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Terror in Punjab: What Happened?

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The Pulse

Terror in Punjab: What Happened?

A recent terror attack in Punjab raises questions about the future of India-Pakistan relations.

The dust appears to finally be settling after the July 27 attack in Gurdaspur district in Punjab, India, where three gunmen in Indian Army uniforms, whose identities and origins remain uncertain, shot up a bus and proceeded to attack a local police station. The attack resulted in 8 deaths and 15 injuries, and resulted in a prolonged 12-hour shootout between the attackers and Indian security forces. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, reports, particularly in non-Indian press, attributed the origin of the attack to Punjabi separatists associated with the now largely moribund Khalistan movement. Indian analysts, however, have almost unanimously attributed this attack to the same sort of Pakistan-backed militancy that regularly flares up in Kashmir.

The Indian investigation into the attack remains ongoing, but there are already signs that Pakistan-based militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad, could be involved. The explanation that this attack was a long-coming flare-up of Sikh militancy is unsupported by the preliminary evidence. According to Indian authorities, the attackers used “sophisticated” weapons to stage the attack, and were reportedly well-trained.

Further, inspection of GPS devices found on the attacker’s bodies “suggests that the group launched its operation from across the border in Pakistan’s Shakargarh area,” according to an Indian Express report. Praveen Swami, the author of that report, notes:

From Bamial [a border town in Indian Punjab], investigators believe, the group caught an early morning bus that took them to the highway 1A, which links Punjab with Jammu and Kashmir and on to Hiranagar, passing several police checkpoints along the way.

The GPS sets, which guide users along tracks marked by digital “waypoints,” have often been used by terrorists to operate in unfamiliar environments, most famously during the 26/11 strikes in Mumbai.

“The modus operandi of carrying out the attack, apart from the nature of weapons used, is very similar to the one employed by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants,” an Indian intelligence official told The Hindu.

Some commentators have also highlighted the timing of the attack, which came a day after India celebrated the 16th anniversary of its victory over Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil War, a two-month conflict between the two nuclear-armed rivals in Kashmir. Everything about this attack suggests that these attackers, like other Pakistan-based terrorists in the past, had support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

As the investigation continues and the Pakistani origins of this attack are better understood, the Indian government is trying to gauge whether this attack in Punjab foreshadows other Pakistan-backed sub-conventional strikes outside of Kashmir. Notably, like the devastating attacks of Mumbai 2008 that claimed over 150 lives, this incident highlights Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of terror groups outside of Kashmir.

In the wake of the attack, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh met Manohar Parrikar, the defense minister, and Ajit Doval, the national security adviser. In the wake of the attack, Singh warned Pakistan: “We will not be the first to strike, but if we are hit, we will give a befitting reply.”

The attack comes less than a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa, Russia, where they discussed the relationship between the two countries and produced a five point statement. Yesterday’s events in Gurdaspur will empower Indian skeptics of diplomatic outreach toward Pakistan, scuttling what little progress the two leaders made in Russia.