A great deal of speculative nonsense characterised commentary in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack at the Nirankari Bhawan in the Raja Sansi area of Amritsar, well before any meaningful investigative inputs were available.
Unrelated intelligence feeds were plugged in to raise the bogey of Islamist terrorism, a much-favoured meme in the current environment where the demonisation of Muslims is a critical instrument of partisan political mobilisation.
Zakir Musa and his Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind had come, with their purported Islamic State affiliations, to ‘extend’ his group’s influence into the Punjab. Such claims are undeterred by the fact that Musa and the tiny fragment of the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen that he has broken away with, is fighting for its barest survival in Kashmir with a handful of supporters, and is unlikely to harbour ambitions of extension beyond, at this juncture.
If Not Musa, It Must Be Jaish
But if it isn’t Musa, it must be the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). The movement of a group of JeM terrorists through Punjab and towards Delhi had put the State Police on Red Alert, and so it must be this group who, perhaps wandering by casually, decided to chuck a grenade at the hapless Nirankaris.
Muslim fanatics, after all, are capable of anything, especially if they are backed by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
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The very obvious inference – to anyone loosely familiar with the broad trajectory of terrorism in Punjab – that the perpetrators were likely to be tied to a Khalistani formation, seemed entirely to escape the attention of ideologically blinded commentators, but this is what is now unsurprisingly emerging from official pronouncements in Punjab and out of the limited evidence currently available.
Nirankaris Have Long Been Targets of Khalistanis
The Nirankaris – regarded as deviants and blasphemers by the Khalistanis (and the Akalis) – have long been a favourite target of the extremists. Indeed, it is useful to recall that the 15-year nightmare of terrorism in Punjab commenced with the targeting of the Nirankaris by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his Damdami Taksal followers in 1978, culminating in the murder of the head of the sect, Satguru Gurbachan Singh, in April 1980.
Targeting the Nirankaris at the present stage would appeal to the Khalistanis as a potential recruitment tool among extremist elements in Punjab.
The one consistent element in the continuous efforts to revive Khalistani terrorism in Punjab has been the role of Pakistan’s ISI, and it is likely to be confirmed in the present case as well. For one thing, almost all major active Khalistani formations have a base in Pakistan and are openly supported by the Army’s intelligence wing.
Prominent among these are the Babbar Khalsa International, the Khalistan Zindabad Force, the International Sikh Youth Federation, Dal Khalsa International, the Khalistan Commando Force – Panjwar and the Khalistan Tiger Force.
Several past operations, as well as large numbers of arrests and seizures of weapons in Punjab over the years have been linked to these formations. Equally significantly, cells affiliated to these groups, as well as prominent overground Khalistani organisations across the world, receive support from the ISI and Pakistani diplomatic missions, and this was visible in the orchestration of the recent Referendum 2020 demonstration at Trafalgar Square, where potential participants from Pakistan were offered an all expenses paid four-day trip to London.
ISI’s K-2 Project – ‘Unite’ Kashmiri & Khalistani Terrorists
The K-2 project, a plan to ‘unite’ Kashmiri and Khalistani terrorist formations, has been a long term effort on the part of the ISI, though the obvious ideological divergence between Islamist and Sikh fundamentalist terrorist formations have kept any real unity of purpose out of reach over the decades.
Nevertheless, some limited operational cooperation has been evidenced in the past, and cannot be excluded in the present or future. Groups like JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba are fully owned enterprises of the ISI, and if told to support specific Khalistani operations, would do so. Such operational cooperation must remain a cause of concern for intelligence and enforcement agencies in the Punjab.
The attack at the Nirankar Bhawan has also drawn the usual accusations of intelligence failure – and, of course, every terrorist success does, in some sense, indicate a failure of the intelligence system.
However, in most cases it is only in our fantasies that we will be able to discover or predict the specifics of every potential attack to the levels of precision necessary for effective preventive action. It is useful to remind ourselves that the Raja Sansi attack would have taken little more than a few seconds to execute, and could, in fact, have occurred anywhere across Punjab.
No country in the world can ever have a security apparatus that can prevent every such possibility. Indeed, numerous intelligence and enforcement successes over the past years elude public attention, since they are seldom reported, or at best, are reported as the arrests of ‘suspected terrorists’, and provoke little interest.
The revival of Khalistani terrorism at a scale that threatens the state apparatus remains highly unlikely; the terrorists, however, backed by Pakistan’s state system and by elements in a wealthy diaspora, will ‘get lucky’ from time to time. Crucially, there is no scope for complacence in the face of any measure of terrorism, and no way to predict possible triggers of abrupt escalation.
Some political sagacity – instead of the current proclivity to inflame the situation with partisan posturing – will be necessary if Punjab is not to be pushed into an escalatory cycle, however limited.
(The writer is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached @Ajai_Sahni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)