A firm indication of Pakistan ISI’s hand in the sabotage behind the recent derailment of Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur, in which as many as 148 passengers died, has brought the focus back on the low intensity “war” that India has faced for years at the hands of a hostile neighbour. It was in the early 1990s that Indian intelligence had clearly reported to the government that Pakistan’s ISI had planned a new kind of covert offensive that would not only push militancy in Kashmir valley to a new pitch, but also set off a no-holds-barred “proxy war” against India, using cross border terrorism as its instrument. The success of the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan—a war fought on the slogan of jihad with ISI-mentored militant outfits, particularly the Saudi-funded Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in the forefront—had made Pakistan a blue-eyed boy of the policymakers in Washington. Flush with all the credit that it got from the US, the Pakistan army-ISI combine lost no time in planning a replication of the Afghan jihad in Kashmir by sending in the Mujahideen into the valley and creating a wave of terror in the name of Islam. The adversary has not looked back since then.
The first group called Harkat-ul-Ansar, which infiltrated into Kashmir as early as in 1994, was a mix of elements owing allegiance to Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islami Pakistan, the ideological parent of Taliban and the militants belonging to what is Jaish-e-Mohammad today. Terrorists of LeT working in conjunction with Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM)—the militant front of Jamaat-e-Islami—followed and steadily spread the influence of the extremist Salafi ideology in the valley at the cost of Kashmiriyat. The danger of radicalisation of the Kashmiri youth is a major cause for concern for India’s security set-up. That the two offspring of the Jamaat—Burhan Wani, the killed Hizbul commander, and Asiya Andrabi, chief of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, were taking orders directly from Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan—signifies the hold of Pakistan proxies in the valley. Mehbooba Mufti leading the PDP-BJP coalition in J&K has the onerous task of retrieving Kashmiri youth from the grip of extremists and separatists collaborating with Pakistan.
After the surgical strike by the para-commandos of Indian Army on the terrorist launch-pads across the LoC in September last year, Pakistan has intensified the infiltration of militants into the valley and stepped up covert attacks on the Army and paramilitary personnel, conscious as it is of its inability to take on India in a conventional war. It is because of this awareness of its limitations that the Pakistan army-ISI combine has seemingly fallen back on terrorist operations that picked up targets in the rest of the country as well, in pursuance of a cost-effective proxy war against India. It always used the porous borders of India with Nepal, a country where ISI had a major operational hub, and Bangladesh, where ISI had continued to retain a significant part of its old turf, to infiltrate its agents and smuggle in arms and money.
It is the 1993 Mumbai blasts that unravelled the nexus of Gulf-based criminal mafia controlled by Dawood Ibrahim of the film city and the ISI. This and the subsequent 26/11 attack, in which Pakistan ISI used the sea route to surreptitiously land terrorists on the Mumbai coast, showed how the proxy war was meant to damage the strategic economic assets of India and cause internal instability here. The reported involvement of Pakistan in the suspected sabotage of our railway system is not too surprising, considering the desperate bid of the adversary to step up covert operations against India.
Results of investigations appearing in the public domain indicate that a Karachi-based kingpin, Shafi Sheikh got his agent in Nepal, Shamsul Hoda, to enlist a Nepalese criminal named Brij Kishore Giri, who in turn organised local criminals in Bihar to cause the sabotage of trains including the Indore-Patna Express. This is a cost effective operation by Pakistan ISI as criminals at the ground level—somewhat easily available for money—can be used for anti-national activities, providing complete deniability to the adversary. India’s security set up should be prepared to deal with the challenge of a diffused kind of proxy war serving the declared aim of Pakistan of inflicting “a thousand cuts” on India. The Mumbai attack of 2008 was a daring and deeply planned terrorist assault, in which the ISI had gone to the length of getting the perpetrators to wear red threads of a temple to hide their Muslim identity. India should be prepared for the possibility of Pakistan ISI planning another covert offensive of some magnitude in the period ahead.
Pakistan is watching out for the response of the new US President, Donald Trump, to the situation in South Asia and to growing world opinion against Pakistan as a harbourer of terror groups. Indian diplomacy should not find it too difficult to get US and India on the same page on the threat of cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistan against both India and Afghanistan.
Trump’s call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which he reportedly conveyed his firm opposition to terrorism will hopefully end the distinction between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists” that the US-led West had been making all this while in dealing with Pakistan, much to India’s dismay.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau