Last Monday’s terror attack could indicate a marked escalation in Pakistan’s efforts to foment trouble in India. Preliminary reports suggest that the attack had been carried out by the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba with support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. If correct, then this is the first time in many years that Pakistan-sponsored terrorists are again trying to gain a foothold outside their traditional trouble-spots in Kashmir.

Terrorists shifting targets

There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when Punjab was under the shadow of the Pakistan-sponsored terror umbrella; the Khalistani separatist movement, for example, received active support from the ISI. However, since the Indian Government crushed the Khalistanis, Punjab has remained peaceful. In Jammu & Kashmir too, militancy has lost its allure and the State is slowly but steadily moving towards normalcy. Pakistan is therefore, according to the Pioneer, shifting the action theatre deeper into Punjab. Not only is the border here more porous than in Kashmir, the State still harbours remnants from past militancy movements. These are not enough to ignite a full-blown insurgency (at least not yet), but add existing socio-political problems like drug running to the mix, and there is just enough material to create trouble.

The terrorist attack in Gurdaspur district therefore, might have been the first such serious incident in Punjab in the last two decades, but it is of a piece with the recent violence from across the border in the Jammu region. After security was stepped up in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir, the militants operating from across the border appear to have been forced to take other routes close to Jammu to carry out assaults. Although Pakistan-based militants would like to keep the focus on Jammu and Kashmir, any attack close to the Jammu region would serve their purpose. If the Gurdaspur attack signifies anything, it is that militants are ready to shift their targets, and make a mockery of India’s efforts to secure the border districts.

Sikh separatism: is it really dead?

The immediate challenge for Punjab and the central government is to counter the impression that the attack had something to do with the demand for Khalistan. That the militants were suicide attackers who were intent on fighting till the very end, unlike the Khalistani militants in the 1980s who predominantly adopted hit-and-run tactics, allowed him to assert that the attack was not an indication of any revival of terrorism in the State. Also, the attackers were reported to have shouted Islamist slogans. However, irrespective of these facts, intelligence agencies have been warning of a rise in pro-Khalistan activity. Last month, the Research and Analysis Wing had sent a report to the Union Home Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office on the “Khalistan liberation movement” finding support in Pakistan, as also in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France and the Maldives.

The terror strike has thus thrown up challenges for the security and intelligence agencies. It has brought back focus on Kahlistan. Posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (the pro-Khalistan militant leader) were removed by police in Jammu city last month on the anniversary Operation Blue Star when the Indian Army evicted heavily-armed militants from Amritsar’s Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. One person died in violent clashes. The situation worsened so much that curfew had to be imposed in as many Sikhs took strong exception to such an act by the police. Tempers were cooled only when the police officer who removed the controversial posters was suspended and the entire police set-up in Jammu district was overhauled.

The immediate Sikh agitation was calmed, but it remained bruised as opinion and religious leaders of the community took exception to the police action. “He was a religious saint whose sainthood was declared by the Akal Takht (the highest temporal body for Sikhs). No matter what others say about him, he is a hero of Sikh community”, these words of a Sikh religious leaders in Kashmir may not grant universal acceptance to Bhindranwale’s sainthood, but the respect for a Sikh militant leader threw a dark shadow on the wisdom of people who spoke of violence in Punjab in the past tense. The backlash among the younger generation of the Sikh community was palpable as they came out wearing shirts that bore his images.

State government ill prepared

Harsha Kakar, retired Major-General of the Indian Army says a strike from across the border was expected to sabotage the meeting between the two Prime Ministers at Ufa. The location was surprising. “The reasons for choosing Punjab could be numerous. It could be expanding the area of operations of the terrorist networks, create fear in the local population of the revival of the old militancy or even due to an easy entry, because of the riverine terrain and possible laxity in the security network.

“The aim of the operation would have been clearly laid down. Possibly it would have been to create a limited amount of terror, limited casualties, keeping the event under the threshold level of tolerance for the country, and yet derail the talks and efforts at peace. Finally it would be to retain the status quo….
“One stark reality came through. Since no terrorist strike had taken place in Punjab in almost a decade, there was laxity and complete lack of preparedness on the part of the security forces. They were also ill-equipped to deal with such a strike. They did not even possess bullet-proof jackets. This should now be a wake-up call not only for the government of Punjab but those of all states to prepare and equip their police forces to face such incidents in the future as in all such cases, they would be the first in the line of fire”.

Lessons from Gurdaspur

At the ground level the Gurdaspur attack has raised issues that need to be addressed. K P S former DGP, Punjab, president, Institute for Conflict Management, and publisher, ‘South Asia Intelligence Review’ says “the most significant of these is the degree of visible unpreparedness in a sensitive border district like Gurdaspur, in a state that has itself experienced over 13 years of the most virulent terrorism, and that adjoins another state that is still the target of a 26-year-old Pakistan-backed proxy war. Even the Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) team was not wearing rudimentary protection at Dinanagar. Unless a crisis is immediately at hand, institutions are simply pushed into degeneration and decay, robbed of resources, deeply politicised, or just allowed to deteriorate through sheer neglect….

“What is not realised is that you don’t prepare for terrorism after it has happened. You must be prepared at all times. And you don’t just learn from your own experience. States across India have been attacked by Islamist terrorists. Yet, each state is caught by surprise and pleads that the “Centre had not provided intelligence” or “resources”. As if state governments have no responsibility….

“The entire Punjab border with Pakistan was fenced during the terrorism years. Heavy patrolling and constant vigilance reduced direct infiltration to an easily manageable trickle. But today, while the fence still stands, there is increasing laxity in surveillance and oversight. Deep political patronage has sought to facilitate drug trafficking and smuggling of other contraband, and this has resulted in the regular movement of materials and men across this sensitive frontier, substantially with the collusion of some police and paramilitary personnel”.