Book Review: Read 'The Lover Boy of Bahawalpur' To Know The Tenacity With Which The NIA Pursued And Cracked The Pulwama Case
The Lover Boy of Bahawalpur: How the Pulwama Case Was Cracked. Rahul Pandita. Juggernaut. Pages 212. Rs Rs 397.
Nuksaan utna hi hona chahiye jitna dushman ko bardasht karne ki taqat ho- said Rouf Asgar, brother of Masood Azhar and operational head of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) to Umar Farooq, the mastermind of the Pulwama attacks, his nephew (Damage should of the magnitude which the enemy has strength to tolerate). This in fact has been the foundational dictum of Pakistan's low-intensity war, inflicting increasingly higher levels of pain as India kept adjusting to it without retaliating; something that eventually changed.
In Pulwama, 200 kg of explosives carried in a Maruti car dismembered 40 CRPF jawans, making it the bloodiest attack in three decades of terror in Kashmir. A senior CRPF officer wept inconsolably at the sight.
Something finally snapped-things were bardasht ke baahar (intolerable).
It is believed that surgical strikes across the LoC (in PoK) in response to the Uri attack were aimed at pre-empting further infiltration (Uri was preceded by fidayeen attacks on Gurudaspur and Pathankot); however, the air strikes at Jaish in Balakot in response to the Pulwama massacre took India deeper in Pakistan.
Rahul Pandita has written a gripping account of how Pulwama proved to be the proverbial last straw and India sent fighter jets across the border to knock out a terror camp. This book gives the backdrop to the change in Indian response. Kashmir ceased to be—as a JeM commander Mufti Waqas said when he infiltrated in 2017—khala's house. He survived for barely a year.
Pandita draws upon several primary sources, starting his narrative from the late 1980s. He narrates many gripping incidents for public reading for the first time, including how Indian intelligence and armed forces nailed the terrorists—stuff that surely would be retold on cinema or OTT.
Excitement apart, this well-researched book is eminently readable for several reasons.
For one, if you want to understand what happened in the late 1980s that upended Kashmir, you can do well to start with this. From ethnic cleansing of minority Hindus in 1990, hijacking of IC-814 in 1999, attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, Daniel Pearl beheading in 2002, to Pulwama in 2019, the Afghanistan angle, the significance of Balakot which India struck in retaliation of Pulwama attack and how faceless familymen have taken hits and have brought down dreaded terrorists, this book covers significant ground. And while doing that it weaves a thread through all these events. This gives a compelling backdrop to why extradition of one terrorist from UAE in 2019 was such a big though understated achievement of India.
In Chapter 5, Pandita shares an oft-ignored but deeply profound factoid which characterises the current bout of trouble in Kashmir. In 1965, one Gujjar herdsman, Mohammed Din Jagir, alerted the J&K police about infiltrators from Pakistan. Little did he know that these men were sent to initiate Operation Gibraltar. Jagir went on to receive the Padma Shri. Pandita notes that in 1965 no one in Kashmir took Jagir as a traitor.
However, in 1990 as an Islamist insurgency broke out, Jagir was killed for his pro-India act of 25 years ago. The speed with which mass exodus of minority Hindus was engineered, with 700 brutally killed and the civil administration collapsing in late ‘80s, highlights Pakistan’s strategic shift from Operation Gibraltar days. The key change in Pakistan’s strategy was to change the character of the Kashmir problem from political to religious. Kashmiriyat, if it ever existed, was buried forever--no matter what TISS or JNU scholars feel in cozy campuses.
In the 1980s, Pakistan emerged as a key ally for the United States against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Flush with funds and weapons, the ISI became a master of their art, working intimately with the CIA and the State Department of USA, who bankrolled the Jihad against the apostate communist USSR. This period also saw radicalisation of the Pakistani armed forces and the ISI creating a strong bench of hardened mujahideen who were directed to Kashmir after they packed off the Soviets from Afghanistan with US support. Operation Gibraltar in 1965 pushed several hundreds infiltrators but failed, however in 1988, a handful of Kashmiri men trained in PoK gave festering wounds and began a process which made India cross the rubicon and finally put an end to the temporary provision of Article 370 in 2019.
