It’s hard to miss the air-conditioner in a small room on the banks of the Ravi, next to the small Kathlaur bridge in Pathankot district. It’s 10.15 am and temperatures are climbing, like in the rest of the northern plains. But that’s not what explains the A-C, apart from a cooler lying outside the room. It is the status of the room as a sensitive check-post in a district that has been in a state of almost constant alert since the Pathankot Air Force Station attack on January 2, 2016.
This is one of those days, after Maksin, a Gujjar leader from Kozi Chakh village nearby, raised an alarm 48 hours earlier, claiming his car had been stopped by two armed men wearing fatigues. All the eight personnel of this check-post of the Narrot Jaimal Singh police station, which has 85 villages under its jurisdiction and seven such check-posts, are out on search operations since. On an average, the police station receives an alert once every fortnight since the 2016 attack, and not all linked to terror. Not one of these has turned out to be a real threat.
Sitting under a tree next to the Kathlaur bridge as he fields calls on a mobile, Sub-Inspector Kirpal Singh, in-charge of the Kathlaur bridge check-post, says, “We cannot let any vehicle go unchecked. We try to see the faces of all the passengers. Any alert in neighbouring Jammu also increases our workload.” The three men in charge of the check-post, including Kirpal Singh, work in three shifts, of eight hours each. These days Kirpal Singh is on the 10 am-to-6 pm shift.
Apart from Kirpal Singh, four other police personnel are keeping a watch on the traffic crossing the 500-metre bridge, located on the road to the International Border. One of the personnel is permanently deployed behind sand bags in a raised shelter, one of two constructed recently. Another sits on a truck with a mounted Instant Machine Gun (IMG), that can be raised to a height of 10 feet. Barricades placed at the foot of the bridge on the Pathankot side ensure that only one line of traffic crosses at any time.
Apart from the check-post, there is a permanent structure at the Kathlaur bridge where a computer operator sits. Any suspicious vehicle is checked against data online, says Constable Ram Dutta, the computer operator. Dutta’s duties also include monitoring the four CCTV cameras installed around the bridge. While the security personnel have night-vision devices, the CCTV cameras are not of much use at night, when the area is engulfed in darkness as there are no streetlights around. The men behind the Air Force Station attack reportedly crossed this bridge on way to the site.
A little distance away, Constable Kashmir Singh is posted at the Kolian T-point check-post, which too the attackers are said to have breezed past, after seizing control of an SP’s car. Now, the Kolian check-post is manned by a Punjab Armed Police (PAP) company. All its members are retired Army personnel. Kashmir Singh says usually four of them man the check-post. The Kolian T-point has a small bus stand, and around 11.15 am, the place is teeming with people, making their task tougher.
Around noon, the Narrot Jaimal Singh police station receives a message from the Control Room to rush seven security persons to the Tarargarh police station nearby. Station House Officer Pritam Lal is not in, having gone to Bamiyal, 20 km away, to make arrangements for a public meeting of the police. Head Munshi Manjit Kumar asks a constable to prepare the list of seven. After some time, the constable returns concerned. There are only six personnel who can be spared. Kumar does some calculations, and decides on a seventh name. Fielding a call from the Taragarh police station to “hurry up”, Kumar sighs. Since he was posted at the police station five months ago, he says, he hasn’t had a lean day. “Something or the other keeps happening.”
In the dark on why Taragarh needs their help, Kumar calls up seniors to enquire if he should send the men with weapons. He is told yes. As the men depart, leaving behind only six personnel at the Narrot Jaimal Singh police station, Kumar explains that he can’t just hand out the weapons. “It is a matter of huge responsibility.”
The Bamiyal public meeting is the police’s first in a year. Around 1 pm, villagers, local politicians and dignitaries are waiting for DSP Ranjit Singh to arrive. As he reaches, the organisers hail the police for reacting “quickly to the Gujjar leader’s alert”. The villagers who address the gathering say the area used to be peaceful before the 2016 attack, and blame Pakistan. One villager claims it is “the rising population of Muslim Gujjars” in the area that is a threat. Another says local Hindu leaders too help them smuggle animals. The DSP doesn’t respond, only taking down notes. Later, he thanks the villagers and refers to some of the points they made, but not the comments about the Gujjar community.
Later, the DSP tells The Sunday Express that they have to engage “all the communities”.
A little ahead of the Bamiyal check-post, two floodlight towers loom over the horizon. Next to the towers, located right on the zero line, is a temporary check-post, staffed with officials from Pathankot city. One of the constables on duty says they can’t use even a lamp at night. “We can only use torches, including to make searches. Any light can give away our location to the enemy.”
SP, Operations, Hem Pushap, is leading a search operation nearby, along a water channel covered by bushes. Officials say it is very difficult to pick footprints here, and that it was from this water channel that the NIA picked up samples after the Pathankot attack.
One search party heads to a settlement of the Gujjars. Rafiq, the head of the settlement, says, “Police come after every red alert. It is their duty. They do not trouble us. They only check if there is any outsider around or we have any weapons.”
Hem Pushap is part of the party that goes to Kozi Chakh, near where Maksin, the Gujjar leader who sounded the alert, lives with his family. A temporary check-post has come up here as well. Maksin’s family claims he is away at the police station along with other relatives. Police refuse to comment on their charge that Maksin, a father of three, has been detained.
A police officer says they do have doubts that the Gujjar leader made up the threat, but that they can’t take any such claim lightly. “If the public get to know we don’t take an information seriously, they will stop giving us any information.”
Around 4 pm, Pathankot SSP Vivek Sheel Soni arrives at the Bamiyal check-post, and holds a long meeting. Admitting a staff shortage, Soni says, “We have deployed the Punjab Armed Police and other reserved forces to make up for it.”
As the sun sets and the search parties return to their respective stations, Kirpal Singh says they are looking forward to a new building under construction at the Kathlaur bridge. “It has 13-inch thick walls!” exclaims Constable Kulwinder Singh. “It will not allow a bullet through.”