About 10 gunmen disguised as policemen tricked their way into Punjab’s high-security Nabha prison, stabbed a guard at the gate, fired automatics, and escaped with a Khalistani militant group commander, his sidekick and four gangsters in a daring jailbreak on Sunday.
The stunned jail guards offered no resistance and couldn’t allegedly fire a single shot to stop the self-styled chief of the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), Harminder Singh Mintoo, his aide Kashmir Singh Galwadi and another four prisoners from escaping.
Besides the militants, the fugitives include gangsters Harjinder Singh alias Vicky Gondar, Gurpreet Singh Sekhon, Kulpreet Singh alias Neeta, and Amandeep Singh alias Bura.
Their rescuers fired more than 200 rounds before escaping in getaway cars — a sedan, a hatchback and an SUV. The entire operation lasted not more than 10 minutes, indicating the attackers were familiar with the jail’s layout and routine.
Uttar Pradesh police arrested one of attackers, Palwinder Singh alias Pinda, at Kairana in Shamli district later in the evening. A self-loading rifle, two rifles, bullets and cash were found on him.
When constables flagged down a Haryana-registered white SUV, he jumped from the vehicle and tried to escape. The constables chased and caught him in a congested market alley.
“He has confessed to the crime. Mintoo was with Palvinder in the car but he got down at Panipat. Police have recovered two more vehicles used in the Punjab jail attack, a sedan and a hatchback,” additional director general of police Daljeet Singh Chowdhary said.
Pinda was arrested for killing an assistant sub-inspector in Jalandhar in 2013. But he escaped this March with the help of aides when he was undergoing treatment at a Patiala government hospital.
The 49-year-old Mintoo was arrested in November 2014 at the New Delhi airport after he was deported from Thailand. He was wanted in at least 10 terrorism-related offences, including the 2008 attack on Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and recovery of explosives at Halwara air force station in 2010.
Galwadi, 30, was arrested for shooting at a Shiv Sena leader in Gurdaspur last April.
The 28-year-old Gurpreet alias Gopi is on trial for murder, kidnap, extortion and highway robberies. A trained flight attendant, he comes from an affluent family that owns brick kilns.
A reward of Rs 25 lakh was offered for information on the fugitives and a high alert sounded in Punjab, Haryana, UP and New Delhi with security around railway stations, airports, bus terminuses and other public places stepped up.
Deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal suspended the state’s additional director general of police (jails) MK Tewari and dismissed the jail’s superintendent and deputy superintendent. The railways ADGP, Rohit Chaudhary, has been given the charge of prisons.
Badal, whose Shiromani Akali Dal is facing tough elections next year, sniffed a Pakistani hand in the incident, saying the neighbouring country was “desperate to revive terrorism” in the state after Indian forces destroyed militant hideouts in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in surprise raids across the border.
“Pak desperate to revive terror post surgical strike. Could be behind jailbreak,” Badal, who also spoke to national security advisor Ajit Doval after the incident, tweeted.
His father and chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, ordered a probe and formed a special investigation team. Union home minister Rajnath Singh sought a report.
The Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) found a handle to reaffirm their campaign point that Punjab’s law and order have plummeted under the Akali-BJP alliance government.
State Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh said: “The manner in which gangsters walked into the high-security jail … shows complicity of the highest level.”
Punjab was in the grip of insurgency for almost three decades since the 1970s after several Sikh groups launched an armed campaign for an independent country, named Khalistan.
AAP’s Punjab in-charge, Sanjay Singh, demanded deputy chief minister Badal’s resignation.
“By claiming that the jailbreak was the handiwork of Pakistan, Sukhbir has again exposed his irresponsible behaviour.”
The meticulous and swift assault shook the establishment as it follows a similar but controversial jailbreak in Bhopal on October 31, in which eight suspected Islamic radicals were killed a few hours after they escaped from prison. The two incidents put to question the security set-up in jails.
KLF chief Mintoo, police said, had spent time in Pakistan. The neighbouring country’s all-powerful spy agency, the ISI, has helped Khalistani outfits with money, arms and training.
The KLF remained among the most dreaded of the Sikh organisations fighting for a separate homeland of Khalistan till 1993 when several of its frontline militants were killed in a ruthless anti-terrorist campaign led by Punjab Police chief KPS Gill.
(With inputs from S Raju in Meerut and agencies)