The book clearly brings out the phases of militancy in Kashmir. The first phase was dominated by JKLF and it later slipped to Hizbul. This phase was ended by the security forces. However, then came Maulana Masood Azhar. The book in part describes the journey of JeM and its founder, Masood Azhar’s family, the wounds they gave and India's response.
Azhar began his career as a recruit in Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), a group formed to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan. Having failed in basic military training he got marked for his knowledge of scriptures and teaching skills. His handlers inserted him in India shortly after demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya and he visited Ayodhya shortly afterwards, before proceeding to Kashmir. Restoring the mosque to its glory, he said, was his resolve. However, before he could do much, he was arrested.
Like his nephew, Umar Farooq, which the book gives graphic details about, the security forces did not realise his value while he was in captivity and finally released him in exchange of IC-814. One wonders if this had something to do with the shutting down of the Pakistan special operations desk of R&AW. Shortly after his release, JeM was formed by Masood.
The book also discusses in detail how intrepid BSF officials brought down Ghazi Baba, who was the mastermind of the Parliament attack. The brave officer who led the ops was badly injured in operations and is revealed for the first time.
The book introduces Noor Mohammed Tantray aka Noor Trali who facilitated Afzal Guru to pick terrorists who attacked the Indian Parliament. Noor was killed in 2017, and it was his brother Nisar who was extradited from UAE in 2019. Noor was trained in Jaish’s Rehman camp near Bagram air base in Afghanistan (this base was mainstay of coalition forces and has been vacated recently) and also visited the elite Al Farouq training base of Al Qaeda in Khost, Afghanistan. He even visited BJP HQ in 2003 to get membership and access to assassinate the party’s leaders.
Afzal Guru’s training by Tantray was eulogised by the Jaish mouthpiece, Al-Qalam. Sajjad Bhat, who owned the car used in Pulwama attack was an accomplice of Tantray and joined Jaish’s fidayeen group under the code name of Afzal Guru. Mudasir Khan and Sajjad Bhat who were involved in the attack on Lethpura camp of CRPF were instrumental in Pulwama also. A few days before the Pulwama attack, Nasir fled to the UAE.
Pulwama was meticulously planned. It was designed such that Pakistan could distance itself from the final result. This was done by selecting a native-turned-fidayeen for the act. It was sheer perseverance of the NIA investigators and an ode to their personal commitment, that they tracked every piece of equipment and people involved. More importantly, they established incontrovertibly that this was a Jaish operation directed by Masood Azhar’s immediate family.
Though the engine number and the chassis number of the car used for the fidayeen attack was filed off, using experts from Maruti, parts of the blown up car were traced and ownership tracked. Same with the damaged cell phones. Using experts of CERT-In, 100 GB of data was recovered. NIA tracked the house and the room where the suicide bomber rehearsed and got his video message shot. NIA could also track the person who dubbed for the suicide bomber. Establishment of identity of Umar Farooq, the nephew of Masood Azhar and son of one of the IC-814 hijackers gets revealed in vivid details.
The book reveals how young Kashmiris are radicalised. The Pulwama bomber was moved by the audio call of Masood Azhar for jihad in response to the killing of one of his nephews (and brother of Umar Farooq). Umar was trained in Helmand province of Afghanistan, a training arranged by his father who was Jaish’s liaison with the Taliban. He learnt about IEDs, drones, machine guns. The book also sheds light on how the Indian retaliation at Balakot deterred further action by Jaish as India was now sure to payback in kind on their home turf. With US vacating Afghanistan and Taliban gaining upper hand, new challenges would surely emerge for India.
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