Rotten state of Punjab: Did smugglers unknowingly aid, abet Pathankot attack?

Sherlock Holmes would have called it the curious case of Pathankot. He would have found the conduct of the police intriguing, noticed disturbing similarities between the attack on Dinanagar and the strike on the air base at Pathankot and said: Watson, there is something really rotten in the state of Punjab.

First, of course, is the incident involving Punjab SP Salwinder Singh, who was first abducted and then released by the purported terrorists. The SP, according to reports and his own statement, was stopped by armed militants, gagged, blindfolded and later released. The SP claims he was moving around unarmed well past midnight because he was on a pilgrimage.

 Rotten state of Punjab: Did smugglers unknowingly aid, abet Pathankot attack?

A scene from the terror attack in Pathankot. PTI

But, why did the terrorists let such a high-profile target go unhurt? Why did they risk their entire mission by giving him the opportunity to raise an alarm? Only a detailed investigation can reveal if the SP was actually out on pilgrimage or on some other personal mission; and whether his survival was just happenstance or there was a reason behind the unexpected display of mercy by terrorists.

Experts have already pointed out at the inability of the Punjab police to track the militants after Salwinder Singh reported the carjacking. One explanation for the delay is that the cops did not believe the SP. Really? Have things become so rotten in Punjab that even a SP warning of an imminent terror strike is not taken seriously? Notice also the attempt to downplay the kidnapping of an SP — not a constable or a junior officer — and keeping the matter hush-hush for almost 12 hours. Is there any other state in India where an SP would be ridiculed for reporting his own abduction by terrorists from Pakistan?

The Pathankot attack was almost identical to the terror strike in Dinanagar in July 2015. Before entering the mainland, these militants too had spent some time hiding in the border villages, a clear indication that they were hosted by sleeper cells on the Indian side.

In that incident too, terrorists had hijacked a white Maruti and later stormed a police station, killing nine persons. Would the Punjab government not have been alarmed by the hijacking after the Dinanagar incident, especially when an SP was raising the alarm?

When terrorists had struck in Dinanagar, eyebrows were raised when the Punjab police refused to let the army intervene and took on the militants in spite of lack of adequate counter-insurgency training and weapons. Back then the Punjab police decision was attributed to bravado. But now questions have started surfacing.

A former Punjab DGP I spoke to had a volley of unanswered questions: "Why was the identity of the terrorists never revealed? Who were they, where had they come from? Why wasn't the case handed over to the National Investigation Agency? Why did the Punjab government insist getting the case probe by its own agencies? Is it just coincidence that all the militants were killed and nobody tried to capture even one of them alive? It seems there was an attempt to hide something," he said.

All these questions about Dinanagar and Pathankot seem to have a common link: the flourishing drug trade between Pakistan and Punjab.  And some of the answers may be found in the modus operandi of the drug dealers.

When a consignment of drugs leaves Pakistan for Punjab, it usually takes two routes. In areas where there are barbed wires on the border, smugglers stuff them into PVC pipes and push them across into India, where couriers pick them up for transporting them to the main land.

Though most of the Punjab border is guarded by barbed wires, the riverine belt of around 100km is unguarded. To push drugs through this region, drained by Ravi and Beas and lined with dense forests, smugglers use boats and couriers. This riverine belt is mostly to the west of Gurdaspur and Pathankot, and in some areas of Ferozepur, making them most vulnerable.

Transporting drugs to the border from Pakistan is not a problem since the ISI and many other agencies are involved in the trade. But, once the drug consignment reaches Punjab, the involvement of a huge network of people at every level becomes necessary.

In the border areas of Punjab, it is stored in safe houses for some time -- called a cooling off period -- and then relayed from point to point through an intricate network of middlemen and peddlers, who charge the dealers on the basis of the risk and distance involved.

According to sources, many politicians and police officials have been compromised by the drug dealers. In 2007, the state intelligence had compiled a four-page list of politicians, bureaucrats and cops who were part of the drug cartels. It had names of politicians of all parties and officers and cops at every level. But, somehow the list went missing.

Opposition parties have regularly alleged that members of the Badal family are shielding drug dealers. In 2014, Bikram Majithia, brother-in-law of deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the sale and supply of synthetic drugs in the state.

In March 2015, he was accused of receiving the drug money by arrested synthetic druglord Jagjit Singh Chahal. Chahal, in a written statement to the Enforcement Directorate (ED), has claimed that he had made a payment of Rs 35 lakh to Majithia between 2007 and 2012. According to reports, Chahal had also said he had supplied pseudoephedrine (a chemical used to make drugs) to Satpreet Singh Satta and Parminder Singh Pindi, who are close to Majithia.

So, there is widespread apprehension that dealers have infiltrated the Punjab government and are calling the shots. And this network was in likelihood abetting the safe transit of terrorists from Pakistan to Gurdaspur. In return they got a huge consignment of drugs.

If the Centre has to ensure that Punjab doesn't get attacked again, it will have to find answers to the disturbing questions about the Pathankot and Dinanagar incidents. Only a thorough probe into the conduct of the state police, laxity of the Punjab government and the influence and extent of drug mafia will guarantee safety of our border.

As Sherlock would have said, begin from the top.

Updated Date: Jan 06, 2016 09:38:04 IST