By Divya Kumar Soti*
As India and Pakistan were deliberating upon the schedule of NSA level talks in pursuance of the Ufa Joint Statement, three Pakistani terrorists carried out carnage in Dinapur, an Indian town in Gurdaspur district near the India-Pakistan border. Terrorists donning army uniforms planted pressure IEDs on the Amritsar-Pathankot railway line before opening random fire on a Jammu bound bus, hijacked a Maruti 800 car to reach Dinanagar Police Station where they opened fire on a nearby hospital killing civilians and thereafter burst into the police station killing policemen on duty. The ensuing encounter in which SWAT team of Punjab Police (with Indian Army units on standby for backup) was able to neutralize all three terrorists lasted for around 11 hours. The terror attack left three civilians and four policemen dead.
All this reads like an account of 26/11 where terrorists after entering Mumbai targeted public transport facilities, hospitals, hijacked cars and planted IEDs before getting holed up in their final target destination. The data obtained from GPS devices recovered from the Gurdaspur attackers has revealed that they started from Pakistan’s Narowal, infiltrated through the International Border in Jammu region and then crossed into Gurdaspur. Dinanagar Police Station was their pre-determined target, according to GPS data. Investigators suspect that the attack was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists.
This attack in Punjab was preceded by information surfacing over the last many months revealing the Inter Service Intelligence’s reinvigorated interest in igniting trouble in Punjab by activating Khalistani modules. However, for one reason or the other these attempts proved to be abortive. On September 18, 2014, Indian security agencies nabbed most wanted Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) militant Ratandeep Singh from the Indo-Nepal border near Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh) when he was trying to enter into India. Ratandeep Singh was living in Pakistan since the early ‘90s and recently formed a separate militant organization, the Bhindrawale Tiger Force under the guidance of ISI to revive militant activities in Punjab with specific task of carrying out targeted political killings. A Pakistani passport was also recovered from Ratandeep Singh. In November 2014, Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) chief Harminder Singh alias Mintoo was arrested in Thailand and was extradited to India. He told Indian interrogators that Punjabi speaking ISI officers organized a training camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border to train UK-based Khalistani militants.
In January this year, Thai authorities nabbed and extradited to India another top Khalistani terrorist Jagtar Singh Tara. Jagtar Singh Tara is head of Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) and was involved in the assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh. Both Jagtar Singh and Harminder Singh revealed ISI sponsored plans to recruit Sikh youngsters based in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries for furthering militancy in Punjab. Jagtar Singh specifically revealed ISI’s plans to smuggle weapons into Punjab using the Narowal route, the same route which was taken by Gurdaspur attackers, through cooperation between Khalistani and Islamist terror groups.
Apart from this, the ISI has regularly tried to push narcotic substances and weapons into Punjab by using cross-border drug pedalling networks. On July 14, 2015, days before the Gurdaspur attack, the Border Security Force (BSF) shot dead a Pakistani intruder during an infiltration bid in Ferozepur sector while his two associates managed to flee back into Pakistani territory. BSF recovered a mobile phone with Pakistani SIM card from the body of the infiltrator. According to BSF IG (Punjab Frontier Range), the BSF has this year seized 57 kg heroin besides guns and cartridges from Pakistani intruders.
However, these infiltration attempts from the Pakistani side are not just limited to J&K and Punjab. On March 2, 2014, BSF personnel shot dead an intruder trying to sneak into India from Pakistan in Raisinghgarh sector in Rajasthan. Similarly, on April 24, 2011, BSF shot dead another Pakistani intruder in Rajasthan in Sri Ganganagar Sector. In March-April 2009, three Pakistani intruders were shot dead by BSF in Sri Ganganagar Sector. BSF said that they suspect these attempts were “dry runs”.
All this data makes clear that ISI has been trying hard to stir up trouble in Punjab as well as has tried to explore new infiltration routes into India through International Border in Punjab and Rajasthan. Pakistan is well aware of that fact that terrorism in Punjab essentially grew out from the muddied politics of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Due to a series of successful political initiatives taken by India since the 1989 general elections, there is no political fault line in Punjab which Pakistan can explore to revive Khalistani militancy on the previous scale. Still the ISI has tried to commission targeted killings of political figures in Punjab, as has been revealed by the above mentioned militants nabbed by Indian security agencies. But the limitations remain as Punjabi society has conclusively rejected the mainstreaming of terrorism.
Technically, using Islamist groups to attack targets in Punjab takes away whatever thin plausible deniability with which Pakistan tries to sell proxy war in J&K to the international community by calling it indigenous separatism, though over the last decade it has largely been taken over by foreign militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). But after the fizzling out of militancy in Punjab in mid ‘90s, Khalistani groups have lost the specialized warfare capabilities and the ISI’s attempts to revive them over the last year or so have proved to be abortive.
Pakistan’s military intelligence establishment is in the habit of sponsoring terror attacks with low plausible deniability quotient to further its larger strategic aims and to send warning signals to stakeholders from Kabul to New Delhi. They have developed it as a tactic and keep employing it from time to time. Over the last few weeks, generals in Rawalpindi have successfully pushed Afghan Taliban’s claim to power share in Kabul while the Taliban militants have gained new strongholds in the north and burst into district headquarters at various places. After flushing out of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) militants from tribal areas, Pakistan’s Punjab, which is a stronghold of LeT largely obedient to GHQ, is likely to emerge as the new centre of jihadism in the natural course of things. With an edge in Afghanistan, almost successful crackdown on Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi and some peace due to culling of TTP, the Pakistani Army may be looking forward to expanding the theatre of proxy war against India.
*Divya Kumar Soti is an independent national security and strategic affairs analyst based in India. He can be contacted at [email protected]