Speaking at the 80th raising day of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), National Security Adviser AjitDoval said that the nation’s leadership is capable of reacting to any terror attack, and will decide if the retaliation should target terrorists or those who control them. That is very well, but what about preventing another attack?
When a suicide bomber drove a vehicle laden with some 300 kg of explosives into a convoy of CRPF personnel at Pulwama, the result was tragedy. Over 40 security men were killed, several more wounded. The immediate reaction was sorrow, anger and outrage. The attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), headed by Masood Azhar. In retaliation, the government sent Indian warplanes into Pakistani territory and bombed targets there.
The response was powerful, justified and recognised as such by most global powers. Pakistan came under immense pressure to release the Indian fighter pilot it had shot down and captured. India won diplomatic support for putting Masood Azhar on the UN’s sanctions list from most countries, save China.
The general reaction in India was one of jubilation at breaking free from Pakistan’s nuclear thrall. Prime Minister NarendraModi who dared to take the decision to use air power, even if only for a “pre-emptive, non-military” strike, basked in the glow of public approval. But, in the process, one vital question has been left to blow forlornly in the wind: why and how did Pulwama happen? When military men die, the popular response is one of grief and admiration for their heroism. Rarely do people ask whether those deaths were necessary.
Not though the soldier knew someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die/ Into the valley of death/ Rode the six hundred. The Charge of the Light Brigade evokes awe of military bravery and sacrifice, but it also deplores blundered loss of life.
The mid-19th century Crimean war, in which a traditional British light cavalry brigade charged a deployment of Russian cannon, providing Alfred Tennyson with the material for his poem, caused so much needless loss of life and treasure that the resultant public outcry led to professionalization of the British army and the conduct of war.
In India, the death of brave soldiers provokes similar awe at their bravery and sacrifice. But the needed follow-through of professionalization of conduct in matters of war and security just does not happen.
The Pathankot Air Force Station was attacked in January 2016. Six soldiers were killed. India handed over proof to Islamabad of their non-State actors’ involvement in the attack, even invited their people to investigate the crime scene. Deadpan, Pakistani investigators declared that India had stage-managed the attack to malign Pakistan.
Six months later, an army brigade headquarters at Uri was attacked. It left 19 soldiers dead. India performed its surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the Line of Control and declared vindication.
Two months later, terrorists attacked an army base at Nagrota, killing seven Indian soldiers. Evidently, the surgical strikes were more effective in spawning Bollywood josh than in preventing further attacks.
After the Pulwama attack and India’s counter-attack, the National Security Adviser is again threatening retaliation for fresh attacks. Could we have some serious thought on how to prevent such attacks, foiling incipient attacks through intelligence that lives up to its name and pre-emptive action?
If we value the lives of our soldiers, we must focus on preventing such attacks, not revelling in our ability to strike back when a fresh attack happens. For that, fresh attacks must be recognised as security failures on the part of the government that cannot be offset by any subsequent show of force.
Nor is this failure at the level of policing and intelligence gathering alone. Essentially, the failure is that of politics, failure to live up to the promise and challenge of democracy. It is now commonplace for an encounter in Kashmir between India’s armed forces and separatist militants to draw a local crowd of protesters, who seek to shield the militants and help them escape. Some of these civilians end up as collateral damage. Every civilian death breeds yet more alienation and yet more militants.
One such young man drove a carload of explosives into the CRPF convoy at Pulwama.
For far too long has India sent its security forces to wage war against its own people in Kashmir, the northeast, the tribal plains and jungles of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. This strategy has produced alienation and discontent, propelling the conflict forward from one generation to the next. Soldiers have been killed, as well as civilians and rebels. This strategy must be abandoned.
India’s biggest strength is democracy. Democracy must be the means to resolve separatist conflict and rebellion. Brandishing the sword of retribution serves not to deter fresh attacks, but to whip up nationalist frenzy. That is not the way to honour the dead.