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Gaps in the Amarnath attack story
By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
How it is we have so much information, but know so little?

—Noam Chomsky

Millions of words have been written and spoken by now about the Amarnath pilgrims bus attack in South Kashmir on July 10. What happened, how and why? There is much that one can find in the public domain; yet there is nothing that sounds convincingly true, other than that 7 people were killed, 18 injured and that alleged militants fired at the bus.

Right from the word go, the incident is mired in mystery. Contradictory statements, rumours and speculative presumptions have further contributed to a story punctured by multiple gaps. The unequivocal condemnation and shock against the attack across India as well as in Kashmir necessitates the need even more to look for the unanswered questions.

Was it a security lapse? Some reports have quoted IG Muneer Khan as saying that the police had intercepts about militants planning to attack the Amarnath pilgrims. If so, then why was the huge security apparatus caught off guard? More importantly, there is as yet no clarity on whether the pilgrim's bus was registered for the pilgrimage or not. While deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh admitted there were evident security lapses and that the bus had returned from Baltal on July 8 and thereafter, the pilgrims traveling in the bus decided to stay in Srinagar for two days in violation of the stipulated procedure of moving with the security convoy. RSS spokesperson and Kashmir's pointsman, Ram Madhav, however, refuted the security lapse theory. Which of them is misleading?

The security and administrative officials have not added much clarity either. The bus "shot at from all four sides", as maintained by one of the injured passengers, even after the incident revealed two stickers that are usually pasted on buses going to and fro Amarnath cave. If the bus was registered, why did the police not notice that it was missing for two days after its return from Baltal? If the bus driver and his passengers decide to take a little detour, were they deliberately violating the norm and security guidelines for pilgrims? Worse still, did they manage to go all the way without any valid registration, exposing not just security lapses but also the corrupt nexus that allows a bus load of people to cross through all the security check points all the way till Baltal and return equally unnoticed. On the securitized highway, the bus stopped twice at Pampore where passengers shopped for saffron and then again for over an hour when it broke down. Whether or not the bus was registered, the driver and the passengers were fully responsible for violating the procedure necessary as part of the security drill.

Was bus and the pilgrims the target? Officials have maintained that at least two attacks on a security vehicle and a bunker preceded the attack on the vehicle but no one was injured but there was retaliatory firing and then the bus was caught in the cross-firing. The theory raises doubts as no militant or security personnel was injured but cannot be discarded without a proper mapping of the positions of the militants, the security personnel and the bus. This has not been done so far. Besides, there have been cases of attacks on security positions earlier with retaliatory firing but no casualties.

There is little to suggest that the attack was pre-meditated unless the intelligence of the militants is so strong as to follow some lone pilgrims' bus, which they knew would stop for two days in Srinagar and land at precisely that point and time after it had stopped twice on the way. However, it is possible that the bus was the intentional target, as an after-thought, after it was sighted. The survivors of the attack have said that they came under fire from all four sides. That either explains the cross-firing theory to some extent unless the 4 to 5 militants (or were they more?) had covered the bus from all sides. If it was a well-planned terror attack, and they had the position of advantage, the gunmen would have shot at the tyres, stopped the bus and ensured maximum casualties. Instead they fired in blind rage, hitting the window panes and allowed the bus to escape. So, either the bus was caught in the cross-firing and was not the intended target of the militants when it crossed the path. Or, the attackers saw the bus and attacked it deliberately but were ill-trained.

While the police and security apparatus was totally clueless about an unregistered/ missing bus or about the attack itself, within less than a day, they had figured out on basis of some unspecified inputs who the attackers were. Such knee-jerk responses to a major attack only inspire lack of confidence, especially when there are gaps in the story.

Was it a conspiracy theory? Conspiracy theories abound in Kashmir. They are not totally misplaced but any conspiracy theory would require evidence (not just wild assumptions of who stands to gain from this attack) on stand on its feet. Neither can it be opposed on grounds of intelligence inputs of militants planning to attack or the presence of radicalised section of militants in Kashmir who could be quite capable of carrying out such an attack. While the conspiracy theories cannot be out-rightly rejected in any case of arson, including in this one, they can be put to rest only through fair probes that are not obfuscated by contradictory versions of the story, the camouflaging of facts and the fully accelerated rumour-mills, due to which evidence and ultimately truth becomes the prime casualty.

Common perceptions are based on what people hear and read. It is human nature for people to sift suitable threads from so much resource of information including all bits of disinformation. They will ultimately believe what they want to believe in the absence of truth even if it is a half-truth or a complete lie. As Charles Spurgeon famously said, "A lie can travel half the way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

There is need to dispassionately engage with the circumstances and facts of the case and also seek answers to the gaps in every theory being dished out. In a militarized setting with a history of impunity, sham investigations and multiple denials on all sides, any official probe is already on weak footing in terms of credibility. An independent judicial probe by a sitting bench or by any neutral investigating agency may enjoy more confidence. Demands for such probes often ring alarm bells in the official circles. Atleast, the government should encourage, if not support, independent fact-findings and allow truth to emerge before the lie has travelled across the world.

Kashmir's conflict has a long history of fudged probes. While it is not known, how this one will eventually pan out, but what is more important is to not lose sight of the signs of hopes that have emerged in this tragedy. The attack was widely condemned in Kashmir by both mainstream as well as separatist politicians and the civil society groups have expressed their outrage by organising sit-in protests. The attack is seen as opposed to Kashmir's plural and secular ethos. Union home minister Rajnath Singh, in response to the situation, said that 'Kashmiriyat is still alive'. Such responses reveal the hopes of still not diminished spaces for dialogue on either side. Humanity that today brings the two sides on the same page must become the basis for New Delhi to shun its rigid posturing with respect to Kashmir and turn this moment into an opportunity for beginning a peace process. The attack was an obvious design to create communal divisions. People across the board have failed that attempt. Let the attack instead be used to bridge the existing divides. That will be the perfect rebuff to its perpetrators.

News Updated at : Sunday, July 16, 2017
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