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Reading Gurdaspur: the attack doesn't mean Punjab militancy is back

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:25 IST

The strike

  • On 27 July, armed men opened fire on a passenger bus, then targeted a police station
  • All 3 militants, 4 policemen and 3 civilians were killed
  • The attackers: Khalistani militants or Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad?

The fear

  • Security officials say attack was directed by Pakistani security agencies
  • They suspect it was the handiwork of Let or Jaish
  • Sikh militant groups are not known for such suicide attacks
  • The aim: kill the \'Ufa spirit\', put Kashmir on Indo-Pak NSA meet agenda

The compulsion

  • Security officials\' hands are tied due to a ban on off-the-air phone tapping
  • Terrorists no longer use satellite phones or wireless; they prefer Pakistani SIM cards
  • If off-the-air tapping was allowed, officials could track them till they crossed over

The terrorist attack in Gurdaspur is being seen by some in the Indian establishment as yet another attempt by Pakistan's security agencies to prevent normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan.

Indian officials do not believe that the attack on a police station was the handiwork of Khalistani militants.

They also reject the suggestion that it signals the revival of militancy in Punjab.

In fact, they suspect the act was the handiwork of either Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad and that it was directed by the Pakistani security establishment.

Sikh militant groups are not known for suicide attacks which the Gurdaspur attack was; its denouement was going to be the terrorists' certain death.

"The only reason for doing that was because their masters in Pakistan wanted to tell India they have the capacity to create trouble in Indian Punjab," an official said.

The random firing on a bus suggests they weren't targeting individuals. They just wanted to create mayhem

"If they wanted to attack the Amarnath pilgrims, then why didn't they do so in Kathua itself when they crossed into India? Why come all the way down to Gurdaspur?"

Although the terrorists fired on a passenger bus, they did not ask the passengers to alight or target them specifically. The random firing suggests they were not targeting individuals. They just wanted to create mayhem.

Pakistani stamp

If the terrorist attack was indeed the handiwork of groups controlled by the Pakistan Army, then it is one of a kind with the cross-border firing launched by Pakistan to kill the "Ufa spirit".

The tentative steps announced by prime ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Ufa, Russia, are now being sought to be retracted. The security establishment in Pakistan has signalled that the civilian government does not formulate the country's policy towards India.

The Gurdaspur attack has effectively hijacked the agenda for the proposed meeting between the National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan.

Now, if and when they meet, the first talking point would be this attack and how to prevent such incidents in the future.

This would open the way for Pakistan to renegotiate the process and context of a possible dialogue between the two countries. That might help put the Kashmir issue on the table, which is what the Pakistan Army wants.

Although Pakistan has often blamed India for terrorist incidents in its Punjab province, Indian officials point out that they had, in fact, passed prior information on the Wagah border suicide bombing of November 2014 to Islamabad through a third party.

"We did not want them to blame India if the terrorist attack eventually took place," an official claimed.

The attack did take place on 2 November 2014 after the daily border closing ceremony. Three groups based in Pakistan eventually claimed responsibility for it - Jundallah, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

Pakistan hosts three Sikh militant groups. Babbar Khalsa and the Parmajeet Singh Panjwar faction of the Khalistan Commando Force consist mostly of aging militants while the Khalistan Zindbad Force led by Ranjeet Singh Neeta, a native of Jammu and Kashmir, has relatively younger members.

These groups are not believed to be capable of reviving militancy in Punjab; their numbers are also not significant.

Tapping potential

Security officials tasked with preventing such attacks believe their hands have been tied. Their ability to gather intelligence has been hampered by the government banning off-the-air tapping of telephone conversations.

After a notification by the Department of Telecom that the possession and use of such equipment was against the Indian Wireless and Telegraphy Act, 1933 and the Indian Telegraph Act of 1985, all central and state government agencies and private companies were asked to surrender their off-the-air tapping equipment.

Security experts claim that terrorists crossing over from Pakistan no longer use satellite phones or wireless communication; they prefer mobile phones with Pakistani SIM cards instead.

Security officials say ban on off-the-air phone tapping is hampering intelligence gathering on such attacks

"These phones are active within a 20-km range of the border. The terrorists use them while travelling from their base camps to the launching pads near the border or the Line of Control. Just before they are scheduled to cross into India, they either remove the SIM cards or switch off their mobiles," a security expert explained.

He said if off-the-air tapping equipment was allowed to be used, the intelligence agencies could tap the conversations of the terrorists till the time they crossed over.

Indeed, he said, they could also deduce the possible window of infiltration from the mobiles going silent as the routes were fairly well known.

"The equipment seized from the agencies and state governments that were using it is now in the custody of the Intelligence Bureau. However, even the IB is not allowed to use it," the official said. "Someone has to move the courts to get permission for at least the security agencies to use it under a protocol that prevents misuse. But nobody has the courage to move the courts on this."

First published: 27 July 2015, 11:08 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.