See something suspicious in this sequence? A lone white car is parked in the dark by the state highway, a man standing nearby. When a police patrol car pulls up, the man flees, melting into the dark.
Policemen in Ludhiana did not find that odd enough to search the vehicle and catch the man on September 1 last year. They towed it to a police station. The next morning, they found 3.5 kg RDX and detonators in it.
One kg of of the deadly explosive can blow up an airplane.
Papers in the car revealed that the man who fled – and could have been caught – was Gurpreet Singh of the terror group Babbar Khalsa International. If this wasn’t bad enough, the leads were not shared with other security agencies – apparently to avoid sharing credit over the seizure, an inspector-general rank officer told HT .
That cycle of errors culminated in tragedy. On October 14 last year, an explosion at the Shingar Cinema hall in Ludhiana, killed six people and wounded thirty-eight. It was Eid.
The blast shook up security bosses. In March, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said efforts were being made to revive militancy in Punjab - ripped by rebellion through the 1980s.
But before they fight terror, security organisations in India have themselves to fight with. Worse, investigations often suffer due to the lack of real-time information sharing and databases of suspects and the kinds of explosives used, officials say.
“Had the local police shared the leads with other agencies and followed the movement of other suspects, maybe the Shingar blast tragedy could have been averted,” a top police officer said on condition of anonymity. When turf wars prevent agencies from sharing information, “very good pieces of information go waste with tragic consequences”, he said.
Gurpreet Singh, the alleged conspirator, was arrested two and a half months after the blast, following painstaking policework and connecting the dots – a massive operation that could have saved lives if put together right after the RDX recovery.
“This was one case that was solved from all angles. We managed to arrest all those involved in the blast, including Gurpreet,” said RK Jaiswal, senior superintendent of police in Ludhiana.
According to the police, Singh said in his interrogation that he and others received 20 kilograms of RDX from a Pakistani agent in Bikaner, Rajasthan about two months before the blasts, and kept shifting from place to place. The RDX was then distributed to small groups – concealed in soft drink bottles.
Singh and the other men had earlier unsuccessfully tried to target two religious gurus — Dera Sacha Sauda chief Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and Baba Ashutosh, but failed. On Eid day, Gurpreet Singh and his accomplices allegedly sneaked into the hall at the interval and planted the bomb. Soon after, it exploded.
Vigilance has increased since. Police in Ludhiana recently recovered 60 kilograms of ammonium nitrate – a fertilizer also used to make bombs.
But alongside vigilance, experts say much more is needed to fight terror. “The only answer is to have a national identity card system,” said former Punjab intelligence chief MPS Aulakh. He also suggested a strong anti-terror federal agency.
But the battle is far more difficult in the mind, officials say – Singh had allegedly jumped into terrorism to avenge the death of his father during the insurgency, purportedly at the hands of the police.
“The motivation level is so high that such youth want to carry out the job at any cost,” said Jaiswal. “I think no police in the country can claim to prevent such acts completely.