Pulwama Attack: The ‘Game of Chicken’ in India-Pakistan Relations 




Kashmir yet again captured media attention with the suicide attack by a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant on the security forces on 14 February that killed 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force. On 26 February, New Delhi conducted air strikes on the ‘biggest JeM training’ camp in Balakot. This ‘preemptive strike’ was part of the official Indian strategy of blaming Pakistan’s inaction on anti-India terror groups. While the attack indeed had roots in Pakistan, the fact remains that Kashmir’s security situation has worsened in the last five years, owing to an official policy of denial and miscalculations. Projections of optics of a strong state without addressing the basic ground level needs of the people could be driving the state to the brink.   

 (Site of the VBIED attack in Pulwama on 16 February 2019.  Photo Source: NDTV)

State of Denial

On 12 February 2019 in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament), Minister of State of Home Affairs, Hansram Gangaram Ahir, responded to a question by fellow parliamentarian Prem Singh Chandumajra on ‘whether there is continuous increase in the terrorist activities in the country’. In his reply, which must customarily be addressed to the speaker of the house, the minister ended with the shortest possible answer. “No Madam”, he said.[1] Two days later, a suicide bomber drove his explosive laden vehicle in Kashmir’s Pulwama into a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) killing over 40 personnel, in what has been the worst terror attack in India, since the Mumbai attack of 2008. While the minister can’t be blamed for not foreseeing the attack that was to follow two days later, his statement was in line held by the NDA government in New Delhi that in the past five years, India has become terror free.

Three Voices

Apart from the minister’s denial three important statements were made in Kashmir in the past week. The first one was by 20-year-old Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant Adil Ahmad Dar in a video shot hours before he drove an explosive laden car into a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) killing over 40 personnel of India’s primary Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) at Pulwama on 14 February.  “My name is Adil. …By the time this video reaches you, I will be in heaven… this is my last message for the people of Kashmir.”[2]

The second statement was made on 19 February by Lt Gen. J.S. Dhillon, Indian army’s 15 Corps commander. In a baritone the General issued a warning. “Anybody who has picked up the gun in Kashmir will be eliminated unless he surrenders. This is a message and a request to all the mothers that please tell your children to surrender. There is a very good surrender policy being initiated by the government so that they can join the mainstream.”[3] The General was reacting to the 14 February suicide attack and the encounter that took place on 18 February in which five army personnel were killed in an encounter with JeM militants.[4] While three JeM militants were killed, the army claimed to have suffered losses as it tried to protect civilians.

In the third statement, the commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), in an unverified audio message on 18 February, Riyaz Naikoo forewarned how terrorism might evolve in Kashmir in the coming months. Praising Adil Ahmad Dar, Naikoo said that ‘the time is not far away when children in Kashmir will wear suicide vests and target security forces in the Valley’[5].

These messages of a suicide bomber, an active terrorist leader, and the army commander sums up how militancy might evolve in Kashmir in the coming months, despite New Delhi’s attempts of maintaining deniability and also, to corner Pakistan, who it holds solely responsible for terrorism in the state including the Pulwama attack. While Adil’s chilling message and Naikoo prediction of how his outfit might shift its strategy threatens to unveil a new phase of militancy in the state, the Army commander’s statement predicting almost an all-out war on militancy may mark a brand new phase of confrontation in which New Delhi seeks to impose order in the troubled state.

Increasing Fatalities: From 102 to 382

Notwithstanding what the BJP government claims to be a stupendous success of its hardline approach in Kashmir, data reveals that the security situation in the state has been on a steady decline since 2012. In fact, compared to 2012, the incidents of militant violence and resultant fatalities have gone up by 55 and 226 percent respectively. In 2012, 220 incidents were reported. In 2018, the numbers increased to 587. In 2012, 102 civilians, security forces, and militants were killed. In 2018, 382 deaths were reported.

MHA’s annual report 2013-14 noted, “the security situation in J&K has witnessed continuous improvement since 2000, and the years 2012 and 2013 showed a significant decline in all the parameters of violence in the State.”[6] In fact, coinciding with the NDA forming the government in 2014, the security situation in Kashmir deteriorated significantly. The MHA’s annual report referred to a ‘slight increase in the number of terrorist incidents and the casualties of SFs in comparison with 2013’[7], it took credit for the fact that ‘our soldiers were able to neutralize 110 militants in 2014 as against 67 in 2013’.[8] In 2016, the year the NDA India carried out the surgical strikes within Pakistan and termed the event a success, the number of incidents reached an all-time high of 322. “The 2016 strikes were a tactical success but a strategic failure: Pakistan pushed in numbers of fidayeen into Kashmir right after”, experts opine.[9] Not surprisingly, compared to the previous year, security force fatalities went up by 74 percent.

