JUST when the memories of 10 years of terrorism were beginning to pale in the euphoria of peace in Punjab, the July 8 bomb blast on a passenger train at Lehara Khana near Bhatinda, leaving 38 dead and 63 injured, came as a rude reminder of the past. One of the largest train disasters caused by an explosive device in a public transport system, this was the fourth in a series of blasts beginning March this year, apart from two foiled attempts. And while the low casualties in the first three blasts made it easier to maintain the facade of peace, this latest incident has forced a reappraisal.
Even as the focus stayed firmly on the Bhatinda blast, which seemed to have been specifically targeted at a train carrying pilgrims to Haridwar, yet another incident at Bagha Purana in Moga district on July 9 brought ominous echoes of the past. An unknown armed terrorist burst into a Durga temple at Kaleke Road, fired at priest Ram Kumar's son, his daughter and daughter-in-law, killing them and wounding the grand-daughter. He also placed a powerful RDX bomb, concealed in a plastic can, in a corner of the temple. As he fled the scene, the marauder also killed two Bihari labour-ers sitting near a tubewell and wounded another three. He finally escaped on a bicycle snatched at gunpoint.
No terrorist group has yet claimed responsibility for the blasts, leaving the Punjab Police baffled. As of now, the use of RDX explosives is the only common factor in the two incidents. As much as 10 kg RDX was used in the Bhatinda blast. The known surviving terrorist outfits from Punjab have decried the Bhatinda incident. In a statement issued from Vancouver, Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the Khalistan Commando Force, Wadhawa Singh of the Babbar Khalsa International and Bhai Lakhmir Singh Rode of the International Singh Youth Federation described it as a cowardly and inhuman act.
Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has in no uncertain terms blamed the ISI for disrupting peace in Punjab. In an appeal to Prime Minister I.K. Gujral who he says "understands the realities of Punjab as well as anybody else", he wanted him "to speak to Pakistan in clear and unequivocal terms that its brazen attempts to disturb peace in Punjab and Kashmir were seriously endangering peace in the subcontinent." P.C. Dogra, Punjab DGP, was equally categorical in ruling out the role of Punjab insurgents.
The prime suspect right now is the Lash-kar-e-Toiba, a pan-Islamic fundamentalist outfit in Pakistan, with Ahl-e-Hadees, JKLF and Khalistan Zindabad Force being the others on the list. Though Kashmiri insurgents can hardly make any kind of point by striking in Punjab heartland, political analysts see this round of terror as more than a bid at insurgency. Says Dr Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute for Development and Communication: "This is an act of desperation by an underground economy, the drug trafficking and smuggling interests which can do better business with closed borders and who would therefore like to keep the Kashmir issue alive." The Punjab-Kashmir terrorist nexus is being seen as an emerging reality since the Khalistan Commando Force first made its innocuous strike in Jammu.
The only heartening thing is that given the present anonymity of the recent blasts, they seem more like desperate attempts rather than confident assertions. They have not been preceded by sustained separatist politics and, in fact, occur against a backdrop of people conclusively voting in a moderate Akali government. The Punjab government feels the strikers remain incognito because they are certain of social disapproval.
Not only this, the Lehara Khana blast brought villagers outdoors unlike the quiet acceptance of violence that marked the 10-year run of the gun earlier in Punjab. These people came out on tractors and trolleys, carried the sick to hospitals, completed formalities on paper there, supplied food and water to the traumatised, kept nightly vigil in hospital, donated blood and made their sympathies clear even as a staggering administration struggled to cope with the emergency.
Taking encouragement from this, Badal is talking of turning "the battle against the enemies of the state and the country into a people's war spearheaded by SAD and BJP". The police has conducted raids in Bhatinda, Mansa, Faridkot, Moga and Ferozepur. They are not ruling out the involvement of the Punjab terrorists in new configurations. Nor is the regularity of blasts being dismissed as an aberration. It may not be a terrorist movement but the acts of terror certainly add up to a resurgence of a different hue.