The attack at Gurdaspur on Monday opened a fresh front in what could be a multi-pronged challenge to India’s security. The audacity of the attackers’ tactical moves was reminiscent of the November 26, 2008 assault on Mumbai. One has to ask whether the attackers were trained by the same forces, for it seems unlikely that such devastating training, and motivation for suicide, were put together only for those 10.
Even more obviously than Mumbai, the Gurdaspur attacks bore the same fingerprint as the attacks in the third week of March this year on a police station in Kathua and an army camp in Samba. Kathua and Samba are the first two towns in Jammu and Kashmir on the road from the adjacent Gurdaspur district. Uniforms of security forces were used in all three attacks. A car was stolen by the Kathua attackers, just as in Gurdaspur. And the attackers entered and unleashed mayhem in the Kathua police station, just as Monday’s attackers did at the Dinanagar police station in Gurdaspur.
This was no flash in the pan. The revival of the Khalistan movement has been carefully orchestrated. The Gurdaspur attack triggered several Pakistani tweets clubbing demands that India-free ‘Khalistan’ and Kashmir. Just a few weeks ago, posters appeared overnight in Jammu to commemorate Operation Bluestar (in which the army assaulted the Golden Temple on June 4, 1984). When policemen tore down those posters, hundreds of young Sikhs brought a part of Jammu to a halt. The PDP-BJP government of Jammu and Kashmir went out of its way to placate them. An outstanding SSP was transferred. Yet, as if on signal, secessionist leaders in Kashmir expressed sympathy with the Sikhs in Jammu. In a replay of 1989-92, the Sikh separatist cause was projected in the same bracket as the Kashmiri one.
The record of the Zia-ul Haq period in the 1980s makes Pakistan (or at least a section of the infamous ISI) the most likely suspect. But it must be borne in mind that the Khalistan movement was revived over the past couple of years, largely in Britain and North America. Huge processions were organised in the West, and highly emotional theatrical performances focused on the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. A play that had been developed in the US brought actors from there to perform in India early last winter — but not in mainstream theatres, only in a Sikh-dominated neighbourhood in Delhi and three locations in Punjab.
No doubt, various strategists who want to see India destabilised perceive an opportunity in the current government’s ideology — an opportunity to exploit insecurities among religious minorities. On the international stage too, the ruling party’s well-known ideology has made it easy to convince diplomats, media analysts and academics that India’s minorities are in revolt. While these strategists could well have been developed in Pakistan, it is worth asking whether at least some of the strategists might be based elsewhere. To put it another way, different countries inimical to India might be in league.
In an age of proxy and guerrilla wars, with global connections, instant cash flows and long-distance supply chains, one must consider worst-case scenarios. Policymakers must examine whether we might be witnessing something akin to a contemporary remake of the 1965 war. Consider the following parallels: There was mortar shelling, initiated by Pakistan, from June 1964. Pakistan’s attack in Kutch in 1965 turned out to be a diversionary tactic to draw Indian troops to that sector, while Pakistani regulars and irregulars slipped into the Kashmir Valley in what the Pakistan Army named Operation Gibraltar. And Gurdaspur is just south of the ‘chicken’s neck’ in Jammu and Kashmir, which the Pakistani army nearly severed in 1965. The main road link runs very close to the border there, just below the Himalayan foothills. The recent attacks at Samba and Kathua were near that stretch.
The choice of Gurdaspur as the target is significant for another reason. Not only is it the closest point in Punjab to Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan was most severely critical of the Radcliffe award in 1947 with regard to this district. Citing the location there of places sacred to Sikhs, Cyril Radcliffe, who drew the border through Punjab, awarded a few tehsils (sub-districts) of Gurdaspur district to India. Pakistan’s chief grouse was that this allowed a road link between the just-partitioned India and Jammu and Kashmir. The princely state had not acceded to either India or Pakistan yet.
Wars today are far more complex and invidious than the categories — such as conventional and nuclear — upon which most analysts focus. While celebrating the success of the forces and mourning the dead, one must consider carefully whether India faces a Hydra-headed antagonist, which might include nation-states, non-sovereign territorial forces and foreign and domestic militant groups. Policymakers must learn that security challenges come from unexpected directions. Those charged with intelligence-gathering must get down to that job, instead of smarming around trying to buy up this or that ‘leader’.
In an age when operational battle command, the moulding of public sentiment and mobilisation of flash mobs all happen in cyber-space, public support and deeply-felt integration are a far better national defence than any amount of military hardware. We must call an immediate halt to the manipulation of religious sentiments, which the Congress did in Punjab to destabilise the Akali Dal from around 1979, and other parties and organisations have done before and since. Criminal mafias cannot be allowed to rule the roost, especially in volatile and deeply bruised places such as Kashmir and Punjab. For reasons of security, if not for moral, political and constitutional imperatives, the rule of law must not only prevail but be seen to deliver justice.
David Devadas is a security expert and author of In Search of a Future, the Story of Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.