February 27, 2020
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Deadly Strikes

A rash of militancy in two northern states stalls the peace process

Deadly Strikes

WITHIN 24 hours of the bomb explosion at Ambala railway station on December 2, familiar ‘news releases’ from organi-sations in the United States were being transmitted through selected fax machines in Chandigarh. After a three-year hiatus, the Sikh militant groups were once again making their presence felt, loud and clear.

The self-styled ‘president’ of the Council of Khalistan, Gurmit Singh Aulakh, described the blast, caused by an RDX device planted on the Jammu-bound Jhelum Express, as "a brutal act of state terrorism". Likewise, the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar squarely blamed Punjab’s ruling party for the explosion.

Curiously enough, no terrorist organisation has so far claimed responsibility and this has led the police to speculate that Kashmiri rather than Sikh militants were behind the explosion. But a section of forensic experts and intelligence officials believe that it was a ‘joint venture’ between Kashmiri and Sikh militants, both of whom have stepped up activity in recent months. That Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah narrowly escaped an attempt on his life only two days after the Ambala blast intensified the theory of a collaboration between the militant groups in the two northern states.

An intelligence report, submitted to the special secretary (Home) by the Punjab police in the wake of the blast, underlined the threat of combined operations of Kashmir and Sikh extremists. The report reiterated that the last few months had seen a sharp resurgence of terrorist activity. And with Punjab assembly elections less than two months away, arms and ammunition were pouring into Punjab and five terrorist organisations had become noticeably active: the Babbar Khalsa, KCF, KLF, Indian Sikh Youth Federation (the Rode faction, which is essentially a recruitment agency) and the General Shatrana group, a breakaway faction of the KCF. The KCF and KLF are believed to be in contact with Kashmiri groups.

The Babbar Khalsa is regarded as the most dangerous of the groups. Its cadres are highly committed and orthodox, and are recruited after intensive screening. Yet, forensic experts doubt that the group had a hand in the Ambala blast, as they tend to strike at VIP targets and are unlikely to have placed the bomb secretly into a second class coach. "If anything is giving me sleepless nights now, it is the fact that they   are not striking. What are they waiting for?" commented a senior police officer. The answer to this, political observers in Chandigarh feel, could be that—following the Kashmir pattern—the militants may lie low until the Punjab elections, due in February, are over.

In Kashmir, the escalation in militancy-related violence immediately after the installation of the Farooq government has not surprised political observers—the abortive attempts by the militants to disrupt the poll exercise were clear indicators of the violence to come. A sharp increase in the number of landmine explosions and encounters between militants and the security forces has been witnessed in the last two months. Blasts have been reported from all over the state and at least 200 people are said to have been killed. Several extremist factions are believed to have joined hands and targeted pro-India political factions, militants who have surrendered and members of the anti-insurgency police task force. The militants have been encouraged by the growing disillusionment in the ranks of the ‘reformed militants’. And separatists have even struck in the territory of ‘reformed’ leader and MLA Kukka Parrey, killing several activists of his Ikhwanul Muslimoon.

Farooq, who is under Z-plus security, narrowly escaped an attack on December 4, thanks to officials who insisted he cancel his visit to Kulgam in south Kashmir at the last minute. A powerful bomb planted under the dais from which he was to speak exploded, claiming eight lives. Barely 24 hours later, a landmine exploded near the venue of a public meeting held in honour of the birth anniversary of his father Sheikh Abdullah. It had been planted under a chinar tree on the road through which the chief minister’s motorcade was to pass. Had Farooq been in time for the meeting, the attempt on his life may well have been successful. Officials are baffled at the ease with which the militants managed to bypass the chief minister’s security cordon.

In Punjab, the political fallout of the Ambala blast is already being felt. The Akali Dal and the BJP wasted no time in lashing out at the ruling party. "The Congress has always been using violent means to create a fear psychosis in Punjab. The bomb blast seems to be a part of the same strategy," observed Akali Dal (Badal) leader Captain Kanwaljit Singh, pointing out that assembly elections were due in less than two months. The state BJP took an equally strong view, and put the blame on the Congress. Some leaders link the incident to the massive success of the Akali Dal-BJP rally at Lud-hiana on December 1, marking the start of its election campaign.

INTELLIGENCE officers point out that the fact that no group has so far claimed responsibility for the blast could point to an attempt to embarrass the ruling party. Aulakh’s statement reads: "This brutal act of state terrorism against the Sikh nation is particularly ironic in view of the regime’s claim that it has eliminated the movement to free Khalistan...we condemn this violence against innocent people... terrorism must be condemned, whether it is done by the state or by individuals." 

When questioned, Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal dismissed the incident saying: "It happened in Haryana. Ask Bansi Lal about it". But sources close to her say the blast may have been an attempt to blacken the Congress image in the state. "It’s shocking that they should politicise such a tragedy," commented AICC observer Ambika Soni.

The Congress, on its part, is planning a campaign to project the Akalis as sheltering the militants—although the Akali Dal has come out strongly against militancy and its chief Prakash Singh Badal is himself on the terrorists’ hit list. A list of 40 recently-elected Shiromani Gurdwara Prab-andhak Committee (SGPC) members belonging to the Shiromani Akali Dal, listed in police records as either ex-terrorists or sympathisers, is now doing the rounds.

This strategy goes hand-in-hand with aggressively populist policies. Letters of appointment are being issued wholesale and transfers granted on request. A scheme has also been mooted to hike compensation to terrorist-affected persons with retrospective effect. Chief Minister Bhattal, who has ‘toned down’ her lifestyle, appears to have infused confidence in Congressmen who were expecting as little as 20 seats in the assembly polls. The re-entry of Congress (T) leader Jagm-eet Singh Brar into the Congress has also lifted the party’s morale. He has been put in charge of organising the Congress’ answer to the December 1 Akali rally in Ludhiana on December 22.

Even state Congress leaders admit that the last one year of Harcharan Singh Brar’s rule has fuelled disaffection in the state and given a fillip to militant activity. On the one hand, 50,000 posts remained vacant "in a state where unemployment is seen as one of the root causes of terrorism" and more than 2,500 files remained pending in the chief minister’s office. On the other, the encouragement given to human rights activists left the Punjab police thoroughly demoralised.

For the Punjab police now, unravelling the Ambala bomb mystery has become all-important. Experts say that the identity of the group—Kashmiri or Sikh—behind the Ambala explosion can be determined only after the nature of the bomb’s triggering device is found. "If the triggering device of the bomb was a timer, then given the fact that the train was running late, the explosion may have been meant for Punjab, which indicates either a joint venture or the handiwork of Sikh militants. If it was a remote control, then the likelihood of Kashmiri militants becomes stronger," said one expert. According to him, Punjab militants would probably have chosen the Kalka Mail rather than the Jhelum Express, which arrives in Ambala at approximately the same time. The fact that the coach was overrun by locals for almost two hours after the blast has made the experts’ job much more difficult.

With elections likely to be announced in a month, the Punjab police have tightened their security net. Frisking at all major bus and railway stations is now mandatory. The police believe that it would have been far harder for the militants to strike in Punjab than Haryana. As a senior police official pointed out: "Punjab is now perhaps the least crime-affected state."

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