Pulwama attack: Bus driver Jaimal Singh wasn’t on original roster, says book

New Delhi: Jaimal Singh, the driver of the ill-fated bus that was blown up by a suicide bomber in Pulwama on February 14, 2019, wasn’t even supposed to drive that day and was merely substituting for another colleague, says a new book.

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IPS officer Danesh Rana, who is currently an additional director general of police in Jammu and Kashmir, has come out with a definitive account of the Pulwama attack titled “As Far as the Saffron Fields” piecing together the conspiracy behind the strike that snuffed out the lives of 40 CRPF personnel.

Based upon personal interviews with the protagonists, police charge sheets and other evidence, Rana breaks down the modern face of militancy in Kashmir.

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Recalling the sequence of events on February 14, 2019, he writes how the CRPF personnel travelling in the convoy started to come in well before the reporting time, before the break of dawn.

“After checking the seating arrangements, the personnel boarded the buses one by one. They carried some food packets, fruits and biscuits, and rested their mineral-water bottles by their sides. The winter chill smothered their faces, hands and ears. Many lowered their windows, while others sat with their hands clasped together inside their jackets to keep warm,” he writes.

Head Constable Jaimal Singh was among the last to reach along with the other drivers, according to norm. Drivers are always the last to report; they are allowed an extra half an hour of sleep since they have to undertake a gruelling journey.

“Jaimal Singh wasn’t even supposed to drive that day; he was merely substituting for another colleague,” mentions Rana.

Posted as a clerk in the motor transport section, Jaimal Singh’s job entailed a lot of file-keeping, about the histories of vehicles and their fuel consumption and repair bills, and about the nominal roll of drivers and vehicles to be pressed in the convoys.

“Head Constable Kirpal Singh from Chamba in Himachal Pradesh had applied for leave because his daughter was soon to be married. Kirpal had already been assigned the bus bearing the registration number HR49F-0637, and the supervising officer had told him to go on leave after returning to Jammu,” the book, published by HarperCollins India, says.

“Kirpal was happy with that; he could always drive the bus up and down, and in any case his leave would start after five days. But Jaimal was wary of the weather. The convoy was headed for Srinagar after more than a week’s closure of the highway. The weather forecast had predicted more rain and snow, and there was a high chance that Kirpal would be stranded in Srinagar and not be able to go home,” it adds.

So Jaimal Singh volunteered to fill in for Kirpal Singh.

“He was an experienced driver, and had been on Highway 44 innumerable times. He was familiar with its gradients, bends and contours. Late in the night on 13 February, he called his wife in Punjab and told her about his last-minute duty. It was to be their final conversation,” Rana writes.

Among the personnel was Constable Thaka Belkar from Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. His family had just fixed his marriage and all the preparations were underway. Belkar had applied for leave, but just 10 days ahead of his wedding, he had found his name listed among the passengers of the bus bound for Kashmir.

“But just as the convoy was set to depart, luck smiled on him. His leave had been sanctioned at the last minute! He quickly got off the bus and smiled and waved to his colleagues. Little did he know this would be the final time,” Rana says.

Apart from Jaimal Singh’s blue-coloured bus, the unusually long convoy had 78 other vehicles, including 15 trucks, two olive-green buses belonging to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a spare bus, a recovery van and an ambulance.

After the Pulwama attack, the NIA, which was entrusted with the probe, was barely able to piece together the preliminary stages of the crime, each time hitting a roadblock. While initial investigations based on forensics and other scientific evidence had given some clues, these were not enough to get a sense of who the perpetrators were.

When it looked like the NIA’s investigation had come to a halt, the agency got hold of a damaged mobile phone from an encounter site where two JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed) militants were killed. The recovered phone had an integrated GPS that geotagged images, revealing the date, time and location of the photographs and videos it contained. It was the discovery of the phone that cracked open the Pulwama case.

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