Probing Pathankot – 4: Around the airbase

The Jammu-Pathankot NH1-A offers the best view. Standing on it, leaning against one of its walls, you can look straight into the Pathankot Air Force Base.

Updated: January 13, 2016 9:08 am

A slum and a densely populated colony to the north, villages to the east, and a flyover with a view —
Navjeevan Gopal and Kamaldeep Singh Brar explore the neighbourhood around the Pathankot airbase

The Jammu-Pathankot NH1-A offers the best view. Standing on it, leaning against one of its walls, you can look straight into the Pathankot Air Force Base. Ever since January 1, when suspected terrorists of the Jaish-e-Mohammad laid siege to the airbase, people have been stopping their cars along the flyover to take a look. So these days, the Air Force personnel guarding the entrance have been constantly looking up, angrily waving their rifles at those on the flyover, asking them to stop gawking and move ahead.

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Though one can only see the building and playground of the Kendriya Vidyalaya, a few metres from the entrance, and nothing of the technical area at the southern end of the airbase, it’s a vantage view nonetheless. And a troubling one, considering that the base is one of the key forward bases in the country, only 30 km from the border with Pakistan.

The flyover and the villages surrounding the airbase make the neighbourhood around the base porous and permeable. The terrorists who penetrated the base on January 1 would have only had to look at the map of the airbase and its surrounding villages to know that.

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The flyover and the urban village of Dhaki frame the north of the airbase. “The Air Force had objected to the flyover. Despite that, the flyover was constructed some three years ago,” says B K Dutt, who retired as a sergeant from the Air Force back in 1976 and now runs a grocery store in Dhaki chowk.

“After my training, my first posting was at this airbase. I remained posted here from 1963 to 1967. Those days, we used to live primarily in tents. It was around 1965 that construction started in the airbase. Of course, there was none of this then,” says Dutt, referring to the flyover, the shops and the houses around him, all along the northern perimeter of the airbase. “Though from the flyover you cannot see beyond a certain distance inside the airbase, it is not good that such an important facility is visible from the road,” says Dutt.

Dhaki resident Bhanu Pratap Singh says the terror attack has left him worried. Adding to this worry is the concern that he and his family may be asked to move as part of the security upgrade here. Bhanu and his family own most of the shops, mostly grocery stores and kiosks, that line Dhaki Road and the slip road below the flyover, abutting the wall of the airbase. Bhanu is worried that his shops will be asked to move out.

His fears of displacement stem from earlier notices that the district administration issued in 2008, asking residents not to carry out any construction within 900 metres of the perimeter of the airbase and telling them to remove already existing structures by 2011. Nothing came of that order.

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At several places in Dhaki, the houses are in close proximity to the 24.7 km perimeter of the airbase. On the right side of the entrance gate of the airbase is an Air Force colony, a civil residential colony with nearly 25 houses. Beyond this colony are open fields, followed by an army installation and then, Dhakka colony, a thickly populated illegal colony, large parts of which are slums. The colony falls in Himachal Pradesh.

“Residential areas near such an important airbase poses a security risk, especially when these colonies are illegal and unregulated. It is difficult to screen every single person in such densely populated areas,” says Amritsar-based Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Sujan Singh, who served in the Parachute Regiment of the army and retired from Education Corps. “Also, in situations such as this terror attack, the danger of collateral damage among civilians is high,” he says.

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A clump of eucalyptus trees towers over the 11-foot-tall western periphery wall of the airbase. This is the where the breach happened, the stretch marked by personnel of the Punjab Police who are standing guard. A few floodlights have been mounted onto some of the eucalyptus trees. That’s a new addition — on January 1, when the terrorists entered the airbase from this point, after snipping the concertina wire on the wall, the floodlights were only fixed on the concrete wall, with three of them pointing upwards. There are watchtowers rising up from inside the wall at regular intervals, but not at this point.

