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India scrambles to solve Pathankot riddle

Updated January 04, 2016

NEW DELHI: An undetermined number of suspected Jaish-i-Mohammad militants were holding out late into Sunday night inside India’s sensitive Pathankot air force base, as the government scrambled to answer uncomfortable questions about how it all came this far.

The main questions being asked were what did the intelligence agencies know 24 hours before the attack; what did the government do with the specific inputs; and if the intelligence agencies didn’t get a firm grip on the facts, why not?

Indian defence analysts were also looking at the possibility that the heavy arms the militants had got might have been provided locally.

The main train route between Delhi and Lucknow came up for high alert after a bomb scare. The morning Shatabadi Express from Delhi was evacuated at the next station soon after starting the journey.


Battle at airbase rages into second night


No bomb was found. Delhi went into a high alert amid reports of two militants sneaking into the city.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said that though India was keen on good ties with Pakistan, it would give a “fitting reply to terror attacks”.

His party, the BJP, said dialogues could not be revoked due to “one attack” and accused Congress of “politicising” the Pathankot strike.

There was no hint from either the ruling party or the main opposition Congress about a need to change the new policy of dialogue with Pakistan.

“You cannot change your neighbour, you can change friends and therefore we must continue with the talks but talks have to be mainly on the issue of terrorism and that’s what exactly India is doing,” Cabinet Minister Prakash Javadekar said.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj met a group of former envoys to Islamabad and ex-foreign secretaries for what the ministry described as “diplomatic consultations on Pakistan strategy”.

The meeting was attended, among others, by S.K. Lambah, G. Parthasarathy, Shyam Saran, Shivshankar Menon, Satyabrata Paul, Sharad Sabharwal and T.C.A. Raghavan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was closeted with his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishanker to consider a response to a crisis that looked far from over in the night.

The Indian toll from the assault that began at daybreak on Saturday went up to six security men and a lieutenant colonel of the National Security Guard who was reportedly killed by a booby-trapped body of a dead militant.

While all reports and official comments claimed that the air force planes and other operational assets were secure there seemed to be no discussion about whether these included nuclear assets.

Opposition parties claimed intelligence failure, and cited the resignation of the Congress home minister after the Mumbai attack of 2008 as a principle that should be followed. Home Minister Singh was criticised for apparently congratulating the forces on Saturday for successfully vanquishing the terrorists whose number now remains uncertain. It seems four or five may have been killed.

Some government sources have been quoted as saying the future of the Pakistan dialogue will be decided in the next few days after a clear assessment of the Pathankot fallout and the extent to which the Pakistani establishment is involved, if at all.

With the attack coming days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unscheduled visit to Lahore, a debate is raging over the initiative to renew dialogue with Pakistan.

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah called the attack “the first major challenge to PM Modi’s bold Pakistan gambit”.

Pakistan has condemned the attack. A statement from its foreign office said, “Building on the goodwill created during the recent high level contacts between the two countries, Pakistan remains committed to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting our region.”

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2016