Air Commodore JS Dhamoon, who was the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Pathankot airbase commanding officer when four terrorists attacked it on 1 January 2016, resigned from the air force just before the much-delayed Court of Inquiry (CoI) formally got underway in March 2017.
This assumes significance in the backdrop of reports in a section of the press that Dhamoon resigned after the CoI indicted him for security lapses at the airbase that led to the attack in which seven security personnel, including a National Security Guard (NSG) lieutenant colonel, were killed in the gun battle that lasted nearly 20 hours.
While Dhamoon put in his papers in February 2017, before the CoI assembled for the first time, his resignation will be with effect from 31 August, which will be his last day in the IAF. Sources claim that Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa urged Dhamoon to defend himself at the CoI even after he put in his papers.
Top ranking IAF sources disclosed to The Quint that Dhamoon, who was removed as the Pathankot base’s Air Officer Commanding (AOC) and moved to the Air Headquarters in Delhi in February 2016, was selected to undergo an intensive course at the Advanced Staff College in Bangladesh in December the same year.
But this move was scuttled after a senior Western Air Command officer took the plea that Dhamoon would be exposed to personal danger since he would be based in an Islamic country.
Amidst disquiet among senior IAF officers familiar with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe into the terror attack and the COI’s proceedings, questions are being raised about why the then Western Air Command Chief Air Marshal Shirish Deo has not faced any action so far, although it has come to light that he was at the airbase on 1 January.
For inexplicable reasons, Deo has not come under a cloud while the NIA’s investigation report has contradicted him over the issue of the number of terrorists who attacked the airbase.
NIA sources claim that, a week before Dhamoon was to leave for the Bangladesh assignment (around 10 or 15 January 2017), Deo is said to have called and instructed him to say before the CoI that there were six terrorists and not four (as the NIA had stated).
When Dhamoon, according to the NIA, refused to acquiesce to this instruction, the decision to send him to Bangladesh was cancelled within hours of Deo’s telephone call to him.
Deo was promoted as vice chief around the time that the decision to send Dhamoon to Bangladesh was revoked. But once the CoI board, presided by Air Vice Marshal Amit Dev was formed in January 2017, Deo, acting against established rules, maintained frequent contact, including telephone conversations, with the former.
Official audio taped conversations among IAF officers the day the operation to eliminate the terrorists began, suggest that Dhamoon tried to follow “command and control” procedures within the constraints he faced at the airbase.
He is heard instructing the company-strong NSG commandos who had flown in around 10 pm on 1 January to move 280 metres to take on the terrorists. Inquiries by The Quint have thrown up startling details that the NIA is yet to make public.
Four terrorists entered the airbase under the cover of darkness late on the night of 31 December 2015, allegedly guided – under duress – by the then Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh.
It was only around noon on 1 January 2016 that the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) intercepted a call from one of the terrorists speaking to his handler in Pakistan. Once National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval was informed about this, he called up the three services’ chiefs. The Pathankot airbase, where a bada khana was organised the night before, was ordered to activate at 3:30 pm.
Hamstrung by the presence of only three poorly armed IAF Garud commandos, Dhamoon requisitioned the services of more security personnel. Deo reached the airbase around 5:30 pm with 27 additional Garud commandos brought in from other airbases, including Adampur near Jalandhar.
Meanwhile, the security establishment in Delhi despatched four companies of NSG commandos who reached Pathankot around 10 pm.
While three companies moved to secure the army base nearby, only one company was left for the airbase. At 10:30 pm, Dhamoon briefed the NSG commandos. Four hours later (effectively 2 January 2016), the terrorists were spotted in a corner of the airbase by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
But when Dhamoon told the NSG commandos to move ahead to box in the terrorists, the special force men refused, saying that they would only advance forward once the operation to eliminate the armed intruders began.
This delay enabled the terrorists to run through the gap, burn vehicles and reach the DSC mess. Two DSC men were gunned down when, in violation of orders, they switched on the light. Two mess cooks were also killed by the terrorists.
It has also come to light that NSG Lt Col Niranjan EK died when Deo allegedly insisted that the former collect a GPS set from one of the dead terrorists. Niranjan at first was hesitant to pull out the GPS, but when Deo took it upon himself to do it, the NSG officer relented.
When Niranjan started looking for the GPS, it set off a grenade concealed in the clothes of the slain terrorist. Other sources, however, said that Niranjan died because of a grenade explosion which was set off when he tried to take a photograph of the dead terrorist with his mobile phone. He was instructed to take the photo by a Delhi-based senior officer.
More alarmingly, in order to justify its information that there were six terrorists, the NSG used heavy firepower to destroy an IAF billet where, it claimed, two of the terrorists had dug themselves in.
This added extra time to the wrap-up of the operation. Dhamoon, IAF sources said, was blamed for not informing the Western Air Command (WAC) headquarters in Delhi about the 31 December-1 January incident involving Salwinder Singh.
However, testifying before the CoI, Dhamoon said that he first heard about the terrorists and the “story” put out by Singh from the same TV news that was also the WAC’s source of information.