Nearly a week after strike, security agencies seem to be going nowhere with probe

Monday’s attack on Amarnath pilgrims in the Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir was one of the most ghatly terrorist attacks on Indian soil in recent years. Seven persons died and 19 more suffered severe injuries in the attack, allegedly by militants of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group.

Despite the nature of the attack and the cowardly manner in which it was conducted, it also leaves some questions unanswered.

According to the rules, all vehicles that ferry pilgrims to the Amarnath shrine have to register with the Amarnath Shrine Board. The bus had a Gujarat number plate — GJ 09Z 9976 — and ferried around 60 passengers to the shrine. The route to Amarnath is dotted by security forces that undertake regular checking of the vehicles that pass through. The passengers on this vehicle had already completed their pilgrimage two days prior to the attack and had taken a detour for sighseeing. It had left the heavily fortified Baltal base camp and moved on the national highway, another heavily-guarded location, apparently without being checked a single time.

The ownership of the bus also raises questions. Originally owned by Sanjay Patel of Umiya Travels, it was sold to Jawahar Desai of the Valsad–based Om Travels. Patel said Jawahar and his son Harsh, who is among the injured, organised the trip. He also said that while the vehicle had physically changed hands, the final payment was still to be settled. As a result, he was the one who had to procure the tour permit.

The Regional Transport Office in Himmatnagar had cleared the bus for travel as it bore a Sabarkantha registration.

Security protocol bars vehicles from plying after 5pm, or sundown, for the pilgrimage. It also bars vehicles from plying on the highway after 7pm as security forces are withdrawn after that. However, gunmen first attacked the bus around 8.17pm. It has since emerged that the a flat tyre held up the journey for a long time. The driver, Salim Sheikh Gafoor, fixed it and started towards Jammu at 4.40pm, having stayed in the area for nearly two hours, according to a Jammu and Kashmir police report.

This report raises another question. If the bus had not been registered with the Amarnath Shrine Board and was travelling on its own, why was there a police patrol vehicle travelling ahead of it in the first place? Protocol dictates that only those vehicles with registrations would be provided security. The presence of a police van, which was also targeted in the attack, has raised doubts as to whether it was guarding the bus or just happened to travel ahead of it.

Moreover, intelligence reports had already warned of a strike on pilgrims during this year’s yatra.

Officials of the Intelligence Bureau, Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir police had met in Chandigarh on June 25 at a state multi-agency co-ordination meeting where the agencies had been warned of a terrorist strike.

“Intelligence input reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 police officers. The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on (a) yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tension throughout the nation,” the alert said.

“The nature of the input needs corroboration at this stage but the possibility of a sensational attack can’t be ruled out. All the officials deployed on the ground need to be directed to remain alert and maintain utmost vigil. All out efforts need to be undertaken to nab the terrorists planning such attempts of violence,” it said.

Two days before the pilgrimage started, Kashmir inspector general of police Muneer Khan wrote a letter where he specifically mentioned terrorists opening fire at pilgrim vehicles.
Despite this warning being made available beforehand, the police allegedly failed to secure the route.

Additionally, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was being blamed as the perpetrators of the attack, has sought to distance itself from it and put the blame squarely on Indian intelligence agencies.

It has been almost a week since the attack took place and bar the arrest of the driver of a PDP MLA, the security agencies have not been able to throw light on one of the most gruesome terror attacks on civilians in recent history.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.