Punjab Police gets a tip off at least 10 hours before the first bullet is fired inside the strategic Pathankot Air Force base, but displays poor reflexes which, if avoided, could have prevented the deaths of seven security personnel and a three-day long stand off.
It was not just the poor reflexes but also the lack of professionalism, ineptitude, corruption, involvement of some personnel in drug trafficking that the latest terror attack and a few other instances in the recent past have shown about their handling of such situations. It was less than six months ago, on July 27, that one of its police stations - in Gurdaspur - was attacked by Pakistani jihadis.
Evidently, even that attack did not perturb the police administration and virtually the same route was taken by the latest groups of terrorists from across the border to launch an attack at the Pathankot Air Force Station. While it is true that the primary responsibility to check infiltration from across the international border is that of the Border Security Force (BSF), it is the responsibility of the police to strengthen its intelligence and information network inside state territory.
Its failure to strengthen vigil close to the border despite intelligence inputs of a possible terrorist attack became apparent when an SP-level officer of the Punjab Police, Salwinder Singh, was kidnapped by the terrorists in his official vehicle. Not only he did not put up any resistance, he has also not been able to convincingly explain his presence close to the border for what he claims was a religious visit to a peer. What is even more intriguing is that he takes along a jeweller friend and a cook, rather than a gunman who was provided to him, and goes about in the sensitive area, unarmed. All these aspects reflect poorly on Punjab Police's discipline and administration. It does not seem unusual for police officers to use official vehicles for private purposes and taken along dubious characters.
The road which Salwinder Singh had taken, and where he was allegedly kidnapped and later released, is a well-known drug smuggling route. Even the locals avoid taking the route after dusk. The SP claimed that he was travelling unarmed on that road close to midnight. There are several questions that the security and intelligence agencies need to ask the SP. The jihadis, not known to show any mercy to their "enemies", killed the driver of a car they had hijacked earlier but spared the SP and his cook. In a similar attack at Dinanagar, they had killed a shopkeeper and all those who were inside the police station. They had also attempted to hijack a bus and blow up railway tracks but their attempt was foiled. Given the ruthless attitude of the jihadis, it is indeed strange that they let these people go while on their way to carry out a highly secretive and major operation.
His seniors also have much to answer for. Even though the SP had a dubious past (he was transferred a few days back following a complaint of sexual harassment by five policewomen), how could his seniors have failed to grasp the significance of the information given by an SP? It took them several hours to convey the message to the central agencies who dispatched the NSG. Security experts, however, say that while doing this was fine, the local police and the army units based in Pathankot should have been immediately deployed to cordon off the Air Force base.
The arrest of three men in Mohali on January 4, while the Pathankot operation was underway, further exposed the links between drug smugglers and their Pakistan counterparts, and the possible connivance of some security personnel. Although the police have denied having links with the Pathankot attackers, the recovery of a Pakistan SIM card, a sten gun with two magazines with Pakistan markings, two pistols of .30 bore and several guns from them raises questions. Mohali SSP Gurpreet Singh Bhullar told mediapersons that the three men were drug smugglers and that they were caught after specific information was received about their movement.
Significantly, two of these men were arrested with two kilograms of heroin and sentenced to 12 years' prison in 2010. However, they had jumped parole in 2014 and were declared Proclaimed Offenders (POs). The recovery of Pakistan-marked weapons and the SIM card proves that they had been actively engaged in drug trafficking across the border even after they were declared POs.
It is also significant to note that the Punjab Police faces the highest number of cases of human rights' abuse. Data recently released by the Punjab Human Rights Commission (PSHRC) revealed that of the total 2.33 lakh complaints received by the commission since its inception in 1997 (roughly the time when militancy had ended), 1.28 lakh or 55 per cent of total number of complaints were against police department and its personnel. During the last year itself, the PSHRC had received over 8,000 complaints against police personnel.
With intelligence inputs of jihadis planning to target Punjab, particularly after the strengthening of the vigil in Jammu and Kashmir, the Punjab Police will have to pull up its socks to meet any eventuality.