By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe
As one of the most lethal insurgencies in post-independence India, the Sikh uprising in the Punjab during the 1980s through to the early 1990s, is one of the key counterinsurgency victories in South Asia, and arguably one of the more important counterinsurgency case studies since the end of World War II. Former Director General of Punjab Police, KPS Gill spoke to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the campaign which he led to defeat the Punjabi secessionist insurgency and the lessons that India’s experience may provide to other countries.
Q: In your opinion what have been, and are, India’s five most bloody and intractable insurgencies since independence from Britain? In comparison where does the Punjabi insurgency rank in contrast to the other insurgencies and why is it an important case study?
KPS Gill: The bloodiest and most intractable insurgencies in India include Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Assam and the Maoist insurrections, and the multiple insurgencies of Manipur. However, Punjab, at its peak, attained a virulence that was unprecedented, bringing in a profile of weapons and explosives that had never been seen before in any Indian insurgency (though these have now become commonplace in all movements). It was also one of the most unsettling terrorist movements the country had experienced, bringing Punjab to the very brink of separation, and threatening peace in a wide arc around the State, with several terrorist attacks striking at the national capital, Delhi, as well.
Q: What were the causal factors of the Sikh separatism and the Punjabi Insurgency? Tell us about the main Punjabi insurgent organisations. How did they operate and what weapons and tactics did they use?
KPS Gill: Sikh separatism was a self-inflicted wound, created by a perverse politics by the Congress party, then ruling at the Centre under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in its effort to mobilize radical fringe groups within the community to unsettle the elected Shiromani Akali Dal Government in Punjab. The Congress party’s mischief fed into a marginal tradition within the lunatic fringe of the Sikh community in general, and the Akali party in particular, which had long invented various ‘grievances’ to mobilize communal votes, particularly within the influential, though restricted, electoral processes for the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the administrative body that controls Sikh shrines and religious institutions in Punjab.
The result was an augmenting process of competitive communalism, with all prominent political parties in the State encouraging Sikh extremism, and progressively empowering the most lawless elements in the community. Eventually, the Frankensteinian monster simply acquired a life of its own, with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the insurrection, acquiring a larger than life image, and fortifying himself within the most sacred Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Panic set in as the puppeteers lost control, and this resulted in the miscalculation and military debacle of Operation Blue Star, followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – the original architect of the mischief in Punjab – and the Sikh riots of 1984, in which Congress party thugs slaughtered an estimated 3,000 Sikhs, even as the Police and Security Forces simply stood by.
The clumsiness of Operation Blue Star (and the subsequent ‘mopping up’ Operation Woodrose) and the anti- Sikh pogrom of 1984 transformed the imagined grievances of the Sikhs into a very real anger and widespread insecurity, even as majoritarian attitudes hardened, provoking increasing polarization. At this stage, Pakistan entered the game, providing safe haven, training, arms and explosives to the Sikhs who crossed the border. Crucially, despite India’s experience in handling long-running insurgencies in the country’s Northeast, and in quelling the Naxalite rebellion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Police and Security Forces in Punjab were initially found entirely unprepared to deal with the threat of the new terrorism in this State, and there was a long period of policy, strategic and tactical incoherence. The state’s failures, and the perceived successes of the terrorists, resulted in a continuous flow of recruits into the terrorist ranks, though, as subsequent studies have documented, their motives were anything but ideological.
In the initial stage, three groupings, the Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale led Damdami Taksal, the All India Sikh Students Federation and the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), dominated the movement. After 1984,BKI continued to be a force, and was joined by a multiplicity of other groups, prominently including the Khalistan Zindabad Force, the Khalistan Commando Force, the International Sikh Youth Federation, the Bhindranwala Tigers Force of Khalistan, the Khalistan Liberation Army and the Khalistan Liberation Front. Towards the late 1980s, dozens of groups, essentially small gangs of extortionists, ranged across Punjab, under the broad direction of three ‘Panthic Committees’, often engaging in fratricidal violence.
In the initial years, the weapons were fairly rudimentary, relying principally on weapons snatched from the Police, as well as those available in the grey market. It was only in May 1987 that the AK-47 was first introduced in the Punjab theatre, with Pakistan increasingly supplying lethal weaponry to the Khalistani groups. The rural insurgency saw this as its principal weapon, though in urban areas, pistols and revolvers, more easily concealed, were widely used in targeted killings. Substantial quantities of RDX were also brought in from Pakistan, and this was one of the most frequently used explosives. At their peak, large gangs of Khalistani terrorists would move around Punjab with virtual impunity, particularly during the night, hitting chosen targets at will.
