India’s craziest antiterrorist operation is over – or so they say.
Even if it technically is, nobody is any the wiser about what in hell happened over the past three days. Or why. Or how. Or even, to be perfectly frank, when.
Very little of the hyperventilating, hypervigilant media coverage is making any sense. Nothing that the government’s superfunctionaries have been saying is making any sense whatsoever.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar went out on a limb trotting out a hard line and was rewarded with the automatic displeasure of the PMO Oberkommando – which, in the prime minister’s absence, was itself uncertain about how much demotic anger to crank out in Pakistan’s direction. In the event, Minister of State at the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh decided to play it safe, sounding wary and wise – which didn’t go down too well because it sounded like a reprise of practiced Congress diplomatese. In an attempt to ramp up some righteous rage, Home Minister Rajnath Singh employed his remarkable baritone to bludgeon on about giving Pakistan a “mūh tōḍ jawāb” (‘jaw-breaking response’). For a couple of days, the BJP resembled nothing more than a can-can chorus-line of khaki bloomers dancing to entirely different pipers and roundhousing with their legs in 10 different directions. Rarely has a single party spoken in so many tongues. Never in recent memory has a unitary organisation like the BJP been reduced to such a welter of confusion.
It didn’t stop with the Union Cabinet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took his time not hurrying back from his zero-urgency two-day visit to Karnataka until mid-Sunday, 3 January, when the antiterrorist operation had had enough of pounding a ghost it couldn’t locate inside the campus of the Pathankot Air Force Station. By the time Modi landed, fresh and perky from an in-flight rundown of events by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar – who reportedly himself had a tenuous understanding of the minutiae because he, too, had accompanied Modi – the Cabinet was in a lather.
Modi’s nonchalance has apparently seriously nonplussed his close cohort. There is no shrugging-off the current feeling in New Delhi that it was an odd sort of unwillingness on Modi’s part to let a terrorism-related fracas, shortlived as it would probably be, interrupt his two-day whirlwind tour of Karnataka, where, among other commitments, he attended the centenary celebrations of Jagadguru Shivarathri Rajendra Mahaswamiji of Sri Suttur Math, inaugurated a Hindustan Aeronautics Limited light utility helicopter/naval multirole helicopter production facility at Tumakuru (earlier, Tumkur) in southwest Karnataka, and opened the 21st International Conference on ‘Frontiers in Yoga Research and Its Applications’ at Jigani Hobli near Bengaluru.
After he finally sat down to a powwow with his National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, his post-parley statement was pretty much all about the excellence of the army’s response (which has never been more debatable):
Today, enemies of humanity who can’t see India progress tried to strike at our strategic area, a prominent airbase at Pathankot. I appreciate our armed forces and thank them for foiling our enemy’s attempt … I want to assure our countrymen that our armed forces have the strength to defeat the evil designs of our enemy.
And that, truly, was that.
Given this numbing nonchalance in the face of what is probably the most perplexing antiterrorist response in India’s independent history to the daftest terrorism incident in India’s independent history, the necessary thing to do is the easiest to contemplate: to look obliquely, peer at the breadcrumbs, follow the money. And ask the questions.
The media should’ve fallen upon the job like a tonne of bricks: This is, after all, its only and everlasting mandate. On the contrary, its head remains wedged firmly up there, in Modi-La-La-Land. The media is busy prattling on about how the terrorists came “well-trained” and “well-equipped”; and mournfully reprised – again – the well-known perfidies of Masood Azhar, the chubby-faced, feral founder of the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit once known as Jæsh-e-Muhammad.
As one would expect, very little of this pique and putzery has bearing on the event itself.
Gurdaspur Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh, who was promoted as one of two assistant commandants of the 75th Battalion, Punjab Armed Police, PAP Jalandhar Cantt, was carjacked on the very day that he received his new posting order (Thursday, 31 December 2015).
i) What made the terrorists release SP sa’abji, with – we are so informed – so cursory a roughing-up that he didn’t need serious medical intervention, leave aside having to be hospitalised?
