For some time now, however, Pak ISI has understandably, reverted to the familiar strategy of reviving terror activity in Punjab on the issue of Khalistan to make up for the loss of ground in Kashmir, writes D.C. Pathak
It is not surprising at all that militancy in the name of Khalistan is being revived in the border state of Punjab, by some groups based abroad and working under the operational guidance of Pakistan’s ISI.
India’s Intelligence set-up is fully aware that in the ’80s and ’90s, terrorism was pushed to a peak in the state largely because of this external input – till a determined Intelligence-based counter-terror drive by the Central and the state police forces gradually got over the threat.
Operation Black-Thunder, which was meticulously planned and executed under the close oversight of the Centre – the head ‘f IB’s regional set-up at Chandigarh having been designated as the C’ntre’s design’ted ‘Mo’itor’ of the operation, was based on two fundamental conditionalities to the effect that the seize of the Golden Temple where the top Khalistan militants had taken shelter, would not permit any armed person to enter the premises and would not allow any bullet to be fired towards the latter.
The surrender of the terrorists after many days that the operation lasted gave a blow to the armed Khalistan movement, but significantly Pak ISI in the meanwhile opened a second front in the other border state of Jammu & Kashmir by giving a call for Jehad to intensify cross-border terrorism there.
At the beginning of the ’90s, when the terror in Punjab was fading out, Pakistan planned to replicate the success of Afghan Jehad in Kashmir and despatched the first group of Taliban Mujahideen to the valley under the dreaded Harkat-ul-Ansar.
Pak ISI even asked its loyalist Hizbul Mujahideen of the Jamaat-e-Islami to help out the new group with logistic support thus revealing the frontal role of the former in upscaling terrorism in Kashmir to make up for its loss of ground in Punjab.
Indian Intelligence agencies were aware of this K2 plan of the adversary. While normalcy returned to Punjab, the terrorist violence in Kashmir touched a new high.
With the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the scene, India’s stand against a hostile Pakistan toughened with his government declaring that there would be no talks with Pakistan unless the latter will stop the cross-border terrorism against India – this seemed to be in contrast with the tepid response of the UPA government even to 26/11.
Modi government demonstrated its political will in ordering a surgical strike at Balakot in the interior of Pakistan in February 2019 to punish those who were behind the terror attack on a CRPF convoy, carried out at Pulwama earlier.
Cross-border terrorism in Kashmir was countered more effectively after the Indian Parliament removed Articles 370 and 35A from the Constitution and declared J&K and Ladakh as Union Territories to bring them under direct Central rule in August 2019. This enabled the Centre also to take direct responsibility for the development in the state that had been marred by the highly corrupt regimes of Kashmiri leaders who used to heavily bank on the separatist Hurriyat Conference in elections.
In the new situation, Pak ISI – finding it difficult to infiltrate militants – took to the tactics of recruiting youth for organised stone pelting on the security forces to destabilise the state and stepping up covert use of social media to intensify radica’isation for’raising ‘lone wolves’ to carry out terror acts in Kashmir mostly on local policemen and Kashmiri Pandits.
The Sino-Pak axis also became active against India as was evident from the use of Chinese drones by Pakistan for dropping arms and ammunition in the valley to keep up terrorism. These two hostile neighbours also intensified the anti-Indi’ campaign ‘gainst the ‘annexation’ of Kashmir by India.
Gradually but steadily India has succeeded in bringing down the level of violence in Kashmir and implementing the development agenda of the state.
For some time now, however, Pak ISI has understandably, reverted to the familiar strategy of reviving terror activity in Punjab on the issue of Khalistan to make up for the loss ‘f ground in Kashmir. India’s Intelligence agencies kept close track of this known move of the adversary and advised the Punjab police to step up vigilance.
It is in this context that the anti-India lobbies abroad led by Pakistan, instigated stray Khalistani elements in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and other places first to step up Sikhs for Justice movement and revive the Bhindranwale cult and then got Amritpal Singh a self-styled Khalistan protagonist based in Dubai, to launch a militant movement to demand a separate homeland for Sikhs.
Amritpal Singh landed in Punjab last year to take over the leadership of ‘Waris Punjab De’ – an organisation floated in 2021 by some ele’ents connected with the farmer’s movement – and at a ceremony held at Rode in Moga district, the native village of Jarnail ‘ingh Bhindranw’le, started an ‘Amrit Parchaar’ campaign.
