There is no doubt that Malik cannot be brushed away like other BJP leaders who had previously become liabilities for Modi and the party. Malik has proved that he has enough supporters on the ground who will act at his bidding. He is unlikely to be cowered down.

Satya Pal Malik is a problem for the BJP government that does not appear to be going away anytime soon.