Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 18, 2019 12:18 hrs
Pulwama terror attack

What could prompt a 22-year-old youth to drive a vehicle laden with explosives into a convoy of armed forces personnel just ten kilometres from the home in which he was raised?

What could make him feel heroic as he hurtles towards his own death and the death of 49 strangers, knowing all of them will leave behind families to whom they were not soldiers or militants, but fathers, sons, and brothers?

No one dreams of giving up his own life for a cause.

And as the deaths of these 49 men were reported, in trickles of statistics, on the news, sorrow gave way to rage, and calls for revenge.

“We must pay them back in their own coin,” intoned talking heads on television.

“WE WILL NOT FORGET, WE WILL NOT FORGIVE: We salute our martyrs of Pulwama attack and stand with the families of our martyr brothers. This heinous attack will be avenged,” tweeted the official handle of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at 12:40 p.m. on February 15, a day after the attack.

I find myself troubled by the word “martyr”.

The soldiers did not sacrifice their lives for a cause. They were ordinary men doing an extraordinary job. They had put their lives on the line, because no one expects to die. They had joined the army perhaps for pride, but also for the stability of a government job, of a pension after decades of service.

No one dreams of dying for the country.

People become what they do to protect what they love most – sometimes land, but usually people whom they love, and people who love them.

What, then, makes young men take to the streets and throw stones at strangers in uniform? What makes soldiers retaliate by firing pellets that will lodge themselves in the eyes and brains and chests of strangers on the street?

What makes a young man drive to his own death, happy to throw his life away as long as he can take as many of 2547 CRPF personnel with him as luck will allow?

Such hate is only possible when humans become symbols, when a soldier is no more than his uniform, when a militant is no more than his label.

For decades, we have been calling for civil dialogue. That we have failed thoroughly is obvious. Over the last four years, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack, has escalated suicide attacks against the Indian armed forces.

In 2015, the JeM carried out the Gurdaspur attack. The Pathankot attacks, the Pampore attacks of February and July, and the Uri attack were all carried out in 2016. On the last day of 2017, five security personnel were killed at the Commando Training Centre at Lethpora. And now, the deadliest attack in more than 30 years has been executed on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway, just hours after the stretch was “sanitised”.

This is more than a “serious breach of security”.

For all the posturing of the current government about “iron fists”, we must remember the origins of the JeM. Back in 1999, terrorists held the Indian government to ransom. Harkat militants hijacked the IC-814 aircraft flying from Kathmandu to Delhi, diverted it to Kandahar, and got the Indian government to accede to their demands.

The Indian government had had the plane grounded on the runway in Amritsar for nearly an hour, and failed to prevent its taking off.

It failed to prevent the killing of passenger Rupin Katyal.

Eventually, the government released three militants – Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikhk and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. Azhar would be escorted to Pakistan, where he would become head of the JeM.

And nearly two decades after the hijacking, here we are, a series of diplomatic failures later, counting corpses again.

Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber, was a resident of Kakapora in Pulwama, until he joined the JeM a year ago. What could have prompted him to join an organisation that carried out suicide attacks? What must have gone through his mind as he drove towards the convoy, knowing he would never see his own family again, knowing he would leave his closest relatives in permanent mourning?

And now, when calls for revenge are amplified through official and unofficial channels, don’t we see what awaits us? More bloodshed, more bodies returning home wrapped in the tricolour, more images of Kashmiris – from toddlers to senior citizens – with eyes lost to pellet injuries.

The bloodshed will continue for as long as we cannot see the humans behind the symbols. The rulers of the oppressor, whether it is a state or a separatist outfit, remain alive and in relative comfort. It is the foot soldiers who bear the burden of being symbols.

This cannot remain a fight between foot soldiers.

The leaders have to engage, and not with explosives.

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com  

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