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What is going on in Punjab? Is terrorism coming back?

What is going on in Punjab? Is terrorism coming back?

My Viewpoint: Kanwar Sandhu; 

There have been five incidents relating to terror within a span of five days. On May 9, there was a  Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) attack on Punjab Police Intelligence Headquarters in SAS Nagar. On the same day, BSF troops shot down a drone carrying 9 packets of about 10 kg of heroin along the border in Punjab. On May 8, the  Punjab Police arrested two men from Naushehra Pannuan in Tarn Taran district bordering Pakistan and recovered an explosive device packed with 1.5 kg of RDX from their possession. On the same day, Khalistan flags were found tied on the main gate of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly Complex in Dharamshala. Three days before that, on May 5, Haryana Police arrested four persons from a toll plaza near Karnal carrying three IEDs weighing 2.5 kg each.

Since these incidents occurred in three different states, they are being seen as a collaborative scheme to cause mayhem and disturbances in the region. It is clear that with the change of guard in Punjab and forthcoming polls in HP, elements inimical to peace and stability are trying to exploit the political ambiguity to create mayhem. There is increasing evidence of nexus between terrorists, gangsters and drug dealers coordinated by handlers in Pakistan and fed by arms consignments through drones. The use of an RPG adds a new dimension to threat perception.

What should be done? With my experience of having reported on militancy in Punjab, I would like to make some suggestions.

These incidents have come on the heels of a communal clash between some Sikh and Hindu right-wing organisations in Patiala on April 29. There is also a common factor between the Patiala clashes and the pinning up of the flag in Dharamshala. Both incidents followed calls by Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, US-based founder of a secessionist group, Sikhs for Justice. In view of recent incidents, there is a fair amount of media hype over the activities of Pannun. I feel that paying undue attention to Pannun would be tantamount to playing into his game plan. Instead, we should be gearing up to deal with the increasing nexus between terrorists, gangsters and drug dealers and arms consignments being fed to them through drones from Pakistan. To prevent communal clashes in future, the elected representatives should be asked to play a positive role.

Police officers recall how a similar attempt was made in 2016-17 when there were no less than eight targeted attacks aimed at high profile right-wing activists. These included the killing of two senior RSS leaders, Brig Jagdish Gagneja in August 2016 and Ravinder Gosain in October 2017. However, the 2016-17 incidents and gangsters were quickly brought under control through clear directions by the then CM, Captain Amarinder Singh.

Now all eyes are on the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP Government in Punjab, which is facing flak from the Opposition party leaders for “deteriorating law and order situation.” There is also a feeling that the government is wasting its time and energy on political vendetta. Instead of trying to arrest people like Kumar Vishvas, Alka Lamba and Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, it should gear up to deal with the terrorist threat at hand.

Since most parts of the 553-km Punjab border with Pakistan is fenced, the terrorists and their handlers have been resorting to using drones to smuggle in weapons and drugs and using the internet to give directions to their local cells in Punjab. Of late, the drones being used are highly sophisticated with add-on capability. BSF officers say that in the last two years more than 150 drones have been sighted along the Punjab border with Pakistan.

The RPG attack at the Punjab Police Intelligence Headquarters in SAS Nagar on Monday night raises numerous questions. One, how the militants have been able to source the RPG, which is a weapon currently used by para-military forces? Markings on it indicate that it may have been smuggled from across the border. Two, if this was just a one-off piece or whether there are more? Three, since the RPG has a range of 100 meters to 500 meters, the security forces would have to widen their security cordon around potential targets. Security forces are also exploring the possibility of a J&K angle, since RPGs have been used there. Earlier, last month, the police had recovered some explosive devices near the Burail Jail in Chandigarh, which is only a few km from the RPG blast. Military experts say that the attackers must have been trained and done reconnaissance (recce) of the area before unleashing it. Since there is a back-blast when an RPG is fired, they must have come out of the vehicle, positioned themselves in an open space and then fired.

Security experts feel that in the wake of incidents in Haryana and HP, besides Punjab, the three state police need to create an “anti-terrorism coordination cell”, which should also liaison with officers of the BSF and the Intelligence Bureau. Due to the imminent connection between gangsters and terrorists, the proposed cell should also coordinate with the Anti-Gangster Task Force, which has been formed.

Former police officers suggest that in the wake of fresh threats, the Monthly Intelligence Review (Pink Book), which had been started by the former DGP Intelligence, OP Sharma, in the heydays of terrorism, could be re-started and disseminated to all districts. This would help dust up old records and map the activities of various militant groups and their members who are active as a ready reckoners. There is evidence to suggest that some new leaders of the old terrorist outfits have emerged. Names of at least two new kingpins have cropped up. In the Ferozepur-Mamdot sector, Harvinder Singh Rinda, who is absconding and in the Amritsar sector, Jobanjit Singh, who has been declared a proclaimed offender. Efforts should also be made through their families to make them surrender and come into the mainstream. This could be done by the MLAs of their areas.

Punjab battled militancy for nearly a decade and a half. Some of the recent incidents have an uncanny resemblance with the earlier incidents, including a footprint across the border. Since a huge reservoir of expertise is available, the State Government could form an “Anti-terror Advisory Group” in which some retired police officers who were in the forefront of anti-terrorist operations in the 1980s and 1990s, could be included.

Fortunately, so far the various incidents have not been able to inflict much damage by way of life and property. But they are definitely a wake-up call for the governments and security forces to tighten up our security drills.

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