A sleepy and nondescript border town in Punjab on Monday woke up to gunfight and mayhem, resulting in death of three civilians and four policemen. After a 12-hour-long dawn to dusk battle the three perpetrators were also killed. But the carnage in Dinanagar has left a deadly trail of unanswered questions and an assumption that this might not be the end but an effort towards new beginning — of another deadly chapter of militancy in Punjab.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh told Lok Sabha on Friday that during the last one month, there were five attempts at cross-border infiltration in the Jammu and Kashmir sector, out of which 4 were interdicted and 8 terrorists neutralised. In the remaining one instance, the terrorists went back after effective retaliation by the Indian forces. “The security forces in the border are alert but the difficult terrain coupled with recent heavy rains, resulting in excess flow in the rivers and canals along the border, could have been a factor, in this particular group sneaking into Punjab,” reasoned Rajnath Singh.
The Gurdaspur attack is the first terror attack of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in Punjab. The ISI-backed LeT, which executed the biggest terror attack in the country on November 26, 2008, has managed to enter Punjab and successfully carry out the biggest terror strike the state has witnessed in a decade.
While the Gurdaspur terror siege serves as a chilling reminder of the militancy of the 80s, what is worrying the security establishment is the fact that the successful infiltration on the Punjab border has not only opened a new route for terrorists, more ‘’lethal and dangerous’’ terrorist acts by outfits like the LeT or Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) can be launched using this border route to target not only Punjab but other states in the Indian hinterland.
Unlike the Jammu sector, security agencies say the ‘’Punjab route’’ isn’t used by ordinary militants trying to cross over to India at the behest of Pakistan. “The fidayeen infiltration is more likely on Punjab border than the Jammu IB. It is for the simple reason that the stretch is more difficult because there are no landing pads for the terrorists, unlike the Jammu IB where they sneak in and can go into hiding. The vast water stretch and tall grass on this border and the lack of local support makes it a choice only for fidayeen attackers who are given ‘specific tasks’,” a top security official said.
The preliminary analyses of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices carried by three terrorists indicates that the terrorists had infiltrated from Pakistan through the area near Tash in Gurdaspur district, where the Ravi river enters from Pakistan. “It is also suspected that the same terrorists planted five improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the railway track near Village Talwandi between Dinanagar and Jhakoladi which were subsequently defused by the bomb disposal squad,” said Rajnath Singh.
One night vision device was also recovered from this spot. What has raised hackles in the security establishment is fact that the night vision device was marked as property of the US government, clearly indicating that it may have been left by the US soldiers in Afghanistan from where it may have landed in the hands of terror groups or, who knows , the ISI which may have provided it to the Dinanagar-bound suicide squad.
While it may be easy to pin the blame on the first line of defence, which is the border guarding force- BSF in this case, but the failure can never be seen in black and white. For a state that has witnessed the worst kind of terrorism itself and shares its borders with a state which is still the target of a Pakistan backed proxy war, Punjab can never lower its guard, especially when there have been continuous Intelligence inputs that Pakistan is trying to revive militancy in the border state. “We have information that the ISI’s efforts to recruit locals for militancy in Punjab has not yielded much success. Therefore, the Pak spy agency has now tried to outsource the effort to reignite militancy in Punjab to terror outfits like LeT and JeM,” says a home ministry official.
A view seconded by Pramod Kumar, director of Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh. According to Kumar, Pakistan had always tried to revive militancy in the state through its sleeper cells or through some of the some of Khalisatani leaders based outside India. However, finding no organic support and traction in Punjab, Pakistan’s ISI has changed its strategy and now it is trying start low intensity warfare in Punjab. It has been after much effort that the BSF is able to put up a second line of defence along the IB in J&K.
When asked why similar steps could not be taken on the Punjab border, a top official said ‘’there is no manpower’’. While the creation of more posts, expansion of the force can only be long term plans, the immediate concern of equipping them with latest technology, gadgetry, surveillance equipment has been caught in bureaucratic tangle and financial constraints.
Then there is the collusion of the drug cartels operating in the state with local politicians, criminals, police forces and even the border guarding personnel which makes the border vulnerable to all kinds of anti national elements. Clearly, Punjab will have to get its act together to deal with such efforts, with the Centre putting in more resources for better border guarding. The Union home secretary L.C. Goyal last week chaired a meet in New Delhi where the discussions were centred around the Pakistan’s ISI attempts to revive SIKH militancy in Punjab.
Though the Akali Dal led Punjab government has always been denying the threat of revival of the Punjab militancy, the fresh terror attack comes as a wake-up call to the political leadership to refrain from dallying with issues involving national security.
It may be recalled that only months ago, the Intelligence Bureau had opposed the transfer of convicted Khalistani terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar to a Punjab prison as demanded by the state government. The IB had maintained that Bhullar, whose death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment by the apex court, could become a rallying point for radical Khalistani elements in the state. While the Gurdaspur attack has no signs of an imprint of local Khalistan forces tacit support to the LeT module and ISI, the lessons must be learnt quickly.