The attack on a police station in Gurdaspur reportedly by three terrorists in the Indian state of Punjab has renewed tensions between India and its South Asian rival Pakistan.
A headline in scroll.in, a popular Indian news blog, said it all: “From ISI to Arvind Kejriwal: Everyone already knows who to blame for the Gurdaspur terror attack”. The article’s author Mayank Jain had his fingers on the pulse of typical Indian reaction to such incidents: “The attacks wasn’t even over before the blame game and speculation started – and demand for resignations of ministers, of course”.
The Pakistani media reacted with more caution, condemning the terrorist attack and advising more responsible reaction to terrorism from both sides. “…serious attempts have to be made to resolve the disputes that divide them. Every incident of terrorism, be it in Gurdaspur, Quetta or Karachi, has to be condemned without reservation,” wrote English daily Pakistan Today in an editorial.
Reaction in Indian media was different. Like some in the ruling hardline Bharatiya Janata Party leadership, media also started crunching conspiracy theories, and jumped to conclusions even before the Indian security forces had neutralized the terrorists. Some newspapers, however, despite their traditional diatribe against Islamabad, did have words of care and caution for their government. “There can be no let-up on India’s part in countering acts of aggression from across the border. But attacks such as the latest one should not deter efforts to engage Pakistan in talks,” advised The Hindu.
The attack came days after the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star which was launched by the Indian Army in June 1984 to establish control over the Harmandir Sahib Complex in Amritsar, Punjab, and remove Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the complex buildings. Reports have been appearing in the Indian media about growing signs of Khalistan movement‘s revival, orchestrated by Sikh nationalists demanding an independent homeland for India’s Sikh minority. India often accused Pakistan of supporting the Sikh’s separatist movement at the peak of its bloody campaign in the 1980s, a charge vehemently denied by Islamabad.
The Sikh separatists seem to be changing their narrative for an independent homeland, exploiting the traditional India-Pakistan acrimony. On June 5, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), Simranjit Singh Mann, demanded the creation of a state of ‘Khalistan’ to act as a buffer state between India, China and Pakistan. “Everyone has heard that the Sikh community has just one demand, i.e. Khalistan. It would be a buffer state between, Pakistan, China and India, all three of which are lanced with nuclear power. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs would feel safe in this Sikh nation and peace would prevail forever in South Asia. Khalistan is in favor of all the nations and religions,” Indian news site dnaindia.com quoted Mann as saying. “We will make the map of Khalistan very soon, and then, Sikhs would know that it would be the only place in South Asia where there would not be a nuclear war, and all religions and sects would be able to enjoy their life in the Sikh nation,” he added.
Pro-Khalistan sentiment seems to be no longer restricted to Akali Dal leadership’s statements. Just a day before the terrorists struck in Gurdaspur, pro-Khalistan slogans were raised at an event where Punjab’s chief minister Parkash Singh Badal was making a speech. Though it is unclear at this stage if Sikh separatists are involved in the Gurdaspur attack or their peers in Jammu and Kashmir, who have been running a bloody campaign for secession of the state from India or elements with roots in Pakistan. But the incident is being seen as a new opportunity for the hardliners in the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration to build pressure for tough action against Pakistan, if evidence is found that the attackers had connections with Pakistan.
Here are two editorials from The Hindu and Pakistan Today on the incident which give a better understanding of where lies the distrust between the two nuclear armed nations and how, despite their divergent views about each other, both sides realize that engagement is the best answer to overcome challenges.
Both Pakistan and India have vulnerabilities. To mention only two, there is an insurgency in Balochistan and a revival of militancy in Indian Punjab. The two countries can manipulate these to bleed each other or cooperate to put an end to them. The first option might satisfy those with sadistic minds, but this would bring laurels to neither side. In fact, the activity would weaken both.
Resorting to irresponsible statements like removing thorn with a thorn or threatening reprisals might provide momentary satisfaction to those who issue them, but remarks of the sort add fuel to the fire. Pakistan and India have longstanding disputes. Despite fighting three wars, the outstanding issues remain unresolved. If anything, they have become more complicated. With both sides possessing nuclear weapons and the required delivery systems, any war could lead to a regional disaster. It would not only cause untold human losses but also wipe out much of the progress the two countries have made through hard work and sacrifice.
The only way to a better future is through mutual understanding and cooperation. This alone can end manipulation of each other’s vulnerabilities. The IT revolution has benefitted the world a lot. It has however helped terrorists to spread their message, recruit volunteers, provide training and assign tasks to them, with everything being online. Crossing the border for the purpose is becoming obsolescent. It is unrealistic on the part of any country to presume that it can rein in the terrorists single-handedly. What is required is cooperation between the countries, particularly among the neighbors.
For this serious attempts have to be made to resolve the disputes that divide them. Every incident of terrorism, be it in Gurdaspur, Quetta or Karachi, has to be condemned without reservation. Similarly, the killing of innocent civilians on account of border shelling also needs to be denounced. Unless a meaningful move is made to resolve the conflict between the two countries, incidents of the sort would invariably lead to mutual recrimination, often without proper investigation.
The terrorist attack on civilians and a police station in Gurdaspur district might have been the first such serious incident in Punjab in the last two decades, but it is of a piece with the recent violence from across the border in the Jammu region. The border district is situated close to Jammu, and the attackers would have found it a soft target. Any part of India close to the Jammu region could just as easily have been their target.
After security was stepped up in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir, militants operating from across the border appear to have been forced to take other routes close to Jammu to carry out assaults. Of late, terrorists have targeted not only army camps but also civilians in Hindu-majority Jammu. Although Pakistan-based militants would like to keep the focus on Jammu and Kashmir, any attack close to the Jammu region would serve their purpose. The Uri-Jalandhar highway runs close to the border with Pakistan at Pathankot near Gurdaspur, and provides access to the Jammu region from a section of the border that is not as heavily guarded as stretches in Jammu and Kashmir. If the Gurdaspur attack signifies anything, it is that militants are ready to shift their targets, and make a mockery of India’s efforts to secure the border districts. For Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, the immediate challenge it seemed was to counter the impression that the attack had something to do with the demand for Khalistan. That the militants were suicide attackers who were intent on fighting till the very end, unlike the Khalistani militants in the 1980s who predominantly adopted hit-and-run tactics, allowed him to assert that the attack was not an indication of any revival of terrorism in the State. Also, the attackers were reported to have shouted Islamist slogans. However, irrespective of these facts, intelligence agencies have been warning of a rise in pro-Khalistan activity. Last month, the Research and Analysis Wing had sent a report to the Union Home Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office on the “Khalistan liberation movement” finding support in Pakistan, as also in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France and the Maldives. The government needs to take threats from this quarter also seriously. The dastardly attack in Gurdaspur is a major setback to the confidence-building process initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif during their meeting in Ufa earlier this month. There can be no let-up on India’s part in countering acts of aggression from across the border. But attacks such as the latest one should not deter efforts to engage Pakistan in talks. It is crucial that Pakistan be made to realise the futility of nurturing militants on its soil as a strategy against India.