Warning signs issued
In a scathing assessment of the Pathankot terror attack, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs observed that there is “something seriously wrong” with the country’s counter-terrorism establishment. The committee also observed that the role of Punjab Police is also very “questionable and suspicious” during the January 2 terror attack. The panel said it has failed to understand that in spite of terror alert sounded well in advance, terrorists managed to breach the high-security airbase and subsequently carry out the strike.
Despite concrete and credible intelligence inputs received from abducted and released police officer of Pathankot and his friend and through interception of communication between terrorists and their handlers, our security agencies were grossly ill-prepared to anticipate threats in time and counter them swiftly and decisively. One can infer from the report that no lessons were learnt from the Gurdaspur attack. Punjab police Superintendent Salwinder Singh, whose car was reportedly used by the terrorists to reach the Pathankot air base, told the relevant authorities that armed terrorists wearing army uniform had abducted him. Similar tactics of impersonating army personnel had been used by terrorists during an earlier attack in Gurdaspur district last year. Although the Border Security Force (BSF) 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.
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 with 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. With laser walls in place, it is safe to assume that a breach would have set alarm bells ringing, leaving our security establishment better prepared to prevent an infiltration. Better technology could prevent infiltration, but that is not enough. Drug cartels on either side of the border are known to have links to Pakistan’s intelligence service. The armed forces have raised their apprehension that these cartels are trading information for safe passage into India. But there are problems on the home front too. Sections of the current ruling establishment in Punjab have been accused of encouraging the drug trade in the state, in collusion with some in the state police and BSF. The committee expressed suspicion that the attackers might have taken help from channels and networks used by narcotic syndicates active in the area. It has recommended further investigations into that aspect with the abducted police officer at the heart of the suspicion. In fact, Salwinder Singh was allegedly involved in the drug smuggling business. Based on revelations by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Singh used to allegedly get paid in diamonds for every drug consignment smuggled across the border. Despite the heavy presence of the BSF, heavy consignments of drugs are transported on boats and couriers, under the alleged patronage of State officials.
During its visit to the airbase, the committee found that there were no roads around the perimeter wall of the strategic airbase. Long shrubs and trees on the premises had helped terrorists in hiding and making it difficult for security forces to flush out the terrorists. “The committee during its visit found that airbase’s security cover was not robust and it had a poorly guarded perimeter wall,” the report also said. Can India afford such breaches when it is clear that Pakistan will continue to use non-state actors as prized assets? Another mere inquiry into the matter will not suffice. Heads must roll across establishments both at the State, Centre, BSF and the armed forces to send a clear message. It’s incredible that none has rolled. The committee yet again reaffirmed the fact that Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group was behind this ghastly attack which was established through interception of calls between terrorists and their handlers based in Pakistan, thanks to their use of robbed mobile phones from the “abducted” police officer and his friend. But Islamabad remains unconvinced.