The terrorist attack at an important military asset in Pathankot has once again exposed chinks in our preparedness and lack of coordination between various agencies. Once much admired and formidable, Punjab Police appeared to be tentative in its response. It appears shutters had long been drawn on investment into preparedness and their training. It was not a pleasant sight to see different colours of jackets that the policemen wore, some of them in personal apparel during combing operations. Their body language spoke it all. The Gurdaspur incident and early tip off on the current attack had not made the Government any wiser. A state of complacency appears to have set into our preparedness to deal with terrorism.
Our responses continue to be ad hoc. Not much seems to have changed after 26/11 in terms of creating institutional mechanisms to respond to such incidents. Nothing was heard from the crisis management groups (CMGs) of Centre (headed by the Cabinet Secretary) and that of Punjab (headed by the Chief Secretary). These Groups are mandated to bring together the collective wisdom and capacities of the State to respond to a crisis.
Each agency appeared to be operating on its own. The CMGs at the apex, even when fully active, will not achieve much till we deal with terror incidents in an uncoordinated manner. There is need to have a relook at the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) or create an umbrella structure under which intelligence collection, operations and investigation of terror related crimes is carried out without turf wars within and between Central and State agencies. A consensus between the Centre and States must be found on the architecture of such an apparatus. And above all it will be the training, equipment and morale of the policemen on the ground that will determine the level of success. The Police modernization and reforms can’t take a backseat any more.
The fact that terrorists from across the border were able to enter and target an important Air base in an area with little or no local support base in the shape of harbourers and informers, adds a serious dimension to the situation. It demonstrates Pakistan Army and ISI’s capability to strike through terrorists supported by sleeper cells on strategic targets. The security of such military and scientific assets throughout the country will need an urgent review.
Pathankot terror incident also cautions us on need for alertness in Jammu and Kashmir where Pakistan and ISI have much more over ground and underground support base. There is sizeable residual militancy and separatists will not miss any opportunity to pose challenges for the law and order machinery. The new wave of suicidal attacks must be viewed seriously. Our past experience in J&K to deal with these in 1999 and after can help us in devising a counter strategy. The counter infiltration grid particularly in areas not snow bound must be alerted.
India and Pakistan are yet in a very initial stage of restarting a “comprehensive dialogue”. Gesture like surprise visit of Prime Minister Modi to Pakistan is no magic wand to change the thinking in the Pakistan Army which calls the shots as far Pakistan’s India policy is concerned. The trust deficit between the two neighbours is unlikely to recede any time soon. While we must engage Pakistan, any bonhomie must not lead to complacence in our security apparatus. That appears to be the big lesson from Pathankot for the security forces and police in J&K. The security of important military assets and other high value targets will need to be reviewed.
The sudden passing away of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed at this crucial juncture creates a serious political void. It will require a mature handling by the Centre (read BJP leadership) as well as PDP to prevent any adverse fallout. Mufti Sahib enjoyed a stature by which he could convince his colleagues and constituency on positives of a coalition between “North pole and South Pole”. Despite strains, the coalition seemed to be settling down to some serious business. It will not be easy for his successor to harmonise the conflicting interests of the coalition partners. Both sides would be well advised to refrain from raking up controversial issues and allow the new dispensation to settle down. Any sign of instability will not only have its political fallout but will have serious security implications. Pakistan with it’s over ground separatists’ support base and underground residual militancy will exploit any such situation.
We must therefore tread cautiously in Jammu and Kashmir in coming weeks. The Unified Command should take an early review of security situation in the background of Pathankot incident. The first such meeting under the new Chief Minister can be attended by a senior representative of the Union Government to lend Centre’s unequivocal support to synergy between Army, CPMFs and J&K Police in the nation’s resolve to protect the lives and property of civilians and provide fail proof security to protected persons, defense assets and vital installations against terrorist strikes. Only a smooth and hassle free change of guard coupled with stepped up preparedness to deal with terrorism will see fulfilling Mufti Sahibs agenda of peace and development in all regions of the state.
(The author is Former Director General of Police and former Member, National Security Advisory Board)