On February 14, 37 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in an attack after a militant drove an explosive-laden vehicle into a bus in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant outfit claimed responsibility for the attack.

On February 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack as “despicable and dastardly”, while also adding that the attackers made “a grave mistake”. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced on Friday that the government would withdraw the “Most Favoured Nation” status given to Pakistan, which denied involvement in the attack. The tag is given to all members of the World Trade Organisation in accordance with provisions of the Article 1 of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, 1994.

However, while evaluating the Centre’s approach toward Jammu and Kashmir in the last five years, experts said that there was an “absence of policy”. They also added that the attack was a result of rise in “radicalisation” and recruitment of militants in Jammu and Kashmir.

After Modi took the reins at the Centre in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state for the first time, joining a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party in February 2015.

Since then, the state has seen a rise in militancy, protests against the government and a growing death toll. After three and a half fractious years, the fragile coalition broke in June 2018, when the BJP walked out of the coalition and governor’s rule was imposed.

In September 2016, the Indian Army claimed to have conducted “surgical strikes” along the Line of Control which killed militants in “terror launchpads” in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. However, the alleged strikes were not able to curb ceasefire violations.

Scroll.in spoke to experts like Kriti Shah, junior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute of Conflict Management and retired Lieutenant General DS Hooda. Hooda was Northern Army Commander in September 2016 when the “surgical strikes” were carried out. In December 2018, he said that the strikes were “overhyped.” “Did the overhype help? I say, completely no,” Hooda said.

Here is what they said about the attack and the Central government’s approach to Kashmir in the last five years:

How does the Pulwama attack fit into the trajectory of the Kashmir conflict?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: We should not be too surprised about this attack. Since the last three to four years, there has been infiltration across border, continuing attacks and continuing ceasefire violations and terror funding. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were openly declaring their attacks on India from Pakistan. The trajectory has been very clear. There has also been a rise in radicalisation and local recruitment in the Valley. Why should we be surprised?

Kriti Shah: The attack certainly comes as a surprise also because of its timing. Why is it happening now?

Ajai Sahni: The attack represents a strategic shift. The region has been largely represented in the sense that everyone talks about growing local terrorism but the only terrorist group functioning in this region is the Inter-Services Intelligence [Pakistan’s intelligence agency]. It is clear that the Jaish-e-Mohammed has been given a signal to escalate and escalate dramatically. It has projected itself as a significant player. What we see here is the revival of what was taking place in the 1990s where Pakistani terror groups were in the lead and local terrorists were used by them. Here also, a local terrorist has been used as a mule. The explosive device could not have been made by him, so he was used to do secondary tasks like transport and deliver the device.

How would the government’s Kashmir policy in the last five years be evaluated? Did the government have a coherent policy to begin with?

Hooda: My issue is that we need to be consistent in how we deal with Pakistan. We also need to go back to the drawing board and see if our current strategy is succeeding or not. What are our weaknesses? Even if we had a coherent policy I don’t think that would have changed anything. The key lies in Pakistan and that they need to put pressure on terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Shah: No, the government does not have a coherent policy on Kashmir. It is extremely one sided. You need to have a different ideology on ground that cannot necessarily be pro-India or pro-government. There are many fault lines. There is need to improve intelligence, security. We need to understand why so many personnel were travelling together. We need to look inward.

Sahni: The present government’s Kashmir policy is an absolute and abject failure. They have only used the strategy of polarisation and electoral games. There was no policy for the people and nothing to manage terrorism.

Modi began his term by reaching out to Pakistan but then switched to a hardline stance with the “surgical strikes”. How do you perceive this approach? What could the government have done better?

Hooda: I think the government’s outreach approach was correct. But the decision making in Pakistan lies with the Pakistan Army. They don’t seem to want to make peace with India. I think there was no other option other than taking a hard stance. There is a whole dichotomy in the way India and Pakistan approach this situation.

Shah: Every Prime Minister does this. They make a show of their gestures. This shift keeps happening. The surgical strikes were fine but why did they become a political discussion? There needs to be unison in cross-party thinking and approach toward Pakistan. The Most Favoured Nation status was withdrawn and this is the obvious step. But we need to ask why was it there in the first place? What does it help achieve? Now there are other options on the table such as trade sanctions and the Indus Waters Treaty to act on.

Sahni: This entire cycle is a repeat of what previous regimes have done. Everybody opens dialogue. But let’s forget about that. Where is the bonhomie of the Kartarpur Corridor? [A proposed corridor between Sikh shrines in India and Pakistan.]

There is a total absence of policy. What have we done in terms of capacity building? In real terms, budgets have been shrinking. In 2018, when Major General BC Khanduri said that 68% of our ammunition is in the vintage category, he was removed. [Khanduri was former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and was head of Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence till September 2018.]

There is only an effort to falsify reality to construct a great nation of falsehood. We have no strategic options. This is a disgraceful regime in terms of security. The government will make some noise about this and they will most likely lash out. That will be a stupid response.

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