Terror attacks

Pathankot terror attack: Eight crucial unanswered questions

From honey traps to a confusing Punjab Police story to the role of Ajit Doval, almost everything about this incident is murky.

The authorities have said that Pathankot terror attack, which was prematurely declared over on Saturday, and then on Sunday, has finally ended as of Monday afternoon.

An official from the National Security Guard said that five terrorists who entered the air force base have been killed, after three days of operations which have left 11 security personnel dead and more injured.

Although initial reports suggested the attackers might have been members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the same terror outfit that was responsible for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, another group called the United Jihad Council – actually a conglomerate of several terrorist organisations – has now claimed responsibility for it.

A National Security Guard official told the media that though the fifth terrorist had been killed, combing operations were still on to ensure that the base was secure. The official also said that all air force assets, including the personnel and their families were safe.

Reportage on the issue has so far been relatively restrained, considering the operations were still ongoing for much of the last few days. In some cases the media has deliberately not put out information, having learnt from its follies during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks when some of the coverage was blamed for having spread panic and even assisted the terrorists.

Despite this though, questions about the entire ordeal are starting to crop up and, once the dust has settled in Pathankot, authorities will have to take a long, hard look at the way India handles terror.

The Mumbai attacks comparison is instructive. That incident involved armed terrorists walking around highly populated areas in a big city and running into a police force that wasn't trained to take on militants. The 26/11 attack would end up going on for four days.

This one took place at an air force base very close to the Pakistan border, which was already on high alert because of immediately actionable intelligence. The Pathankot attack has taken three whole days.

The coverage, mostly by reporters covering national security, has started to draw out exactly how many unanswered questions there are about the whole episode.

Unanswered questions

1. First there is the story about the Honey trap. An air force official had reportedly been conned into working as a "defence analyst" with a magazine in the United Kingdom, when in fact he was allegedly passing on information to intelligence agencies in Pakistan. Authorities have arrested the air force official and now intend to find out whether he also provided any information about the base in Pathankot.

2. Then there is the thoroughly confusing story about a Punjab Superintendent of Police, Salwinder Singh, who says he was abducted by some of the terrorists while he was driving back from a religious shrine on Friday early morning, along with two others – his jeweller friend and cook. The abductors, he says, were five heavily armed terrorists in army fatigues.

According to the cook, Madan Gopal, they were overpowered by the terrorists and tied up in the back of the car. Gopal says they were eventually dumped by the terrorists, who drove away with Singh's car, which had a blue beacon on top of it.

Questions are being raised about what Singh – who had been transferred from Gurdaspur only recently because of sexual harassment complaints from five female constables – was doing out that late. Equally confusing is the decision of the heavily armed terrorists to simply dump Singh and the others, when they had reportedly earlier killed a taxi driver to use his car.

3. What follows is even more confusing. A note supposedly found in the car was what gave the media an initial idea that Jaish-e-Mohammad had been behind the attack. The note, which was circulated to the media as well, includes the words Jaish-e-Mohammad in English, and claims that the attack was done as retaliation for India's decision to hang Afzal Guru, a convict in the Parliament attacks case.

4. Next there is the question of strange providence. Firstly, because the SP was let off, he was able to alert authorities about the terrorists being at large. Almost farcically, Punjab Police did not believe his story at first, in part because of his "colourful background". Gopal, his cook, even claims that he was tortured by police, who kept asking him for the real story about what happened to the car.

Secondly, one of the terrorists is said to have used the SP's phone to make phone calls, including one to his mother where he reportedly said that he was heading for martyrdom. This has apparently given authorities some evidence that they can now use to pin blame on elements in Pakistan, despite the Kashmir-based UJC taking credit for the attack.

5. Next is the question about sending in the team of National Security Guard.

Once the Punjab Police came around to believing that the SP's story was real, and that it was connected to terror, alarm bells were rung. Delhi was informed about the concerns, at which point National Security Advisor Ajit Doval reportedly swung into action.

According to Ajai Shukla, who covers national security for the Business Standard, Doval didn't let the army run the operation and instead moved a team of the National Security Guard to the Pathankot base. This left security of the air base in the hands of the existing Defence Security Corps, mostly retired military veterans, the air force's Garud commandos who lacked a specific operational brief, and the NSG.

Intent on directly controlling what he anticipated would be a walk in the park, and without anticipating that there might be more than one group of terrorists, Mr Doval led with his trump card – he ordered 150-160 National Security Guard (NSG) troopers to be flown down immediately from New Delhi. The army was placed on the side-lines....

It is revealing that not a single Pathankot casualty is from the army. The hapless DSC [Defence Security Corps] jawans took most of the casualties. The NSG took unacceptable losses, including an officer killed from a booby-trapped terrorist body. The army knows this ploy well and approaches terrorist bodies in J&K with caution, knowing the jihadi’s dying act could have been to activate a grenade and lie on it." 

6. Manu Pubby's story for the Economic Times suggested that a lack of a proper command-and-control system in place made the response haphazard. "Constant calls from the centre sent confusing messages and led to a lack of clarity over the status of the operation," his story says, which is why the home minister and the defence minister tweeted about the success of the operation before it was actually over.

7. Harinder Baweja in the Hindustan Times echoes the same concern, raising the main question: Despite advance intelligence, how did India allow terrorists into a base located so close to the border, take three whole days to neutralise the situation and lose 11 people in the process?

8. And Praveen Swami in the Indian Express points out issues with every element of the operation, which will need to be probed once the dust has settled, including the one about the lack of adequate security at the base.

Even though terrorists have successfully attacked several Pakistan Air Force bases in recent years, taking advantage of poor perimeter security, Pathankot had not installed electronic perimeter surveillance systems, further complicating the task of watching out for an intrusion. 

Then of course there are the broader questions of how the government responded in New Delhi, why it did not have clarity in its approach to briefing the media and what this now means for relations with Pakistan. Answering those questions will be hard if we're not able to pin down just what has hit us in Pathankot in the first place.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.