During periods of ambivalent political mandate, terrorists combined overground protests with their violence to tie down and disable large components of the Security Forces, creating an atmosphere of almost comprehensive breakdown of law and order across Punjab. As State Police and Security Forces’ capabilities and coordination improved, dramatically in periods under my command, this air of impunity evaporated, and their actions become more surreptitious, relying on quick hit and run operations. Over time, as pressure built up, the top leadership of most significant groups fled to Pakistan, leaving the fight in Punjab to mid-level leaders and lower cadres, many of whom chose to chart their own course, leading to the rapid splintering and eventual collapse of the movement.
Q: Describe the evolutionary phases of India’s political and military strategy to neutralise the Punjabi insurgency? At the operational level tell us how the Indian security forces evolved tactics and countermeasures against the Punjabi insurgents?
KPS Gill: The first phase of the Khalistani insurrection was marked by active political mischief by all parties, and complete paralysis of the Police. There was no intelligence gathering, and terrorist crimes were simply recorded as having been executed by ‘unidentified terrorists’, with no subsequent investigations to bring the perpetrators to book. Paralysis was replaced by ill-conceived over-reaction under Operation Blue Star and Operation Woodrose, both poorly planned, executed under irrational, politically imposed time frames, with little or no hard intelligence available to the Army that was abruptly deployed and told to ‘clear the Golden Temple’.
After 1984, a gradual process to develop hard and detailed intelligence on the various terrorist groups and actors was initiated. I was put in charge of Operations and the Punjab Armed Police in September 1984, and initiated the process of developing intelligence-based operational capabilities within the Punjab Police in what was, at that time, the first effort at a systematic fight-back. The process of developing Police capabilities was initiated at this stage, but had limited impact as a result of continuous political ambivalence that continued to create the spaces for terrorism, and to inhibit an unambiguous Police response. This situation continued till, and contributed to, the second build-up in the Golden Temple. Eventually, I was given charge of the Punjab Police as its Director General in April 1988, and was directed to clear the Golden Temple of the terrorist presence shortly thereafter.
This was done under Operation Black Thunder, which was originally called the Gill Plan. Black Thunder was a near bloodless siege operation that not only cleared the Temple, but also exposed the cowardice and misdeeds of the terrorist leadership, who had established torture chambers in its hallowed grounds, and had raped and murdered numberless victims there. Black Thunder was executed under the full glare of the media, and was a tremendous psychological blow to the terrorists, and a boost to the morale of the Police and Paramilitary Forces operating in the State. Crucially, the success of Black Thunder ensured that no Gurudwara (a place of worship for Sikhs) was ever again used as safe house or sanctuary by the terrorists.
After Black Thunder, I initiated the process of empowering the Police to respond effectively to the terrorist threat, a progression that I have dealt with in detail in my writings, particularly Endgame in Punjab – 1988-93. It is not possible to speak of the details of this process here, but its core elements included:
- Creating capacities in each Police station to respond to the terrorist threat on its own. This included the recruitment, training and deployment of a large number of additional Forces, the provision of better arms, equipment and mobility, better housing and protection for Policemen and their families, and the effective fortification of the Police Stations, among others.
- The mobilization of the largest available Force for counter-terrorist operations, and a dramatic reduction of the ratio of unproductive to productive personnel in the Police. By the end of this process, the Punjab Police had raised its operational Force to as much as 85 per cent of the total personnel available, as against 40 to 50 per cent, when the transformation was initiated.
- Segregation of the fighting Force of compromised elements, who had sympathies with the terrorists or their cause. Such personnel were discreetly removed from sensitive duties.
- Structural conflicts between the multiplicity of Security Forces operating in the Punjab were addressed, and a highly successful model of ‘cooperative command’ and the continuous sharing of intelligence and operational responsibilities was established.
- Systematic intelligence gathering at Police Station and village levels, and its rapid dissemination among all response Forces.
- The evolution of coherent strategies and tactics based on specific intelligence relating to the terrorist networks, their modus operandi, their leadership structures and their recruitment patterns.
- The development and adoption of narrowly targeted and appropriate technologies that neutralized the terrorist advantage.
- A leadership model where the senior-most Police commanders, including the Director General of Police, ‘led from the front’.
The combined impact of these initiatives was that, by January 1989, the terrorists had been pushed into a thin strip along the Pakistan border, with over 70 per cent of their strikes restricted to just three of the twelve districts in Punjab – Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Ferozepur. It was my conviction, at this stage, that terrorism could be ended within six months of sustained counter-terrorism operations. Unfortunately, politics intervened once again. Early elections and the establishment of a succession of feckless Prime Ministers – V.P. Singh followed by Chandrashekhar – at Delhi created the political space for increasing terrorist activity, even as growing restrictions were placed on Security Force operations in an effort to appease the terrorist leadership. As part of a ‘deal’ with the terrorists, I was transferred out of Punjab, and appointed as the Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force. By the time this period of political incoherence was brought to an end by the premature General Elections of 1991, killings in the State had escalated to unprecedented levels, and every District in Punjab was afflicted by terrorist activities.
