Could the tragedy of February 14, when 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in a suicide bombing in Kashmir, have been prevented? Were there lapses in the standard operating procedure for troop movement? Were there factors that made the paramilitary convoy vulnerable to attack? What could have been done to ensure greater security? A week after a young Jaish-e-Mohammad militant drove a car packed with explosives into the convoy, these questions continue to haunt.

Soon after the attack, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced changes to the convoy movement protocol. When a convoy is travelling on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, no civilian vehicles will be allowed on that stretch of the road. That brings back the restrictions of the 1990s, the years that saw the peak of the militancy in Kashmir. They were lifted after a government led by the Peoples Democratic Party took office in 2002, promising a “healing touch” for the conflict-torn population.

The restrictions could increase public resentment against the security forces. “There will be frustration among ordinary people,” predicted Ranbir Singh, who served with the CRPF in Kashmir in the 1990s. Moses Dhinakaran, deputy inspector general of the CRPF, also anticipated a pushback, at least initially.

This when the security forces are still searching for ways to counter new challenges thrown up by the Pulwama bombing. “An attack of this nature has never happened,” said K Durga Prasad, who retired as director general of the CRPF in 2017. “This is something which has never been anticipated and never been planned for. A mobile vehicle-borne IED and a suicide bomber is a deadly combination. And it will really be a great challenge for the security forces.”

A standard operating procedure

Standard operating procedures are continually evolving, security officials said. “Any SOP is based on experience and it’s updated from time to time,” said Prasad. “In 2016, we had an attack on our convoy in Kashmir and we updated our SOP on various aspects. From people travelling in vehicles to road opening parties, every aspect was reviewed threadbare and quite a few changes were made.”

Hundreds of security personnel, from the Army and various paramilitary forces, have to be ferried between Srinagar and Jammu every day. The Srinagar-Jammu highway, passing through the Banihal tunnel, is the only viable route between the two cities. It is also the main thoroughfare for civilian transport in the Valley. “Up convoys” travel from Jammu to Srinagar, “down convoys” move in the opposite direction.

Convoy movement is coordinated among various security forces, said Dhinakaran. The up convoys must start at around 3 am in order to reach Srinagar by daylight, while down convoys start pushing out of Srinagar at around 6 am. The convoys of different forces leave one after another, with a gap of nearly half an hour between departure times.

The length of the highway in the Valley is protected by road opening parties, or troops deployed to ensure safe passage for the convoys. The highway is carved up among various forces, each guarding a designated area. CRPF men guard the section near their camps and Army personnel near theirs, explained Dhinakaran.

CRPF convoys moving up from Jammu offload at two places. At Qazigund, the first town on the highway after it enters Kashmir through the Banihal tunnel, some of the troops disperse to nearby camps and a “security component” is added to the convoy, Dhinakaran said.

The rest proceed to the force’s camp in Srinagar’s Bakshi Stadium, from where they head to their respective battalions across the Valley. “Convoy movement had actually become better,” said Prasad. “I am told that this convoy movement is on a new road that has been thrown open recently and probably the new road requires a little more of scanning and checking up to see which are the weaker points.”

An ‘up convoy’

On February 14, the up convoy left at around 3.30 am from the CRPF camp in Jammu, recounted Dhinakaran. Convoys had been held up by the weather as also two days of shutdown called by the separatists in the Valley to mark the death anniversaries of Afzal Guru, the Jaish-e-Mohammad militant hanged in 2013, and Maqbool Bhat, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front militant executed in 1984. Convoys are halted on strike days as a matter of safety.

It was an unusually long convoy – 78 vehicles, carrying 2,547 personnel. By 2.30 pm, said Dhinakaran, it had reached Qazigund, where 16 vehicles dispersed to camps in the area while escort vehicles were added for security.

The convoy then left for Srinagar. At around 3.30 pm, it reached the Ladoora crossing on the highway. This section passes through Awantipora area of Pulwama district and is about 35 km from Srinagar. A link road from the surrounding villages joins up with the highway here. There was security at the crossing, Dhinakaran said, but they had only a fraction of a second to react to the car that came from the link road. It flashed past, turning left on the highway and driving into the fifth vehicle of the convoy.

The blast that ensued is said to have shaken the ground. And, of course, it left behind a tangled mass of metal and flesh.

Two questions

Two questions have been raised about the convoy after the attack. First, why was it so long? According to Ranbir Singh, the convoy’s length would have allowed the attacker more time to make his move.

Second, why were the CRPF men not flown to Srinagar?

The convoy was unusually long because there had been a pile-up at the Jammu transit camp after the highway was closed by heavy snowfall and landslides for several days. Security personnel returning from leave report to the transit camp, which can accommodate nearly 1,000 people. Singh asked why the CRPF men were allowed to gather at the camp instead of being asked to report for duty a few days later.

Logistics came in the way, Dhinakaran suggested. Many CRPF personnel, returning from distant places such as Assam, have their tickets booked months ahead and so cannot cancel at the last minute. In any case, when they returned, the next batch of troops would be allowed to go on leave.

Prasad, however, argued the length of the convoy was not the problem. “When both the target and the weapon are mobile, it can be two vehicles or 22 vehicles, it doesn’t make any difference,” he said.

As for air transport, the Union home ministry pays for a daily air courier from Delhi to Jammu to Srinagar and back, ferrying soldiers from central paramilitary forces. But plane seats are divided among the various forces and quite inadequate for large troop movement, said Dhinakaran. Besides, convoys would still have to be arranged to take the men from the Srinagar airport to their places of deployment.

CRPF officials admit there might have been an intelligence failure. On February 8, the paramilitary force received a note from the state police warning of IED attacks. These were non-specific inputs, however, Dhinakaran said.

How to frame a new SOP

“You cannot really say it could easily have been avoided,” said an Indian Police Service officer who was deputed to the CRPF in Chhattisgarh for two years. “Yes, there are times when there are glaring inconsistencies and glaring irresponsibility. But frankly speaking, no person can be so irresponsible to put the lives of so many people in danger.”

In some ways, security on the highway may have been beefed up since the 1990s. Singh recalled road opening parties being deployed only at sensitive places such as Pampore, Bijbehara or near the Banihal tunnel, instead of all along the highway in Kashmir. “We had very few bulletproof vehicles,” he added. Frequently, Singh said, they were just cars with a couple of wooden sheets tacked on to protect them from bullets.

Going ahead, the police officer said, the security forces should use technology such as drones and satellite images, and ensure better coordination with the state police, who would have better “ground level intelligence”. “Ultimately, it is the man who is important but technology can have a multiplier effect,” he added.

Prasad advised greater coordination between the security forces as well. “Between CRPF, police and other forces, they should probably decide to have some checkposts so that vehicles can be checked for explosives etc,” he explained. “Maybe we’ll have more sniffer dogs to sniff out explosives.”