Lieutenant Colonel EK Niranjan, the NSG commando who was killed during the Pathankot terror attack while trying to retrieve a grenade from the body of a dead terrorist, reminds Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Darshan Singh Dhillon of the 2002 Kaluchak Cantonment attack.
“My role, this time, was played by Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan, but he was not as lucky as me,” Dhillon, who was with the 4 Engineer Regiment for 22 years, told HT in an exclusive interview from Ludhiana.
Dhillon, who headed the Northern Command bomb disposal (BD) unit responsible for disposing IEDs in Jammu and Kashmir from 2001-04 — had led the mopping up procedure after the Kaluchak shootout.
On May 14, 2002, three suicide bombers had hijacked a bus at Vijaypur in Samba district. When the bus neared Kaluchak, they opened fire on passengers, the driver and the conductor, before storming into the army family quarters at the Kaluchak Cantonment, about 10km from Jammu city, leaving around 30 people dead. The casualties included soldiers, spouses and children of army personnel.
“When I reached the spot, one militant was still alive. The militants were carrying explosives, besides arms. My task was to clear the area of any explosives after the encounter,” Dhillon, who has defused more than 2,000 explosives in his nine years of service in the BD unit, said.
“It was a horrible experience as the site was strewn with bodies of children, women and elderly parents of soldiers. The militants didn’t even spare the tiny tots playing on the swings at a park,” he added.
According to the army veteran, there was a quick response from the soldiers, despite the fact that they had no prior intelligence about the attack. “The only difference in Pathankot was that air force officials there had been alerted about the possible terror attack, which though could not be utilised due to confusion in command,” he said.
Dhillon said an element of hurry might have cost Niranjan his life.
“There was a hurry to close the (Pathankot) operation to show it to the press as home minister (Rajnath Singh) had already declared the operation as over,” the retired officer said, adding that BD procedures are very tricky as bodies are often booby trapped, which if not removed carefully can take the BD person’s life.
‘Army given a peripheral role’
Dhillon accused national security adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, for “inept handling” of information that “transformed what should have been a short, intelligence-driven, counter-terrorist operation into something that seemed like a debacle”.
The NSA, he said, left the Pathankot airbase in the hands of Defence Security Corps (DSC) jawans, a handful of air force Garud commandos and the National Security Guard contingent, despite knowing that armed terrorists were prowling the vicinity.
“The NSG is not a first responder, and is neither trained nor equipped to protect sprawling air bases; it is meant for pinpoint operations such as hostage rescue or flushing out terrorists holed up in a house… The army, which flushes militants out of large forests every day in J-K, was given a peripheral role,” he said.
“It was only when things started going wrong the army was asked for more troops… The mopping up operation could have been done better by the army as they are far better equipped and trained than NSG BD units,” Dhillon added.