How Punjab averted an India-Pakistan conflict

The state's model of heightened public awareness and investment in specialised police units shows how others can overcome terrorist strikes.

 |  3-minute read |   28-07-2015
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The July 27 attack on the Dina Nagar police station in Gurdaspur by three Pakistani terrorists is the first strike in Punjab by assault rifle wielding desperadoes in nearly two decades. It is also the state’s first-ever fedayeen attack. The fedayeen concept evolved after the 1999 Kargil War and used by the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed to attack targets in Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai. To understand why the Gurdaspur attack, just a day after the 16th anniversary of the Kargil War, completely failed, it is necessary to understand its objectives. The aim was to massacre hundreds of civilians by shooting up a passenger bus, blowing up a passenger train and, finally, a prolonged siege at a police station backed by breathless minute-by-minute "India Under Attack" television coverage. It was to have been the largest strike on Indian soil after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The passenger bus — heavily targeted by Punjab militants in the 1980s — would have fuelled an erroneous notion of a revival of terrorism in the state.

If the terrorists had succeeded, they would have stirred the communal cauldron and ratcheted up the pressure on the government for swift retaliation. It would have become impossible for the government to resist public pressure to react to a high body count.

Fortunately it didn’t work this way. Only seven persons including a superintendent of police were killed - and the country has a crop of new heroes to thank for averting catastrophe. A vigilant railwayman, Darshan Kumar, who raised an alarm spotted the "pressure bombs" on the Pathankot-Amritsar railway tracks just five minutes before a train with more than 200 passengers passed over it. An alert Punjab Roadways bus driver, Nanak Chand, sped away with 80 potential hostages after he refused to halt for the masked gun-toting terrorists. And finally, Punjab police chief Sumedh Singh Saini, a veteran of Punjab’s insurgency years, with enough confidence in his newly-raised Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to keep the army and National Security Guards (NSG) out of the operation. This is possibly the first time outside Jammu and Kashmir and its remarkable Special Operations Group (SOG), that a state police unit has kept central forces away from a siege. The central government aided only with the shutdown of live broadcasts, a lesson from Mumbai 26/11 where live coverage led to the deaths of hostages. These heartening trends are, to my mind, the biggest takeaways from the Gurdaspur attack.

The revival of the Punjab Police in the late 1980s under the remarkable KPS Gill and the visionary chief minister Beant Singh was a big reason why militancy was stamped out of the state by 1993. It showed that it was indeed possible for state forces to quell insurgencies. The Punjab police’s stylishly accoutered and equipped Israeli-trained SWAT unit — black golf T shirts, cargo pants and combat boots and modern SiG and Tavor rifles — ended the siege at the police station in under 12 hours. They have proved that state police forces can fight this new phase of terror by investing in special units without hand-holding from the centre. Punjab has once again shown the way in what promises to be a long and grim fight against state-sponsored terrorism.

Writer

Sandeep Unnithan Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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