While central and state agencies have launched a sweeping probe into the deadly terror attack at the Pathankot air force station, Punjab police have initiated a headcount of Gujjar Muslims living along a watercourse next to the base in a bid to tighten security at the strategic site.
Though investigators say they do not have any conclusive evidence to suggest members of the community played a “direct supportive” role in the entry of the terrorists into the base, “nothing can be ruled out” said a senior Punjab police officer involved in the probe.
What has led to authorities gathering information about the Gujjar Muslims is that many of them frequently enter the air force station for grazing animals.
Traditionally, members of the nomadic community rear cattle and come down from colder areas in the hills to Punjab’s northern districts and live here in makeshift mud houses near such nallahs.
However, over the years many of these families have settled permanently on occupied lands at Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Pathankot.
Similar houses of Gujjar Muslims can also be seen at the Naushera and Dehriwal villages that lie close to the boundary wall of the airbase.
“These families, almost seventy of them, have been occupying the village common land but no action is taken against them,” said Mohan Singh, a panchayat member from Dehriwal village.
He added that they “routinely” go inside the air force station with their animals for grazing in the grassy areas and are well versed with the layout of the site.
“They are checked at the entry to the base but several of them are allowed inside on a single I-card,” he said.
Following the days-long siege at the airbase during which six terrorists and seven Indian soldiers were killed, defence minister Manohar Parrikar had admitted on Tuesday that there were “gaps” in security.
Mangal Singh Bajwa, a resident of Dhaki area near the station, said authorities at the air force station charge Rs 20 per entry from these Gujjars for collecting fodder for their animals.
While the local population is angry that these pastoralists are illegally occupying large tracts of village land around the airbase, police too seem helpless in getting these people to relocate.
“Following the Dinanagar attack (at a police station last year), we realised that the temporary and also permanent settlements of the Gujjar Muslims are very near army and other defence establishments,” says Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, DIG (border range), Punjab. “In August 2015, I even suggested that the district administrations start the process of evicting these people from near army installations. But I don’t think much was done.”