By 2017, the situation had worsened dramatically. MHA’s Annual report noted, “The year 2017 witnessed an increase in incidents of terrorist violence and casualties of civilians as compared to the last year.” It referred to a “6.21 percent increase and 166.66 percent increase in the number of terrorist incidents and fatalities of civilians respectively in comparison to the corresponding period of 2016”, although the casualties of security forces had declined by 2.44 percent over the same period.”[10]

In 2018 (till 2 December), 587 incidents had been reported. 245 militants, 47 civilians and 90 security force personnel were killed. The MHA noted, ““The rise in number of civilian deaths in the Valley is due to change in Pakistan’s tactics following a strategy of superimposition of militancy over civil resistance through radicalisation by vested interest group and social media.”[11]

Local versus Pakistan-sponsored Militancy

The BJP government during its tenure has made numerous references to a hardline approach in Kashmir. The policy usually translates to security forces being given a free hand to kill militants- local as well as those who have been trying to infiltrate into the state from across the border militants. MHA’s data shows that from 2014 to December 2018, 826 militants were killed in the state. Interestingly, the ministry’s data on net infiltration, i.e. the actual number of terrorists who are believed to have infiltrated into the state from across the border, indicates that 468 terrorists managed to infiltrate between 2014 and 2018 (upto October).[12] The J&K police assessment shows 116 foreign militants are still operating in the state.[13] If one has to hypothetically assume that rest of the 352 Pakistani and Pakistan trained terrorists have been eliminated by the security forces, the number of Kashmiris who never crossed the border and were locally trained before being killed was 474. In percentage terms, this indicates that between 2014 and 2018, 57 percent of the killed militants were locals, who did not receive any training in Pakistan.

The number of active militants highlights the role of the local militants even further.

In August 2018, the J&K police estimated the number of active militants in the state to be 327, up from only 78 in 2013.[14] Over 65 percent of these were locals. Data on local recruitments indicate that at least 126 youths joined militancy in 2016 and another 130 had joined in 2018 (till August). Even as the security forces continued to eliminate militants, the flow of local youths into the outfits, continued unabated. This burns a hole in the MHA’s position that ‘the ongoing militancy in the state of J&K is intrinsically linked with the infiltration of terrorists from across the border both from the “International Border” as well as the “Line of Control” in J&K.[15] Although a part of the militancy, about one third, receives its support from Pakistan, bulk of the violence has clear local roots.

Pattern of denial and miscalculation

Within 100 hours of the Pulawama terror attack, the Indian Army claimed to have eliminated the JeM’s leadership in the Kashmir valley. In an encounter in which the Indian army lost five of its personnel including a major, three JeM militants including two Pakistani nationals were killed in Pulwama. These included JeM’s senior commander Kamran, who is a Pakistani national, Hilal Ahmed, a local Kashmiri bomb specialist and Rashid alias Gazi alias Lukaman, also from Pakistan.[16] Kamran was described by the Army as ‘the handler of Pulwama suicide bomber Adil Ahmad Dar and responsible for recruiting, radicalising and training terrorists in the Kashmir Valley.’[17] On 22 February, another two unidentified JeM cadres were killed in an encounter with the security forces at Sopore. A Deputy Superintendent of Police along with an army personnel were killed in an encounter at Kulgam which ended with the killing of three more unidentified Jaish militants on 24 February.

This swift reprisal notwithstanding, it is fair to say that the Pulwama attack had brought back focus on the JeM. Interestingly, months prior to the 14 February attack, assessments of the J&K police and the Union Home Ministry portrayed the JeM as almost an extinct outfit. All of its top leaders within the state had been neutralized and the outfit, in comparison to the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), was considered to be of little significance. Although the outfit’s cadres, both Kashmiris and Pakistani nationals were arrested and killed on a regular basis in the valley, the threat perception from the outfit had remained an all-time low.

Notwithstanding the attention the JeM has attracted since Pulwama, the outfit has actually been responsible for only a fraction of actual violence in the state in the past years. Two other outfits, the LeT and the HM, have orchestrated majority of the attacks. While both the JeM and LeT have been Pakistan based and consist of primarily Pakistani cadres, the HM, arguably the most potent outfit operating in the state, is indigenous, composed of local cadres. Added to the militancy landscape are two smaller outfits, espousing the causes of global Jihadism. One is linked with the al Qaeda and the other with the Islamic State. In New Delhi’s opinion both these have a handful of followers and neither pose any significant security threat.

This clear pattern of denial and miscalculation could have played a great role in the Pulwama attack, which may have been inspired by the JeM’s ideology, but had been planned within Kashmir. The slow process of RDX accumulation, use of an old stolen vehicle, presence of local handlers and the involvement of a ‘Grade C’ militant who had been let off in the previous years, are now the subjects of a detailed investigation by the National Investigative Agency.[18] Not surprisingly, the J&K governor admitted that the administration had no intelligence of a suicide mission being planned by the outfit. In the name of a hardline policy that is different from the policies of the yesteryears, Kashmir is continuously being driven to brink. A lot has been spoken about how a security force-centric approach would rid Kashmir off militancy. But as a strategic commentator points out, “But truth be told, the Indian defence forces, including the army units manning the Line of Control (LoC) and those internal security components deployed in J&K, are woefully under-equipped and often lack even the most rudimentary technologies now available to combat terrorism.”[19]

