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Pathankot attack: Commander faces show-cause notice

The Pathankot air base is a frontline fighter base of the Indian Air Force. The terrorist managed to breach the security despite a clear warning from about a possible terror attack being sounded at least 12 hours prior to the attack in January 2016.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2019 07:08 IST
Sudhi Ranjan Sen
Sudhi Ranjan Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Pathankot,Pathankot attack,Indian air force
Security forces during an operation against the militants who attacked the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot.(PTI File Photo)

The commander of the Pathankot airbase when it was attacked by militants in 2016, Air Commodore JS Dhamoon, is likely to be issued a show-cause notice asking him to explain why he shouldn’t face action for the strike that happened on his watch, and his plea for an early retirement has been turned down, two senior officials from the defence ministry said on condition of anonymity.

“The show cause notice prepared by the Indian Air Force is pending approval of the Ministry of Defence,” a third senior defence ministry official said, asking not to be named.

Heavily armed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants sneaked into the air base on the intervening night of January 1 and 2, 2016, killing six soldiers and an officer, and pushing India and Pakistan to the brink of an armed conflict.

The Pathankot air base is a frontline fighter base of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The militants managed to breach the security despite a clear warning about a possible attack sounded at least 12 hours before the terror operation. Counter-terror operations lasted for nearly three days.

Though the National Security Guards (NSG) and a detachment of the Indian Army were moved soon after the alert was issued, a court of inquiry into the incident revealed several lapses. Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was given a special briefing on the findings of the court of inquiry by IAF recently, according to one of the officials cited above.

The inquiry revealed that, among other things, a gathering to celebrate the new year was held despite the terror alert.

“Sequence of events established by the inquiry shows that terrorist had sneaked into the airbase on the 1st, an abandoned police vehicle was located near the airbase; these were not appreciated by those in command,” a second defence ministry official said , explaining the show cause notice.

Air Commodore Dhamoon resigned last year and was scheduled to leave the force in November 2018. He was shifted out of Pathankot days after the attack. The government, however, did not accept his resignation. Instead, it asked IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, to send Dhamoon a show cause notice. Section 17 of the IAF Act, like the Army and Navy, acts, allows chiefs of staff to sack someone if he is “satisfied” that “officer is unfit to be retained due to inefficiency” . The Government, on recommendations of the chief, “may remove or compulsorily retire the officer from service,” the act says.

IAF has already punished two junior officers for laxities in the Pathankot attack.

On at least two occasions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when speaking to top commanders of the three forces, referred to the Pathankot attack and expressed his displeasure over the ease with which the terrorists breached security despite the alert. “Government is of the view that business, as usual, cannot continue,” the second senior defence ministry official said. “Now the government wants visible action against those responsible.”

The government’s move to hold senior officials of IAF responsible for alleged lapses leading up to the attack on the air base also raises questions about the Indian Army.

At least three army bases — Uri Brigade headquarters, Sunjuwan Camp, and 166 Field Regiment in Nagrota — were attacked between 2016 and 2018. Nineteen soldiers were killed in the Uri attack; 11 soldiers and one civilian in the Sunjuwan attack; and 10 soldiers, including two officers, in Nagrota.

The Indian Army removed officers from their respective commands but did not take disciplinary action against them. Army chief General Bipin Rawat has said that the removal from the operational command is in itself a “disgrace” to the officer and amounts to “severe punishment”.

A spokesperson for IAF declined comment. Air Commodore Dhamoon could not be reached for comment despite several attempts to do so. “The Indian Army feels that proceeding against officers for attacks on installations will hamper our counter-terror operations,” said a senior general officer who did not want to be named.

Veteran commanders, who didn’t want to be named, questioned the timing of the notice and pointed to the fact that the defence ministry, too, had failed to strengthen installations despite a report by General Philip Campose that suggested the strengthening of vital installations. “The government cannot now pass on the blame to the forces,” a former Vice-Chief of Army Staff said.

“Normally the decision of Chief of Staff should be final. The officer was moved from command, taking a second administrative (action) against the officer may not be in the best interest of the forces,” Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retd), who commanded the Western Fleet, said.

First Published: Jan 30, 2019 07:08 IST