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EFSAS Commentary

Amritsar terrorist attack: Pakistan’s desperation to revive militancy in Punjab, India


Punjab, among India’s most progressive and prosperous states, effectively overcame a protracted Pakistan-backed Sikh militancy that had engulfed and bloodied it in the 1980s and 1990s. The people of the state, which borders Pakistan, have since the mid-1990s rejected the violent, separatist narrative of these Khalistani militants that had severely disrupted normal life and unleashed a reign of fear. Despite this, reports chronicling Pakistan’s ceaseless exertions to reignite militancy in Punjab and link it to the existing terrorist proxies of its notorious intelligence agency the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operating in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) have continued to appear. Some recent incidents, including a grenade attack on a religious congregation in Amritsar on 18 November, lend credence to these reports.  

A senior Indian police officer informed that the 18 November attack was carried out by two men who arrived by motorcycle at the Nirankari Satsang Bhawan, a building that houses the prayer hall and office of the Nirankari sect, in Rajasansi village near the international airport in Amritsar. Over 200 followers, including women and children, were attending the Sunday congregation at the prayer hall. The assailants took a woman volunteer hostage at gunpoint and forced their way into the prayer hall where they hurled a grenade before fleeing. Three people were killed and a score were injured in the explosion. 

The modus operandi of the two attackers was similar to that applied in an earlier attack on 14 September on Maqsudan police station in Jalandhar, another city in Punjab. In that incident too the two assailants approached the police station on motorcycle and hurled four low-intensity bombs at the station that injured two policemen. Meanwhile, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh revealed recently that as many as 17 terror modules had been busted in Punjab in the past 18 months, including some with links to Kashmiri terrorists. 

The initial reactions by Indian officials to the Amritsar attack were guarded and measured. Kamaljeet Singh Sangha, the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, said, "It is too early to confirm it as a terror attack and to link it to some terror outfit. Presently the investigation has been launched into the case”. The Punjab police and the Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) teams investigating the case did not rush to pin the blame on any terror group either. Subsequently, Amarinder Singh said that "the probe is on. We cannot say who is behind the attack". He also tweeted, "We will not let the forces of terror destroy our hard-earned peace. I appeal to the people of Punjab to maintain peace in the wake of Amritsar bomb blast. I urge them not to panic and to remain calm”

A few days into the investigation of the Amritsar attack some telling findings began to emerge. These were shared by Amarinder Singh on 21 November. He revealed that one of the perpetrators of the grenade attack, Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) operative Bikramjit Singh, had been arrested by security forces, who were hot on the trail of the other, Avtar Singh Khalsa. He said that Pakistan-based KLF chief Harmeet Singh Happy alias PhD was the coordinator of the attack. The motorcycle used in the attack had also been recovered. Amarinder Singh stated, “It is a clear case of terrorism. Pakistan’s ISI was the mastermind and the accused are touts they were using. There were two people involved in the attack and one of them has been caught within 72 hours of the incident and the other will be caught very soon as we are onto him”. Accusing Pakistan of using militant organizations like the KLF as tools for its own ends, he added: “For a long time now, ISI has been very active. Passes in Kashmir have closed early due to snow this year and you’ll find activity shifting to south. Our forces have been one step ahead of them. They (the militants) drop grenades by pieces. This one is a HG 84, which is made in Pakistan ordnance factory. The same grenades are being used against our forces in Kashmir. These are filled with pellets and all those injured in the attack in Amritsar have pellet injuries”

Reports indicate that Indian intelligence agencies have been in the know of the ISI’s plans to revive terrorism in Punjab for quite some time. They had appraised the Indian leadership on several occasions over the last year of the pressure that the ISI had been mounting on Sikh militant outfits such as Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Khalistan Commando Force (Panjwar faction), International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF) and KLF to re-activate militancy in the state. The leaders of all these outfits including Wadhawa Singh of BKI, Lakhbir Singh Rode of ISYF, Paramjit Singh Panjwar of KCF and Harmeet Singh Happy, among others, have all been sheltered for decades now by Pakistan. Gopal Singh Chawla, another prominent Khalistan supporter living under the ISI’s watch in Pakistan, has also been noticed hobnobbing with Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed. 

Based on such intelligence inputs, the Indian home ministry told a parliamentary panel in March this year that Sikh youth were being trained at ISI facilities in Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities in India. Sikhs settled in Europe, the United States (US) and Canada were also being “misguided and instigated against India with malicious propaganda”

The Amritsar attack occurred just a few days after Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat cautioned that attempts were being made to "revive insurgency" in Punjab and if India did not act with urgency to address the matter it would be too late. The alacrity with which the Indian Government responded to the Amritsar attack displayed the seriousness that it accords to the security situation in Punjab. Immediately after the attack union home minister Rajnath Singh chaired an emergency meeting of key officials, including the heads of intelligence and investigative agencies, to take stock of the situation. He also discussed the attack with Amarinder Singh, after which he tweeted, “Spoke to the chief minister of Punjab, @capt_amarinder ji who has apprised me of the situation in the wake of grenade attack in Amritsar. Strongest possible action will be taken against the perpetrators of this crime”.  Amarinder, meanwhile, called an emergency meeting of key officials of the Punjab state government and reviewed the security arrangements in the state. The police were asked to immediately bolster security at all sensitive places.  

While the scale of the Amritsar attack was not as large as those witnessed at the peak of militancy in Punjab in the mid-1980s, it nonetheless was the first attempt in several years to disturb the peace in the state through indiscriminate killing. The attack was also significant as it yet again demonstrated to the Indian leadership that Pakistan, despite all the international pressure on it, still strongly subscribes to profligate the use and expansion of terrorist proxies as weapons to further its treacherous and deplorable goals. In these circumstances, India may not be left with much option but to react disproportionately forcefully to any further provocation by Pakistan in Punjab, especially if its scale is larger or wider than was the case in the Amritsar attack. 

The Amritsar attack is also likely to incentivize India to take up more vigorously the issue of pro-Khalistan elements indulging in anti-India activities in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom (UK). Eating into the propaganda of organizations such as Sikhs for Justice and intent on reviving the idea of insurgency in Punjab, a section of the expatriate Sikhs are important sources of funds and support for separatist Sikh organizations. Their host countries, however, are loath to act against such pro-Khalistanis as they do not present an ostensible or direct threat to their citizens under normal circumstances. However, the menace of terrorism when concocted with the desperation that is being displayed by Pakistan to foment unrest in Punjab can potentially yield unanticipated, loathsome and chilling results. Sadly, history tells us that there were as many as 280 Canadian nationals aboard the ill-fated Air India flight from Montreal to Bombay that was heinously blown up over Ireland in 1985 by Sikh terrorists.