After the Narasimha Rao Government came to power in Delhi, a new determination took hold at the Centre. I was brought back to Punjab as Director General of Police in November 1991, shortly after the Army had been re-inducted in strength in the State. The Forces were given an unambiguous mandate – order had to be restored in the State, and grounds prepared for the elections in mid-February 1992. Adequate Force was deployed in the State, and law and order was fully entrusted to professional agencies, with no back seat driving from Delhi, and no political shenanigans with the terrorist leaders. The Security Forces were given a clearly defined task, and they did not fail the nation.
A unique experiments in multi-force counter-terrorist strategic initiatives and integrated command structures was initiated. The core of CT responses was handled by the Punjab Police backed by the Central Paramilitary Forces, with the Army providing ready back-up and outer cordons to operations. Three core patterns of response marked the CT strategy of this phase. The first was the immediate identification of the perpetrators of the latest terrorist outrage, and the application of the fullest force to secure their arrest or elimination.
The second strategy focused on the most important terrorists. Instead of wasting resources on every petty criminal and opportunist who had joined the terrorist ranks, the available manpower and infrastructure was focused disproportionately on the leaders, the planners and the ideologues of the movement. The third was Operation Night Dominance, under which all senior officers were directed to take personal charge of operations at night. From this point on, these officers would be leading night-ops three or four days in every week – and performing their normal duties during the day. The cumulative impact of these strategies was a dramatic reversal of the conditions of chaos and pervasive terror that had prevailed in 1990-91. By end 1992, the terrorists had been visibly defeated. By mid-1993, it was possible to declare that the war in Punjab was over.
Q: Tell us about Operations Blue Star and Black Thunder and why the outcomes were so different?
KPS Gill: Operations Blue Star and Black Thunder are complete studies in contrast, and the circumstances under which they were executed were substantially responsible for this. In particular, Blue Star was executed in a situation of political panic. The leadership in Delhi imposed completely irrational time frames on the Army, demanding immediate deployment and clearing of the Golden Temple. The Army had no intelligence available and did not even have a credible layout of the premises, or a clear idea of the fortification by the terrorists within, their strength, arms, etc.
Operating under tremendous pressure from Delhi, and initially under extraordinary restraints out of respect for the regard in which the Temple was held, they suffered enormous losses and progressively escalated the use of force in reaction to the resistance they discovered, eventually deploying tanks to storm the inner precincts of the Akal Takth in which Bhindranwale and other top leaders were garrisoned. The damage done to some of the holiest structures within the Complex was tremendous, and this contributed directly to the subsequent revival of the insurgency. The Operation was carried out under a widespread curfew and a comprehensive ban on the Press, with the result that all sorts of rumours were rife, and this escalated tensions further. The terrorists who were killed were projected and mourned as martyrs of the faith; Bhindranwale was rumoured, years later, to have survived; false reports of atrocities were circulated.
Black Thunder, on the other hand, was led by the Punjab Police, supported by Central Paramilitary Forces, including the National Security Guard. By this time, though the Punjab Police was still far from the capacities and capabilities they were eventually to attain, substantial experience had been gained in fighting the terrorists. Lessons had also been learned from the debacle of Blue Star and its aftermath. A substantial body of intelligence on the terrorists and their capabilities had also been amassed.
Crucially, a clear picture of the situation inside the Temple, fairly reliable assessments of the strength and location of the terrorists, as well as their fortification and weaponry, was available. A calm decision was taken to put the terrorists under siege, rather than subject them to a frontal attack, in full confidence that they could not last long without access to food supplies. Their access to water was also limited, as snipers were placed to target anyone trying to retrieve water from the Sarovar, the sacred pool of the Temple. The terrorists’ will quickly wilted; within ten days, some of the most feared terrorists in Punjab were marched out, their hands raised over their heads in surrender. No damage was done to the Golden Temple.
The loss of life was minimal. After the siege was lifted, the reign of depravity, torture, sex slavery and murder that the terrorists had established in the hallowed precincts of the Temple was visible for all to see. The entire operation had been carried out under the full glare of the Indian and international media. The aura of glory, sacrifice and the larger than life images of the top terrorist leadership was destroyed, and many rejected the message of extremism.
Q: Given the obvious ethno-religious dimension of the Punjabi insurgency, what impact did it have on the cohesion of the Indian security forces, especially where Punjabi servicemen were concerned? How was this issue managed?
KPS Gill: In the early phases of the incoherence of state responses, a section of the Security Forces, particularly the Punjab Police, were certainly compromised. Worse, after Operation Blue Star, several hundred Sikh soldiers deserted from the Indian Army and tried to march to Punjab.