The easiest way to get to this side of the Air Force station from Dhaki is to cross a bridge over the Madhopur-Beas Link Canal, a water channel that runs along the western wall of the airbase. The water in the canal runs shallow, the depth no more than 4 feet at any point. Between the canal and the boundary wall of the base is a kutcha road that sees regular traffic between Dhaki Road on the north to villages on the southwest of the base.

Barely a kilometer from here, in the southern direction, is the field where Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh’s Mahindra XUV was discovered at about 7.30 am on the morning of January 1. The car was found tucked away in a field between Akalgarh and Tajpur, two villages on the western border of the airbase. After leaving the car, the path the four men would have taken to get to the wall has homes of Akalgarh residents to the right and fields to the left.
Akalgarh and Tajpur, adjacent villages with a combined population of about 2,000, lie on the western side of the airbase. The villagers here are still in shock over how the terrorists chose their village to launch the attack.

Like in Dhaki, the residents of the village spent sleepless nights amid fierce gunbattle inside the airbase and with helicopters hovering above their homes. As the airbase was fortified with different layers of security, the residents of Akalgarh and Tajpur say they supplied meals and tea to the security forces.

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Nearly two kilometres from Akalgarh and touching the airbase periphery on the southewest is Beli Mahanta village. Though the village is in Himachal Pradesh, four houses and a gurdwara fall in Punjab and goes by the name Beli Akalian. When The Sunday Expres visited the village on Thursday, Beli Mahanta was in the midst of canvassing for the gram panchayat election scheduled on January 10.

It was to one of the houses here that SP Salwinder Singh’s jeweller-friend Rajesh Verma came running for help after terrorists allegedly inflicted a cut on his neck. “We are not participating in the polls, since our houses fall in Beli Akalian village of Punjab,” says Kaur, the elderly mother of Gurmeet Singh. It was Gurmeet who opened the door when Verma came looking for help at about 4.45 am on the morning of January 1. He says Verma made two calls from his mobile phone to his family members, first at 5.20 am and the next, about five minutes later. “Looking at the condition in which Verma came, we were worried that if something were to happen to him, we would be in trouble,” says Gurmeet.

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The vulnerabilities that helped terrorists enter the sprawling airbase do not just lie outside its perimeter, but even within. Apart from the neighbourhoods surrounding the airbase, around 500 daily labourers work inside the station. The Air Force gives out contracts for civil works, mainly for construction, repair work and sanitation. Most of these labourers are from villages surrounding the base and work for contractors who hire them for these works.

Besides, there are around 30 shops inside the Air Force station run by civilians who pay a monthly rent to the Air Force. The shops inside and the ones just outside the airbase have been shut since the attack. The police have also been screening civilians inside the base.

Avinash Gupta, who runs a grocery store inside the Air Force station, says, “After the terrorist attack began, no one has been allowed to enter the airbase and those inside have not been allowed to go out,” says Gupta.
Raj Kumar, municipal councillor of Dhakki locality, says the police have asked him to submit the voter list of area. “There are around 300 voters in Dhakki,” says Kumar.

“We have been preparing voter lists for this area. We have also asked people to submit information about their tenants. There are around 500 labourers working inside the station. They will all be under our scrutiny now,” says Pathankot DSP Manoj Thakur.

Though questions have been raised on how, despite an early alert, the operation stretched for so long, the fact is that the base is spread over roughly 20 square kilometres, an area the size of a small city. To add to the problem are vast stretches of idle spaces inside the airbase that have never been used or accessed. Over the years, they have taken the shape of forests with trees, elephant grass and bushes. Wild animals, primarily wild boars, often stray out of these patches into the functional area of the base and have to be shooed away, say sources.

“Such idle land is part of most military establishments. It is kept for further expansion. But one needs to find a way to keep these areas either clear or to protect the rest of the base from unmanned areas,” says a defence official.

-Inputs from Deeptiman Tiwary in New Delhi