(The latest narrative in his defence – there have been so many that they form a palimpsest of explanations, excuses, justifications, and pure artful dodging and ducking – is that he outsmarted the terrorists by the simple, accidental ploy of being a helpless civilian in plainclothes. And by the equally simple, incidental ploy of being Sikh. Exactly how this worked he leaves to the public’s forgiving imagination.)
ii) What made the terrorists also release the cook, Madan Gopal, along with SP sa’abji? His injuries at the hands of the terrorists were also negligible injuries – but The Hindu reports that Punjab Police more than made up for the enemy’s leniency by clobbering him and, Gopal claims, torturing him, and then refusing to give cognisance to his leads on the terrorists.
iii) Why did they consider the SP’s friend, a jeweller named Rajesh Kumar Verma, a more viable hostage than Salwinder Singh (who, whether in plain clothes or no, looks the part of security honcho)?
It can hardly be anyone’s beef that the three survived the offhand ministrations of the terrorists (such as they were). But the questions abound.
iv) What’s with slashing Verma superficially round the throat and missing the unmissable, the carotid? Verma, in fact, says that he stumbled to a nearby gurdwara, and was then transported to a private clinic.
v) Verma also said that SP sa’abji and Madan Gopal were not dumped out of the moving car but were tied to trees by the terrorists – with such inattention that they both soon freed themselves.
vi) This is in stark contrast to the fact that immediately prior to carjacking Salwinder Singh, the terrorists coldly offed 30-year-old Ikagar Singh, a father of two and a native of the tiny village of Bhagwal, 170-km southwards of Pathankot AFS, who had been driving them in a Toyota Innova ‘people mover’. Ikagar Singh’s fault seemed to have been taking rough roads at too fast a clip – whether out of fear or from a young privateer cabbie’s love of speed. It either bent a rim or punctured a tyre (the reports are conflicting: there is more information about the politicodrama of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal gifting Ikagar Singh’s family a cheque for ₹5 lakh than about what befell the young man).
The terrorists killed Ikagar Singh because he inconvenienced them. And, yet, these very same men let all three of their subsequent ‘hostages’ go, alive and mildly damaged, despite that one of them owned the expensive SUV with a gran personaje flasher rotating on the roof.
Punjab Police seem not to be holding back from trying to keep Salwinder Singh free from any hint of dubiety. Unfortunately, there are way too many breadcrumbs.
i) Was Salwinder Singh’s Mahindra XUV500 – a midsize SUV with good genes – his private ride or government-issue?
ii) If it was his private vehicle, what led him to affix a blue strobing beacon to its roof?
(The Central Government in 2002, referencing rule 108 of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules 1989, specified who could and could not use beacons. Private vehicles, whether being used by a government functionary or no and for whatever reason: unoptionally, punishably illegal.)
(The beacon on Salwinder Singh’s SUV is clearly an aftermarket addition: An official beacon almost never advertises a brand-name; it is also mounted neatly without an external flexicord leading from the beacon to the driver-side window. Salwinder Singh’s Mahindra is all visible flexicord. The beacon also carries the brand-name “Grand”.)
iii) Salwinder Singh has not, yet, climbed high enough up the seniority ladder to have earned a Mahindra XUV500 as his official car. At between ₹11.47 lakh and ₹17.37 lakh, the establishment only hands it out to the Special Forces, senior bureaucrats, and income tax hotshots.
iv) Finally, Salwinder Singh’s licence plate number – PB-02-B-W0313 – identifies it as a private vehicle registered at the RTO Amritsar.
v) Going by Rule 42-A, Punjab Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, 0313 was an auctionable ‘vanity number’ with a reserve fee of ₹12,500.
The above notification by the Transport-II Branch of the Government of Punjab was dated 9 December 2014, and was formalised by the pleasure of the Governor.
I’m not certain if Salwinder Singh gained ownership of this licence plate number after placing the winning bid.
But there you are: autrefois Superintendent of Police and Assistant Commandant titulaire Salwinder Singh didn’t have the law on his side when he was ‘taken’.
But this is small change compared to the enormity of the damage his misuse of the blue beacon would eventually do.
DSP Pathankot (Rural) Kuldeep Singh, reading from Salwinder Singh’s filed report, said that the blue beacon was on until the terrorists shanghaied the car. When the terrorists got in, it was switched off.
In the light of what transpired, this is bunk.
In India, up-dressing a private vehicle as an official one is a time-honoured ego-massager and tactic to pelt through tollgates and blocs routières. And so it was with Salwinder Singh’s SUV.
It shot through a checkpost on the Dinanagar-Taragarh Link Road near village Kolian with its beacon alight and spinning – thrice. The policemen smartly saluted.
The SUV then rocketed past the checkpost on Kathloh Bridge just across the border in district Solan in Himachal Pradesh.