Future trends

On 26 February, Indian Air force fighter jets conducted preemptive strike on a JeM training camp in Balakot. New Delhi claimed that the ‘biggest training camp’ run by Maulana Yousuf Azhar, brother in law of JeM Chief Maulana Masood Azhar was destroyed. “A very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated”, India’s foreign secretary said.[20]

Pulwama attack may not unveil the specter of large scale VBIED attacks in Kashmir, as suggested by the HM leader Riyaz Naikoo. Neither would every child in Kashmir would become a suicide bomber in the coming months, inspired by the likes of Adil Ahmad Dar. However, as the government invests enormously on internationally isolating Pakistan and at the same time, alienating Kashmiris with a range of sanctioned misadventures, while keeping democracy under suspended animation in the state, the security situation could only be projected to deteriorate. The threat to kill all those who take up gun, may lead to only a temporary dip in militant capacities, but such a policy is inherently inadequate to bring durable peace to the state.

End Notes

[1] Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, Minister of State of Home Affairs, in Lok Sabha on 12 February 2019. Retrieved from Accessed on 21 February 2019.

[2] “”Will Be In Heaven,” Jaish Terrorist Said In Video Before Pulwama Attack”, NDTV, 15 February 2019, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/pulwama-ied-blast-jammu-and-kashmir-pulwama-terrorist-was-adil-ahmad-dar-who-joined-jaish-last-year-1993691. Accessed on 15 February 2019.

[3] Muzaffar Rana, “A general to moms: Sons with guns will be killed”, Telegraph, 19 February 2019, https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/a-general-to-kashmir-s-moms-sons-with-guns-will-be-killed/cid/1685015?ref=top-stories_home-template. Accessed on 20 February 2019.

[4] “Pulwama encounter: 3 Jaish terrorists, 5 soldiers killed in 16-hour gunbattle”, India Today, 18 February 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pulwama-encounter-jaish-terrorists-soldiers-killed-16-hour-gunbattle-1459339-2019-02-18. Accessed on 20 February 2019.

[5] “Jammu and Kashmir: Hibzul Mujahideen Valley chief Riyaz Naikoo warns of more attacks”, Indian Express, 20 February 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/jammu-and-kashmir-hibzul-mujahideen-valley-chief-riyaz-naikoo-warns-of-more-attacks-5591957/. Accessed on 20 February 2019.

[6] Annual Report 2013-14, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, p. 5.

[7] Annual Report 2014-15, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, p. 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Praveen Swami, “India’s rusted fangs need urgent repair”, First Post, 22 February 2019, https://www.firstpost.com/india/indias-rusted-fangs-need-urgent-repair-6136261.html. Accessed on 24 February 2019.

[10] Annual Report 2014-15, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, p. 4.

[11] Rahul Tripathi, “Jammu and Kashmir: 587 incidents of violence in 2018, informs Home Ministry”, Indian Express, 16 December 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/jammu-and-kashmir-587-incidents-of-violence-in-2018-informs-home-ministry-5495637/. Accessed on 20 February 2019.

[12] Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, Terrorist Violence and Infiltration in J&K, 12 December 2018, http://www.pib.nic.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1555641. Accessed on 21 February 2019.

[13] Majid Jahangir, “First time in decade, militant number crosses 300 in Valley”, Tribune, 3 September 2018, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/jammu-kashmir/first-time-in-decade-militant-number-crosses-300-in-valley/646821.html. Accessed on 21 February 2019.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Annual Report 2017-18, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, p. 15.

[16] “Jaish Leadership In Valley Eliminated In Under 100 Hours Of Pulwama: Army”, NDTV, 19 February 2019, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/jaish-leadership-in-valley-eliminated-in-less-than-100-hours-of-pulwama-terror-attack-says-army-1995636. Accessed on 21 February 2019.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Shishir Gupta, “NIA says close to solving case, finds ‘clear’ Pakistan link in Pulwama attack”, Hindustan Times, 25 February 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/nia-says-close-to-solving-case-finds-clear-pakistan-link-in-pulwama-attack/story-etgjHCBy8DehwTpvHL9HPO.html. Accessed on 25 February 2019.

[19] Ashley J Tellis, “Pakistan will not change, India has to prepare better”, Economic Timeshttps://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/view-pakistan-will-not-change-india-has-to-prepare-better/articleshow/68142741.cms. Accessed on 25 February 2019.

[20] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Statement by Foreign Secretary on 26 February 2019 on the Strike on JeM training camp at Balakot, 26 February 2019, https://mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/31090/Statement+by+Foreign+Secretary+on+26+February+2019+on+the+Strike+on+JeM+training+camp+at+Balakot. Accessed on 26 February 2019.

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of MISS. The article is published under the ‘Mapping Terror and Insurgents Networks’ project. The author can be contacted at bibhuroutray@gmail.com. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)