In Cold War

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A harrowing car bomb explosion in 2019 almost got Kashmir into a war, reports Tahir Bhat

The 2019 Valentine Day when people around the world exchanging red roses and promises of being together forever, Kashmir witnessed one of the worst car bomb explosions in the last 30 years. More than 40 CRPF personnel lost their lives. Its impact is still visible almost 10 months later when the public transport and private vehicles have to pave way for the armed forces on the highway.

The deadliest-ever car bomb attack at Lethpora was condemned by all – separatists, unionists, UN, USA, UK and Moscow.

As the prime time TV slots fumed with anger and sought ‘revenge’, India and Pakistan got into a diplomatic war. Delhi withdrew the most favoured nation (MFN) status to Pakistan and both the countries issued demarche to each other’s diplomats.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) visited the spot, took over the investigations, registered a case and arrested several persons. A charge-sheet is still awaited though none of the key suspects are alive. Media reports suggest that the two main suspects, Mudasir Ahmed Khan and Sajjad Bhat, were killed in encounters in March and June, respectively.

The attack ignited war hysteria and led the government to cross the Line of Control for the first time after 1971. On 26 February the IAF jets hit Balakot considered to be training camp of the Jaish-e-Muhammad outfit.

A day later, in renewed skirmishes in air, led to the downing of at least one Indian jet, and the capture of its pilot by Pakistan. A chopper was also lost in a battle ready position as it was hit by the missile over the Pir Panchal. Islamabad quickly returned the captured pilot apparently to reduce tensions.

After these developments, the civilian airports were closed in Jammu and Kashmir for some days. Reports suggest that Riyadh and Dubai played a key role at Washington’s behest to cool the tempers.

Moments after the attack, a serious situation emerged India as hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris who were outside for education, trade or simply on winter vacations faced heat of the angry mobs. There were countless instances of Kashmiri students who were beaten, forced to vacate accommodations, expelled or suspended from their colleges and dubbed anti-nationals. Some of them were booked for their social media posts.

Even Jammu city witnessed violence against the Kashmiri’s. A number of cars bearing Kashmir registration numbers were destroyed. A quick curfew saved the situation.

Though Pakistan suggested that the two countries must sit and discuss, Prime Minister Modi was already in the midst of elections. Pulwama and Balakot quickly became part of his speeches. He got a landslide victory.

Within 100 days of his new government, August 5 witnessed the undoing of special status. The state was bifurcated into two UTs. It marked the beginning of yet another diplomatic war that is still going on between India and Pakistan.

Initiatives taken in wake of the attack are significant and still in vogue in one or the other form. First was, the right to use the road given to the security grid. It cost the local trade and routine traffic hugely since then. Public and private transport halts for hours till the convoys move. Movement of trucks laden with merchandise takes weeks to reach Srinagar and it has shot up freight and made things costlier. The system has proved devastating for the fruit-laden trucks which wait for days to move out of Kashmir. A bad patch of the highway between Banihal and Ramban is adding to the crisis especially during adverse weather conditions.

After a series of protests, the restriction on civilian movement on the national highway was limited to Sunday with effect from April 22 and later completely withdrawn from May 27.

“After every five minutes we are stopped just to pave way for an army vehicle even if it is coming from the opposite direction,” said Adil Ahmad, a frequent commuter on the highway. “If you will travel just 10 kms on the highway you will spot youth being roughed up and beaten. It is normal spectacle now.”

The second immediate casualty of the attack was the cross LoC bus and the barter trade. Almost 14 days of bi-weekly highway ban order, the MHA on April 18, came up with another order banning the barter trade, duty-free trade across LoC at Salamabad in Uri indefinitely. It was justified by the reports that the trade routes “are being misused by the Pakistan based elements for funnelling illegal weapons, narcotics and fake currency etc”.

Coincidently, the trade had stopped on February 14, with authorities citing repair work on the Kaman Aman Setu Bridge as the reason. This bridge connects the divided Kashmiris. Started in 2008, the barter trade had completed a decade in 2018.

The overall security situation has remained improved on the militancy front right from the days Amarnath yatra started. Post-August 5, there is a decline in the anti-militancy operations. Less than a dozen gunfights took place in the last five months killing 18 militants. Before August 5, 152 militants were killed in gun battles, 105 of them between February 14 and August 4.

So far, about 50 civilians were also killed in Kashmir, most of them by unknown gunmen. Of them, 15 civilians including 11 non locals – mostly associated with the fruit trade, were killed in October alone. Many credited the decline in the confrontations between the counter-insurgency grid and the militants to the communication blackout.

In 2018, 257 militants were in Kashmir, the highest in last five years. As many as 91 forces personnel were also killed in gunfights in 614 militancy related incidents.

With the postpaid mobiles back and huge deployment in place, the UT Police Chief Dilbag Singh on December 25, asked the security grid to intensify the cordon and search operations (CASOs) and flush out the militants.

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