According to news reports, the SUV sped through another 30-km to a toll plaza near the Pathankot bus station on the Gurdaspur Road – where the blue beacon saw it through, again unchecked.
But there are things here that defy not just credulity but also the logic of time and space: the distances are out of whack, the transit times are a joke.
i) The three men were shanghaied from Simbli-Gulpur, about 150-km south-southeast of the Pathankot Air Force Station.
ii) Salwinder Singh was dispossessed of his vehicle, along with Madan Gopal, at village Tajpur, in tehsil Pathankot in Gurdaspur district. Tajpur is a medium-size village virtually on the border of Gurdaspur and Kangra districts. It is located 32.4-km from the Pathankot AFS.
iii) Rajesh Kumar Verma was dumped at Damtal, on NH1A on the Jalandhar-Pathankot Road, in the Chambal-Kangra hills in Himachal Pradesh. Damtal falls on the east bank of the gulch known as the river Chakkī, off the west bank of which is the eastern flank of the Pathankot AFS.
i) Ordinarily, and without the aid of establishment spin, it would have taken the terrorists 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel the distance from Simbli-Gulpur to Pathankot via NH103A and NH1A – without traffic on these fairly busy highways. With traffic – 3 hours, give or take. This distance, as has been noted earlier in the Ballad of the Blue Beacon (section #3), is punctuated with tollbooths.
ii) Village Tajpur, where the terrorists ejected Salwinder Singh and Madan Gopal, is 2 hours 45 minutes – or 156-km – from Simbli-Gulpur.
iii) Damtal, where Verma was heaved out, is 2 hours 55 minutes – or 169-km – from Simbli-Gulpur. It is 21 minutes – or 13-km – from Tajpur.
Just thinking about this makes my head hurt – and I’m good with maps and distances. The route that the terrorists took in Salwinder Singh’s SUV was batshit-crazy. (And they were reportedly GPS-equipped.) It’s almost as if they were doing pretty much everything that is in Terrorism for Dummies to get caught.
Trying to see through the information fog that this attack is purposefully swaddled in, one can only surmise that the terrorists dumped Salwinder Singh, Gopal, and Verma sometime about 8 pm – 3 hours for the highway joyride and 1 hour for pootling around. But this is only a supposition, born of astonishment at how easy it should be to stand ferocious, dimwitted fedayeen such as these in a conga line and shoot them down like sitting ducks.
India’s überestablishment and the media insist that while the terrorists had the free run of Pathankot-Gurdaspur for a day, they started doing their thing only at 12:15 am on Saturday, 2 January.
A day on the lam doesn’t speak in superlatives about the acuity of Punjab’s incumbent security establishment. But the terrorists went on to do something even more counterintuitive: They contacted their handlers in Pakistan using Salwinder Singh’s mobile.
Among several other mind-bogglers, this is:
a. Unprecedented. It has never happened earlier because it’s not supposed to happen. Never before have Pakistan-based terrorists, with a clear agenda and scads of staying power ‘roided up with badass weaponry (and GPS, hear, hear!), landed up without their own comsets, even satphones. It is almost slapstick that a suicide squad should have to diddle around with a filched handset (a filched official handset belonging to a senior security official whom they ejected, alive, enabling him to blow both their cover and their schedule).
b. Odd. Salwinder Singh’s mobile numbers – it was a two-SIM phone – were open and unblocked for almost 8 hours straight. The last call the mobile was used for – involving a comedy skit of cross-intent, with both the Punjab Police and the terrorists politely asking each other, “Āāp kꜷṇ?”…” Āāp kꜷṇ?” – was at 3:26 am, in the wintry, wee hours of Friday, 1 January.
How many terrorists comprised this fedayeen klutzkrieg? Everybody is guessing. Not guesstimating: guessing, second-guessing, maybe even third-guessing. Who knows? Arithmetic went out of the window on Day 1. Salwinder Singh’s car apparently hosted four or five terrorists, only one of whom, according to the cook, Madan Gopal, spoke broken Punjabi. As of this moment, however, four – or five – terrorists are reported to have been ‘neutralised’, with another two – or maybe one – inside the AFS premises still.
Wait. One was ganked at 3:45 pm yesterday (Sunday, 3 January). And then there was…one. Maybe.
One more was offed at 12:45 pm today (Monday, 4 January) via the undeniably effective expedient of blowing up the entire building around him.
That makes six. But nobody’s taking chances – because nobody knows.
Never in India’s history has an antiterrorist smackdown been set in motion, set in order, and set aside with so little information.
