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Pathankot terror attack: What went wrong

Published Jan 6, 2016, 2:54 am IST
Updated Mar 26, 2019, 11:47 am IST
Two mysteries arose during the four-day long anti-terrorism operation.
Indian army soldiers climb up the stairs of a residential building outside the Indian air force
 Indian army soldiers climb up the stairs of a residential building outside the Indian air force

Along with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) inquiry into the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase, the Punjab government’s report to the Union home ministry, the Indian Air Force’s own court of inquiry to probe alleged lapses, and the usual round of futile soul-searching, two mysteries arose during the four-day long anti-terrorism operation: the inexplicable delay by the Punjab Police once the infiltration of terrorists came to light, and why the Army was not directing the operation once the attack began. There was also criticism of the role of national security adviser Ajit Doval, who was alleged to have micromanaged the operation. 

Pathankot is the second major terror event where the Punjab Police has not covered itself with glory. On Christmas Eve, 1999, flight IC-814 from Kathmandu was hijacked and it landed in Amritsar for around 50 minutes before eventually taking off landing in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Former Punjab Police director-general K.P.S. Gill, credited with leading from the front against the Khalistan movement, criticised the force’s inability to at least ground IC-814. The then National Democratic Alliance government had to release three imprisoned terrorists in return for the aircraft and hostages. Incidentally, 


Mr Doval was one of the negotiators sent to Kandahar; one of the terrorists released was Maulana Masood Azhar who later created the Jaish-e-Mohammad, suspected of the Pathankot attack. The then Punjab DGP, Sarabjit Singh, later privately confessed that unlike Mr Gill, he found himself unable to take a bold initiative; even his state government — led by the same Akali Dal and Badal family as now — advised him to wait for orders from New Delhi. And at the Crisis Management Group in Delhi, there was plenty of advice (the Intelligence Bureau told Punjab Police to deflate the aircraft tyres, as if it were a bicycle) and finger-pointing (the National Security Guard was blamed for not mobilising to Amritsar airport rapidly enough), but little else.

Now, at the start of 2016, the Punjab Police is again not looking good. Gurdaspur superintendent of police (HQ) Salwinder Singh was abducted and his SUV (with the blue beacon) commandeered late night new year’s eve. He claimed there were “four-five” men with AK-47s, as did his cook. When he escaped and alerted his force, it did nothing. The cook says the police did not believe him, astounding since there was an intelligence alert on December 30 itself. The Punjab Police, not surprisingly in damage-control mode, claims that they are the ones who put the nation on alert after Salwinder’s abduction story was confirmed. 

More incredibly, the police say that by the time they were ready to search and secure Pathankot, it was too dark to do so. That still leaves a gap of about four hours in which the Punjab Police sat on its hands. And in the early hours of January 2, the terrorists struck. Deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has tried deflecting blame from his force by pointing out that the lack of vigilance by central forces on the border allowed the infiltration. That may be true. But once the terrorists were on Indian soil, they became the responsibility of the Punjab Police.

The anti-terrorism operation inside the airbase has attracted criticism, perhaps because the lives of security personnel were lost. The delay in closing the operation has given the impression that there was disarray on the ground; perhaps the anti-terrorist operation lacked a single point of authority — or, as has been alleged by some, on-the-ground authority was usurped by an over-enthusiastic NSA, whose career’s successes include the 1988 Black Thunder operation to flush militants out of the Golden Temple. While finance minister Arun Jaitley pointed out that the airbase covered a significant area, with a rough circumference of 24 km, the delay perhaps would not have been an issue had it not been for the casualties, or for the unfortunate announcement on Twitter by home minister Rajnath Singh at the end of January 2 that the operation was over.

It is ironic that some commentators have said that the command of the anti-terrorist operation should have been handed over to the Army. They have cited the Army’s operations in flushing out militants from the mountains and forests of Kashmir. This is disingenuous. First, flushing out operations are part of counter-terrorism operations, which are general in nature and come under a counter-insurgency strategy. The operation against a terrorist attack or siege is a more targeted affair and is an anti-terrorism operation in nature. Second, after the disastrous Operation Bluestar in 1984, the Army has been reluctant to take on anti-terrorist operations over the years, preferring to provide support. The NSG, on the other hand, has a proven track record in anti-terrorist operations — even 26/11 is a testament to that. Mr Doval acted correctly in calling it in.That the Army is ready to criticise the NSA, and that so many were quick to savage Mr Doval should, perhaps, occasion some introspection. The foreign service, for example, has been seething at the way it perceives his hijacking of its domain, bypassing its institutional memory, particularly in relation to Pakistan.

But there is one critical success of Mr Doval’s that has been overlooked in the Pathankot attack. It is no secret that Pakistan’s “deep state” was involved. This is their way of “testing our sincerity” in pursuing dialogue, the way we keep wondering about Pakistan’s sincerity in pursuing peace. The day after the attack, national newspapers in unison editorialised that the talks must go on. There was no dissent. The government has been criticised for its poor media management, and no immediate answers on the pre-attack and the operation’s delay means that one aim of terrorism was achieved: publicity. But Mr Doval did undeniably well on keeping the public opinion united on pursuing talks with Pakistan, no matter how Pathankot turned out.

(Aditya Sinha is the co-author of the recent bestseller Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years)