Working to a script, he began this campaign from Anandpur Saheb and soon attracted headlines when with a large number of armed supporters he stormed Ajnala Police Station near Amritsar carrying Guru Granth Saheb as a shield, in February this year, to force the release of an associate who had been detained earlier for involvement in a case of violence.
The Punjab police have now woken up to the threat of revival of Khalistan terror – the AAP government might have been caught in two minds earlier, about the possible political fall-out of any strong action against the activities of Amritpal Singh – and has started cancelling arms licenses of his followe’s.
Significantly, Amritpal Singh’s social media handler was recently arrested at Amritsar International airport as he landed from London- this comes as a confirmation of the external links that are primarily guiding the Khalistan movement.
The modus operandi of Pak ISI is evident again in the planning of initial steps that are meant to gradually create the environment for militancy in Punjab. Drones have been used to drop arms and drugs in the border districts to exploit the vulnerability of Sikh youth and stray incidents of terror are beginning to occur in which enemy agents were using grenades and IEDs to target Police and foment public scare.
The state authorities should in particular be vigilant against any activity designed to create Hindu-Sikh schism – in the days of Khalistan terrorism in Punjab in the ’80s, targeting of Hindu passengers in buses and terror attacks on Hindu leaders had become particularly pronounced.
Amritpal Singh ha’ talked of i’justice to the state under a ‘Hindu regime’. State Intelligence must spread to the ground for detecting mischief makers in time for deterrent action. A new challenge is the scanning of social media and covert online communications used by the adversary for recruiting agents of terror.
Border districts of Punjab need closer attention and it is to be borne in mind that the facility of the Kartarpur corridor could be misused by Pak ISI for increasing its outreach.
It should be remembered that the end to terrorism in Punjab came last time when Hindus and Sikhs showed unity against the forces that had shattered the communal harmony for serving the narrow agenda of Khalistan.
Security of the border state must be kept above domestic politics. Guru Nanak is revered by both Hindus and Sikhs and Sikhism is known to have safeguarded the larger Indian society.
Amritpal Singh has incidentally talked of freeing Punjab of drugs to protect the youth there – he is using that to give a positive spin to his subversive movement – but the learning is to have the menace of drugs tackled firmly without letting it create any communal ripples.
The concerned agencies of the Centre and the state have to work in a coordinated way and, in appropriate cases, explore the route of rehabilitation of the affected youth, as well.
It is instructive to recall how in the terror-affected Punjab in the ’80s, there was talk of families witnessing the phenomenon of one brother getting seconded to the Khalistan movement while the other would take care of the land or traditionally join the Indian Army.
There is no question of this kind of thing happening again as Sikhs have a pride of place as a martial race and as a saviour of the nation.
Separatism injected from outside cannot succeed but the mischief of the adversary has to be guarded against.
Against the backdrop of the narrative of authoritarianism and intolerance built by anti-India lobbies against the Modi government, inter-community goodwill must be maintained in the border state and a service-oriented administration was provided to the people in general.
It is also a fact that the state of unemployment in Punjab makes the youth vulnerable to subversive propaganda. A strategic measure would be to place Punjab in the care of a national security professional who had past experience of serving the state in difficult times, as Governor for a few years so that the elected government could benefit from this arrangement.
The emerging scene of militancy being restarted in Punjab in the name of Khalistan, by some elements manoeuvred by Pakistan, needs to be taken c’gnisance ‘f and analysed as o’e more element of the multi-prong ‘proxy war’ conduc’ed by India’s adversaries- more so by the Sino-Pak axis.
India’s determined move to carry out the military build-up on the LAC in Ladakh to take on any aggressive activity of PLA and simultaneously enhance its collaboration with Quad partners to check Chinese designs in the Indo-Pacific is also the reaffirmation of the Modi government of its right to carry out a surgical strike against Pakistan to counter cross- border terrorism, have together proved to be a sound strategy for India. This has, of course, resulted in deeper collusion between Pakistan and China in stepping up activities that might internally destabilise this country – ranging from civil society groups being floated to sustain anti-India narratives to the use of social media channels covertly to re’ruit terrorists.
Attacks on strategic targets representing India’s economic strength are a definite threat considering how national security had become inseparable from economic security.
Prime Minister Modi aided by NSA and the External Affairs Minister has, however, worked out an effective policy framework to neutralise these two prime adversaries of India geopolitically, on land and in the sphere of global economic cooperation and trade promotion.
What India needs the most at the moment is strong national unity and it is important that our domestic politics must not do anything that would detract from it.
(The writer is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Views are personal)