But most everybody seems to have pots of information that the terrorists were from:
a. the Jæsh-e-Muhammad;
b. the Bahawalpur district in the Pakistani Punjab which, at 26,000-odd-sq-km, is an area huge enough to have become a catchment, since 1999, for allegations that it is a crucible for Islamofundamentalists.
(A significant chunk of this one can blame on Masood Azhar himself: The fat, hairy barbarian was born in Bahawalpur. Indians detest his all-grown-up evil-Chucky mug, and no body of citizens hates that mug more than the Sangh: He’s the one who, in 1999, got away. And then set about singlehandedly rescripting India-Pakistan relations. No matter that it was the NDA government that had released him, exchanging him for the passengers and crew of flight IC-814.)
But the truth is that Jæsh-e-Muhammad has not existed, in name, for nearly a decade-and-a-half. Pervez Musharraf had banned Jæsh-e-Muhammad in October 2001, three months after his sour-sweet visit to India, following which it snappily renamed itself a mellower-sounding Khuddam ul-Islām (Association of the Servants of Islam). However, clever enough by then to not plonk all its eggs in one basket, the JEM also renamed itself Tehrīk al-Furqān (Movement for Change).
Whatever their reason – laziness, protocol, or convenience – the world’s security establishments still favour the name Jæsh-e-Muhammad. Maybe it is axiomatic in the creepy world of Weltintelligenz that a known corpse is preferable to a living terror. The result is that the JEM’s formal new face, Khuddam ul-Islām, is today mostly unacknowledged.
In fact, Khuddam ul-Islām finds no mention in the GoI’s National Investigation Agency’s ‘Schedule-I’ of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which is the list of 36 terrorist organisations banned by state fiat. Jæsh-e-Muhammad and Tehrīk al-Furqān, separated by a backslash that also serves to link them, have a placeholder at #6. But the name of Khuddam ul-Islām, umbilically connected to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman group), which has been in coalition with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League since 2013, is conspicuously absent.
A terrorist group unnamed is a terrorist group unidentified.
As of the closing of this piece, the Indian security establishment was almost convinced that the remaining two terrorists, who were dug into the Pathankot AFS, were dead. But finecombing is in slow progress in the wonky W-shaped area of the Pathankot Air Force Station proper, the Pathankot airport and the air force secure zones (they share the single 2,384-m x 46-m runway, designated #01/19), the Air Force School, the Officers’ Mess AFS, and the tiny wedge of the AFS that abuts into Pathankot city just this side of NH1A to the north – with only a short dash across a dense copse of trees separating it from Pathankot Cantt Railway Station. It is a total area a mite less than 12-sq-km (not, as the media insists, 24-sq-km).
Inside the AFS-civilian airport compound, tightly clustered to the north and northwest, is a wealth of what are known in today’s military bling-jargon as “soft targets”: an Air Force Senior Non-Commissioned Officers’ mess, a cricket ground, a shopping complex, an Air Force Wives Welfare Association complex, an Officers’ Institute, an Air Force School, a joggers’ park, an open air theatre, an air force movie theatre.
Part of this acreage is undulating land and thick vegetation. The river Chakkī – or, to be precise, the Chakkī khāḍ – a major tributary of the river Beas but basically a seasonal terror that varies from a depth of 1.5-m during the dry months to 4.5-m during the monsoons, marks the eastern edge of the Pathankot AFS. Forming the curved western flank of the AFS is part of a 19-km-long canal, the Ravi-Beas Link, one of the dense network of canals of the Upper Bari Doab Canal System in Gurdaspur district. After an easy curve along the station’s western border, the R-B Link nips through the compound, cutting into the airport from the west and exiting from almost its southernmost needle-tip on its way to debouching into the Chakkī khāḍ, as the makers of the vast canal system had meant it to way back in 1954.
All-in-all, the terrorists were spoilt for choice of sneakaround terrain, so expansive and sporadically-wooded and, therefore, with almost zero open line-of-sight (except along and to the sides of the runway, with its bunkers and ammo dump and MiG-21 Bis taxiïng tangents) that they could afford to hide out without fear of being boxed in.
It is over. And, yet, because the whole shindig has been an industrial-scale nātak-nautaṅkī: who’d be willing to bet even a paltry sikkā that we really have closure?
(All data in this piece are published and in the public domain. Following the breadcrumbs and connecting the dots, however, is all me. It’s what I do.)