India’s response to the recent attack on the Pathankot air base has raised serious questions. How could terrorists breach the high walls of a protected base when sufficient intelligence inputs were available hours before the attack? Although officials maintain that the terrorists were prevented from reaching vital assets, the ease with which they entered the air base despite prior intelligence and the pre-positioning of the National Security Guard, remains a cause for deep concern. According to credible news reports, Punjab police Superintendent Salwinder Singh, whose car was allegedly used by the terrorists to reach the Pathankot air base, had told the relevant authorities that armed terrorists wearing army uniforms had abducted him. Despite the vital information he shared with the police more than a day in advance, he was initially ignored. Eventually, law enforcement authorities in Punjab woke up to the situation and were pressed into high alert. Similar tactics of impersonating army personnel had been used by terrorists during an earlier attack in Gurdaspur district last year. At the Centre, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, based on key intelligence inputs, had ordered the deployment of 50 NSG commandos to secure the air base, according to news reports. Moreover, the Indian Army deployed its Special Forces and infantry units to secure the base. Despite such measures, security forces were unable to prevent the terrorists from entering the 2000-acre air base.
Despite all the government’s assurances, the fact remains that seven terrorists (reportedly in two groups) have been able to engage the combined Indian security forces for more than 48 hours. Moreover, it is amply clear that no lessons have been learnt from the Gurdaspur incident last year. Besides posing as army personnel, the terrorists crossed the border from the same place as those responsible for last year’s attack in Gurdaspur. Although the Border Security Force claims that additional troops were deployed in this area after last year’s attack, it is fair to suggest that the terrorists had entered undetected. As this column has repeatedly stated, authorities in Punjab and the Centre must address the problem of a porous international border and its devastating implications. During the years of insurgency in the 1980s, the entire border at Punjab was fenced, with heavy patrolling and constant vigilance by the State police and the Indian armed forces. Such measures had significantly reduced the amount of direct infiltration into the State. Today, however, the fence stands torn by monsoon floods and covered by tall elephant grass, under which infiltrators receive adequate cover. What the recent attack in Pathankot did was to expose the visible lack of preparedness in a sensitive border area, yet again.
New Delhi, in coordination with state governments, must improve the security apparatus in these areas, instead of leaving brave souls to defend Indian soil. In addition, New Delhi needs to further augment its ability to eliminate key terror elements across the border in covert operations, unlike the much-publicised raid into Myanmar. Defence modernisation, allied with filling up an under strength Intelligence Bureau with more manpower, and the augmentation of the Research and Analysis Wing’s technical capabilities are some of the long-term steps that New Delhi must earnestly take. If the Modi government does take up all these steps in earnest, then it will be in a better position to deal with Pakistan both on the ground and the negotiating table. Coming back to the Pathankot attack, can India afford such breaches when it is clear that Pakistan will continue to use non-state actors as prized assets? Although the BSF is already feeling the heat, another mere inquiry into the matter will not suffice. Heads must roll across establishments both at the State and the Centre to send a clear message.