General Shankar Roychowdhury, who served as the country’s 18th Chief of Army Staff in the mid-1990s, said on Sunday that the Pulwama massacre could have been averted had the CRPF jawans travelled to Srinagar by air rather than along a road that is always “vulnerable to attack”.
Such a large convoy — 78 vehicles carrying over 2,500 personnel — shouldn’t have taken a highway that lies so close to the Pakistan border, the former army chief said.
Forty jawans were killed in February 2019 when a car packed with explosives rammed into the CRPF convoy at Pulwama.
“The primary responsibility behind the loss of lives in Pulwama rests on the government headed by the Prime Minister, who is advised by the national security adviser. This was a setback,” Gen Roychowdhury told The Telegraph.
“The NSA should also get his share of the blame for the intelligence failure behind the ambush."
The massacre, which became an election issue with Modi appealing to first-time voters to dedicate their votes to the Balakot strike soldiers and the Pulwama troopers, has sprung back into the news after the then Jammu and Kashmir governor, Satya Pal Malik, revealed in an interview on Friday that Modi had hushed him up saying “tum chup raho” when he reported that the blame for the jawans’ deaths lay on the Centre’s own lapses.
Malik told The Wire journalist Karan Thapar that the Union home ministry had refused the CRPF’s request for aircraft to ferry the jawans. “I told it to the PM the same evening. This is our fault. Had we given aircraft then this would not have happened,” Malik said in the interview.
The Modi government has not responded to the allegations.
General Roychowdhury, who was the army chief from November 1994 till September 1997, told this newspaper: “A CRPF convoy moving along the interstate highway between Jammu and Srinagar was ambushed by a group of Mujahideen in Pulwama. If the troops had travelled by air, the loss of lives could have been avoided.”
He continued: “All large bodies of vehicles and convoys moving along the national highway are always vulnerable to attack. It obviously would have been more convenient and less fatiguing for the troops if they were airlifted.”
In a distinguished military career spanning over 40 years, Gen. Roychowdhury had commanded the 16 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir between 1991 and 1992. The general said the area where the Pulwama attack occurred had always been a very “vulnerable sector”.
“The road that goes along Samba (31km from Satwari airport) in Jammu is always vulnerable owing to infiltration that happens by tunnelling,” he said. “The more traffic you pump along the interstate highway, you expose them to risks because the border is not very far away from Pakistan all throughout.”
Gen . Roychowdhury blamed the attack also on intelligence failure, concurring with Malik. “Forty CRPF personnel is a large number. They are the troops deployed in J&K. This was an intelligence failure,” he said. Malik had said it was “100 per cent intelligence failure”.
There is complete silence from the establishment on what exactly happened in Pulwama on February 14, 2019, and a near blackout in the mainstream media of Malik’s statements. Malik’s interview has raised several questions on the Pulwama massacre, which was followed by an air strike on a terrorist camp in the Balakot region of Pakistan. The retaliatory attack changed the narrative ahead of the 2019 elections and Balakot became the pivot of the BJP’s campaign, relegating all other issues — like joblessness and agrarian distress — to the backburner.
The Opposition’s demand for a detailed probe into how the Pulwama attack took place received no notice, with the BJP branding any questions as “anti-national”. Gen. Roychowdhury, a recipient of the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, chose not to mince words when asked about the government’s silence on Pulwama.
“It’s a slip-up that the government is trying to wash its hands of. I strongly believe that the troops should have been ferried across by aircraft, which are available with the civil aviation department, Air Force or BSF, “ he said. “Failure has no claimants,” he added.