Gurdaspur terror attack: Why the strike in Punjab is worrying for India

On a clear day, the dome of Gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur is visible from the rooftop of Gurdwara Sri Kartarpur Sahab in Pakistan. It would be, naturally, tempting for Pakistan to eye Gurdaspur as a soft target.

 Gurdaspur terror attack: Why the strike in Punjab is worrying for India

The Gurdaspur terror attack has killed at least eight people till now. AFP

Geographically, Gurdaspur is vulnerable to infiltration. On paper, anybody willing to enter the town from Pakistan would just have to navigate the Ravi and cross into adjoining Dinanagar, the third largest municipality of Gurdaspur and erstwhile summer capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This is the route terrorists currently holed up inside a police station in Dinanagar seem to have taken.

Intelligence sources claim a team of terrorists left Narowal, a small town in Pakistan just a few kilometres from Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahab, on 25 July to strike in India. Just before dawn on Monday (July 27), a group of four to five of them hijacked a white Maruti car at gunpoint near Dinanagar, fired at people at a bus stand and stormed a police station, killing at least nine persons, including a Superintendant of Police. They threw bombs on a railway track and fired at a bus. The casualties could have been more if they had not missed a train by just five minutes or the bus driver had not sped away.

If the terrorists entered India through Punjab, it is an alarming development. The nearly 460-km international border in Punjab is virtually impregnable because of barbed fence and floodlights. Since 1993, when the fencing was completed by India, there has been not a single major incident of cross-border terrorism in Punjab.

The closest the terrorists had come to Punjab before this was in 2014, when a Hizbul Mujahidin terrorist was held at Chakki Bank railway station in Pathankot. The same year, a letter was sent by the LeT to the station superintendant of Pathankot warned of attacks on the Punjab CM and his deputy.

So, it is important to know how the border was breached. Did the terrorists dig a tunnel -- smugglers are known to do this -- and get inside India? Or, did they get unchecked into Punjab through Jammu and Kashmir via the Lakhanpur border, just a few kilometres north of Gurdaspur? Both scenarios indicate serious breach of security and barriers.

Dinanagar is on NH-15 that connects Pathankot in the north and Samakhiali in Gujarat. If terrorists from Pakistan have found a way to get into Dinanagar, the entire 1526-km highway is vulnerable to future attacks. So, the first challenge for India would be to ensure that the border is sealed.

The other worrying development is that terrorists now have their eyes on Punjab; they are trying to open a second front after J&K. The north Indian state has been quiet for almost two decades. The Gurdaspur incident will revive memories of the state's struggle with terrorism in the 80s.

"Separatists lie dormant under the calm surface. For the past few years, there have been muted efforts to revive the legacy of Janrail Singh Bhindranwale and the Khalistan movement," says Chandigarh-based journalist Sandeep Sinha, who tracks terrorism-related developments closely.

Some years ago, when Punjab was shut down in support of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who has been sentenced to death for his role in the assassination of former chief minister Beant Singh, separatists had surfaced in various parts of the state. In many towns and cities Bhindranwale's posters and Khalistan flags had appeared overnight to remind people of the state's troubled past.

Just a day before the Gurdaspur attack, pro-Khalistan slogans were raised by two hardliners at a Punjabi University function in Patiala, where CM Parkash Singh Badal was the chief guest.

"Some forces are hell bent on disrupting the hard earned peace in the state. Punjab has suffered a lot due to such conspiracies in the past. But now the government is keeping a strict vigil to foil the nefarious designs of all those people who were vary to the peace and progress of the state," Badal said after the incident.

It is difficult to look for good news in a terror incident. The fact that the terrorists were not allowed to cause too much damage is comforting. The Punjab police have had a history of combating terrorists. Incidentally, the current Punjab DGP Sumedh Singh Saini rose to prominence during the days of militancy. He was once a blue-eyed boy of KPS Gill. The experience may have been useful in countering the strike.

At the moment, the Dinanagar strike appears to be the handiwork of fidayeen attackers from across the border. The modus operandi points to a conspiracy hatched in Pakistan to ensure the two neighbours do not talk peace.

But, the Indian government would be relieved only if it finds out that the Gurdaspur attack didn't have a local connection, or that it was not supported by local handlers.

Heavens will fall if the perpetrators point to a Khalistan link.

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Updated Date: Jul 28, 2015 09:32:53 IST