The terror attack in Gurdaspur was foiled even though it took eleven hours and seven lives were lost. The incident raised two questions of a fundamental nature. Is the Punjab Police prepared to deal effectively with incidents of terrorism? And, is there any danger of terrorism reviving in Punjab?
At the station level, the Punjab Police is as shabby and ill-prepared as in most Indian states. The Dinanagar police station could not offer any resistance and a superintendent of police was killed in the terrorist attack. Subsequently, the Punjab Police commandos were able to neutralise the terrorists, but even these commandos were casually dressed and did not have the protective gear. The police personnel of Punjab are definitely a courageous lot, but there is no substitute for training and equipment. The state police would have to pay greater attention to these aspects, especially in the districts bordering Pakistan.
Regarding the possibility of revival of terrorism in Punjab, it is a fact that the state has generally been quiet during the last two decades. However, Pakistan has been systematically trying to motivate and pressurise the militant groups of Punjab like Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and their collaborators in Europe and Canada to revive militancy in the state.
An important Sikh Khalistan leader, Jagtar Singh Tara, the chief of the KTF and mastermind behind the killing of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, was arrested in Thailand and extradited to India on January 16. During interrogation, he disclosed that while he was based in Pakistan he had sent weapons and explosives including three AK-47 rifles to India. Tara also stated that the Lashkar-e-Toiba was training and assisting Khalistan terrorists in Punjab.
Pakistan is determined to rock the boat in Punjab. It is most unlikely that they would succeed. There is, however, no room for complacency and the security agencies cannot afford to lower their guard.
It is disturbing that the state government of Punjab has been very diffident in dealing with any manifestations of pro-Khalistan activities. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee held a special function to pay tribute to the assassins of Indira Gandhi. The Khalistani elements raised a memorial for Bhindranwale and other terrorists killed during Operation Bluestar within the precincts of the Golden Temple. The state government played it cool on both the occasions. Politics over the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was involved in the assassination of Beant Singh, was also very unfortunate. The Chief Minister flew to Delhi to prevail upon the government of India to suspend the hanging. The state government has also sought the release/transfer of Sikh prisoners lodged in jails outside Punjab. Such populist gestures for short-term political gains are bound to be counterproductive in the long run.
There are three other factors, which could provide fertile ground for the re-emergence of extremism in Punjab. There is pervasive corruption in the state and there are allegations of the ruling political class having amassed huge fortune. Besides, the drug problem in the state has assumed very serious proportions. Allegations are that politicians, administrators and policemen are all involved in drug trafficking syndicates. Pakistan, on its part, is happy to be pushing drugs into the border state. Circulation of counterfeit currency on a large scale is another factor polluting the socio-economic milieu. It is a dangerous cocktail of corruption, drugs and currency.
The government should take the Gurdaspur incidents as a wake-up call. The ISI in Pakistan would definitely try to expand the arc of violence beyond Jammu and Kashmir through its non-state actors. It would do everything in its power to fan the embers of Sikh militancy. The Islamic State threat may not be imminent, but it is there on the horizon. All this calls for a complete review of our security arrangements along the western borders. We should be able to stem the advancing tide of terrorism on the borders only and not allow that to enter the hinterland. The present generation of leaders must not show even traces of the Panipat syndrome.