The attitudes of the Police and military leadership were at least in part responsible for these trends. A communal polarization was evident across society, and all Sikhs, including security personnel, came to be looked upon with suspicion, creating anger and frustration across the community. The reality, however, that the compromised elements within the Security Forces were a tiny minority, and their commitment to the terrorist cause was not particularly deep, though their loyalties to the state were certainly questionable. Most of them were easily dealt with by marginalizing them within the Forces, giving them responsibilities that were unrelated to counter-terrorism, and where their sentiments were not agitated by the need to confront the terrorists directly.
Eventually, it was the overwhelmingly Sikh Punjab Police (65% of all personnel were Sikh) who led the counter-terrorism response in Punjab, and eventually prevailed. Despite the early hiccups, moreover, there was no permanent impact on the cohesion of Indian Security Forces, including the Army. The broadly inclusive and secular culture that is deeply ingrained in the country’s Security Forces eventually prevailed.
Q: Why was the insurgency ultimately defeated and have the causal factors been addressed? What lessons can be drawn from India’s experience in defeating the Punjabi insurgency? Are there any transferable lessons for other countries engaged in intractable counterinsurgency campaigns?
KPS Gill: The insurgency was defeated principally by the judicious, narrowly targeted and effective use of force, under a clear political mandate. As the Security Forces recovered ground, political activity quickly reasserted itself, elections at various level, down to the village self-government institutions (Panchayats), were held, and representative government was restored. As far as the alleged ‘root causes’ and the various ‘grievances’ articulated by the terrorists were concerned, these were always a sham. None of the terrorist demands had been conceded when the insurgency ended. Punjab had long been one of India’s most prosperous states, and so remained even after thirteen years of insurgency.
None of the so-called ‘problems’ that were said to have ‘caused’ the insurgency – prominently including the sharing of river waters, the status of Chandigarh, and the federal demands of the Anandpur Sahib resolutions – had been ‘resolved’ when the insurgency was brought to an end (and these are yet to be addressed). A group of scholars from the Guru Nanak Dev University, in their book, Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality, rightly noted, “Little change was noticed in the objective conditions, and none of the adduced reasons or causes of the rise (of terrorism) appear to have been removed… Once the movement collapsed, one was left wondering how could it disappear so suddenly and without leaving a trace of cultural sympathy for the ‘fighters’.” The counter-terrorism experience in Punjab is irrefutable proof of the utter deception of the ‘root causes’ thesis of terrorism and the responses it proposes.
Every insurgency and every theatre are, of course, distinct. Nevertheless, there are numerous lessons that can be derived from the Punjab experience, and that can be applied in widely dispersed theatres of insurgency and terrorism. The most significant among these were:
- In the absence of a clear mandate from the political leadership, counter-terrorism initiatives have little possibilities of success.
- The most difficult phases of counter-terrorist campaigns are periods where terrorist violence combines with ‘overground’ political movements and mass mobilisation. Nevertheless, overground movements have usually been, and should be, handled within the “minimum use of force” doctrine.
- Systems of efficient and cooperative command are essential for the success of any multi-force counterterrorism campaign.
- Within a multi-Force campaign, the role and responsibilities of the civil police are pivotal, and cannot be substituted by military or paramilitary interventions.
- Negotiations with terrorist groups are counter-productive, and while ‘political solutions’ can be pursued with non-violent political actors, including proxy players for the extremist groups, these must never include efforts to appease or conciliate the terrorists themselves.
- Visible and static saturation by Forces is not an efficient counterterrorism strategy. Mobility, communications and swiftness of reaction are critical for impact.
- In situations of high volume and intensity of terrorist actions, enforcement agencies must selectively focus on targets that have a high “demonstration value,” such as the perpetrators of particularly barbaric incidents or the top terrorist leadership, rather than dissipating resources on the pursuit of every offender.
- A well-constructed information and media strategy are critical in counter-terrorism operations. Repression of the media and information controls do not work.
- Each counter-terrorism intervention must project and anticipate its impact on patterns of terrorism, and must include containment strategies for unwanted consequences, such as a geographical shift or spread, the introduction of new terrorist technologies, or the intervention of external (state or non-state) actors.
- Where terrorism is exploited by legitimate political actors or by states as an instrument of policy, it is seldom contained within intended parameters, and evolves a logic and dynamic entirely of its own, ordinarily decimating the very forces that sponsor its initial ascent.
- Where terrorism is sponsored by hostile states, its trajectory is linked directly to the internal and external capacities of such states. Such capacities must be the direct targets of counter-terrorism strategies. Diplomatic initiatives, information campaigns, non-military competitive strategies, and sub-conventional options need to be explored in order to systematically erode and undermine the capacities of such states to sustain their support to terrorism under the blanket of ‘credible deniability’.
Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defence writer and a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.