There have been strong arguments, in the wake of the terrorist attack at Dinanagar in Gurdaspur that the operation should immediately have been handed over by the Punjab police to the "better trained and equipped" Army and National Security Guard (NSG) present on location. Some commentators, while conceding the courage and commitment of the Punjab police personnel and leadership, criticised the time taken to end the confrontation, arguing that the Army or NSG, with their superior firepower, would have "neutralised" the terrorists in minutes, rather than hours. Others mocked the "Punjab Police’s amateurish response to terror".
Special Weapons and Tactics teams, with no greater protection than their cotton T-shirts with SWAT printed boldly across, perhaps to make them easier targets; roly poly policemen lobbing grenades; some morbidly obese "fighters" hobbling about with their guns; policemen scampering around in visible disorder, failing abysmally to correspond to our Bollywood stereotype of the "dabang" cop – it could have been easy to laugh, except for one thing: they were all running into, and not from, a bloody gunfight.
Despite its many and manifest deficiencies, the Punjab police response at Dinanagar was crucial. In the past, in most states confronted with a major terrorist incident, the state police has responded with confusion, fear and paralysis, followed by interminable whining about lack of support from the Centre. state police forces have been eager to abdicate all operational responsibility on the first appearance of Central Forces, precisely on the plea that these are "better trained and equipped". The result has often been interminable delays in response, and a concomitant ratcheting up of casualties, as local police wait for central reinforcements. State police leaderships have, at least on occasion, displayed exceptional timidity, even cravenness. In contrast, Punjab police, led by DGP Sumedh Singh Saini, and SP Baljeet Singh who lost his life, followed the tradition established by KPS Gill at the peak of terrorism, of leading from the front.
If India is to fight terrorism effectively, this, in fact, will have to be the pattern of response everywhere, as terrorism strikes in unpredictable locations across the country. The Army and NSG cannot be everywhere, and local authorities cannot wait interminably for the Centre to send in appropriately trained or equipped Forces. The local police, the first responders, must be capable, ready, willing and highly motivated to react immediately and effectively on their own. If all the state police forces were at least as good as the Punjab police was at Dinanagar, the Army could go back to its fundamental duties – to protect India’s borders against external enemies.
There are critical lessons for India even in the visible negatives of the Dinanagar response. If the police force of a state like Punjab, located at the border of the principal locus and source of Islamist terrorism in South Asia and the current safe haven of surviving Khalistani terrorists, is in a condition of such disarray, with such dramatic deficits in basic equipment, training, preparedness and capabilities, what will be the situation in other states of India which imagine themselves more sheltered from the threat of terrorism? Punjab police today, has been ravaged by the lack of resources, by rampant drug addiction (it is one of the few, if not only, police forces in India that has had to organise special de-addiction camps for its own personnel), by politicisation, and by consequent and mounting indiscipline. One of the rankling inexplicables in the Dinanagar incident was that, of the four security force fatalities, three were of Home Guards, and no policeman was killed in the first assault on the police station. Subsequent inquiries indicate that, in most police stations across Punjab, dereliction is now the norm, and police stations are virtually handed over to the Home Guards, who are meant to "assist" police personnel.
There is one last and critical issue that must hold us here. The success at Dinanagar is owed overwhelmingly to the courage and determination of Punjab police’s leadership and personnel. These are the men that were forged by KPS Gill in the furnace of the war against Khalistani terrorism at its peak. Many of these men are now reaching the end of their tenures; most have already retired. Once this generation is gone, who will protect Punjab? In a force now increasingly starved of resources, with little training or retraining of personnel, rusting equipment and crumbling institutions, can the next generation have even a shadow of the audacity displayed by the perhaps out of shape, bumbling, ill-equipped but gritty survivors of the Gill years?