Pathankot, Jan. 3: One question has been rearing its head through the sound of explosions in Pathankot: what exactly was the role played by Salwinder Singh?
Salwinder was the superintendent of police in Gurdaspur (headquarters) till recently. Now he is on course to take over as the assistant commander of the 75th Battalion of the Punjab Armed Police.
It was on Salwinder's blue-beaconed car that the attackers are suspected to have reached somewhere near the Pathankot air force base.
The Punjab police are portraying Salwinder as a hero who managed to hoodwink the terrorists, slipped out of their hands and alerted the security establishment, which helped save the "high-value assets" in the air base.
But some residents, who did not want to be named for fear of the police, are asking the obvious questions such as why the terrorists had chosen to free him and risk being caught. They also wondered why he had travelled with a friend but not his gunman on New Year's Eve night.
Salwinder could not be contacted but police sources said he had been let off because the terrorists did not realise he was a police officer as he was in plainclothes. But it is still not clear why even a civilian would be released by a terrorist squad on its way to attack a high-security installation.
The police sources explained the absence of the gunman by saying that Salwinder was returning from a shrine and it was normal practice for state policemen to pay obeisance at places of worship after a transfer or a promotion.
The sequence of events after Salwinder was allegedly pushed out of the car, either late on Thursday night or in the small hours of Friday, is still sketchy. Most accounts put the time around 2am on Friday.
The attack on the air base did not begin for another 24 hours. If Salwinder had promptly alerted the chain of command, it is not clear why the terrorists were not intercepted before they entered the premises.
Salwinder's mobile phone was snatched by the terrorists who apparently used it to converse with their alleged cross-border handlers, while also taking a call from the officer's gunman who was worrying about his boss amid reports that he had been abducted.
Sources said Salwinder contacted a villager who helped him get in touch with Gurdaspur senior superintendent of police G.S. Toor. Toor contacted his Pathankot counterpart, R.K. Bakshi, who sounded a red alert in the district and informed the Pathankot air base and intelligence agencies. Pathankot is high on the security list because of the presence of several key installations.
"The moment we received information from Salwinder, we swung into action. We informed every security agency about the incident," a senior police officer claimed.
Some police sources - no one was willing to be quoted on the sensitive security matter - said Salwinder was initially not taken seriously by his seniors. (A PTI report said Salwinder was "shunted out" to his new posting. Neither the reason for it, nor whether it was a factor in his account being allegedly taken lightly initially, is clear.)
But Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal challenged such claims. "The information we had after Salwinder's abduction was taken seriously. That is why NSG commandos were inside the airbase before the terrorists struck," Badal said.
However, Madan Gopal, Salwinder's cook who was in the officer's car while it was being commandeered by the militants, told journalists in Gurdaspur that he had been beaten by Punjab police even after telling them of the events of the night before the attack on the Pathankot airbase.
According to information gleaned from journalists in Gurdaspur, Gopal (some reporters identified him as Mohan Lal) said he was returning with Salwinder and the officer's friend, Rajesh Verma, from a shrine.
It was close to midnight when five men in disruptive-pattern uniforms and carrying rifles stopped the vehicle near a village named Kuliyan. The men were standing by another car that seemed to have crashed. It later transpired that the driver of that car had been knifed to death.
Gopal said Salwinder's car was being driven by Verma, a jeweller.
Speaking in Punjabi, Gopal told reporters that the men pulled them down and bound and gagged them. Then they were pushed back into the car and forced to kneel while three of the militants sat on Singh, Verma and the cook.
Gopal said he could not understand the language the attackers were speaking.
Gopal and Salwinder were dumped in a forested area around 2 in the morning on Friday. The attackers took Verma away in the car. Salwinder managed to untie himself and told Gopal that they should get out of the forest. He untied Gopal.
After a walk of nearly two hours, they reached a village from where Salwinder called his superior and told him that the attackers could be militants.
Gopal himself had served with the Punjab police and had been re-employed after retirement last year. He rued that his long years of service should fetch him such torture, such as the beating by the police.
Sources in Delhi said a preliminary probe suggested that the attackers may have stationed themselves within the complex since January 1 afternoon. The attack began between 3 and 3.30am on January 2.
The cell tower for most of the calls made by the terrorists from the mobile phone was the same, the sources said. This has led the investigators to suspect that the attackers were hiding in the wooded area of the base, which is spread over 1,800 to 2,000 acres.
The attackers apparently used a route frequented by drug smugglers - a revelation that can gift fresh ammunition to the Opposition against the Akali Dal-BJP government in Punjab.
The Opposition Congress has been repeatedly claiming that the drug mafia has flourished under the current dispensation.
The attackers are suspected to have infiltrated through Bamiyal village, located close to the international border. A tributary of the river Beas enters Pakistan from this village and the route, thick with elephant grass, is kept serviceable by the drug smugglers.