Who were the militants who attacked the Dinanagar police station in Gurdaspur district? What were their aims and ideology? How many of their comrades are waiting for another chance to attack? How much help are they getting from the Pakistani authorities, and what other sources of support and finance do they enjoy?
India needs the answers to such critical questions, but none are available because dead men tell no tales. India has now been at the receiving end of several terrorist attacks from across the border, and almost invariably all attackers perish in gun battles. That leaves us guessing about the attackers, and of ways to check them in future.
The one notable exception was the capture of the terrorist Kasab during the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, and this was a lucky accident. An unarmed constable heroically grappled with Kasab and grabbed his gun, leading to his capture. Kasab provided a treasure trove of intelligence, squarely implicating the Pakistani authorities. This highlighted the need to train and equip the police in border districts and other anti-terrorist agencies to capture terrorists alive.
This was indeed attempted at Dinanagar. The police tried to wear down the attackers in a long 12-hour battle. In theory, the militants could have run out of ammunition or food, and surrendered. In fact they fought to the death, as was to be expected of highly motivated attackers.
The Punjab police have a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team trained by Israeli experts, and this was deployed at Dinanagar. However, such training must emphasize not just ways to combat attackers, but also capture them alive. Punjab’s SWAT team apparently had very limited training years ago, with little follow-up or state-of-the-art equipment. This is a general problem with almost all security forces in India.
When armed militants seize a building, one obvious way to disable without killing them is to fire canisters with special chemicals into the building. Tear-gas is an old, established, inexpensive device to disable those inside a building, or force them out. Many other noxious gases could do the trick. Alternatively, the police could use chemicals and gases that attack the nervous system, paralysing foes.
A strategy to capture attackers alive will require large stocks of chemical canisters distributed in border districts to ensure quick delivery to the point of any attack. It will also require police training in using such chemicals, plus equipment enabling the police to enter buildings full of noxious chemicals.
We now live in an era of cheap, low-tech drones. Even TV crews routinely use drones to film crowds at election meetings. Surely, specialist drones can be produced that are tailored to fly accurately through windows and other spaces into buildings and dump chemicals. The costs are modest, so an entire armada of drones can be used in an attack. Even if most drones are knocked out by enemy fire, some should get through. The main challenge here again will be good training and quick access to equipment.
Many gases and chemicals dissipate quickly through openings in buildings. Militants may be well trained in ways to let such gases dissipate. The answer is to develop speciality chemicals and gases that tend to linger, and not dissipate.
None of these tactics may work. Some attacks may occur in crowded areas like shopping centres full of innocent civilians, where noxious chemicals cannot be deployed. Other attacks may take place in open places like railway stations or bus stations, where gases may not be effective. Attackers may shoot from fast-moving cars or trains, not from a barricaded building. Anti-terrorist strategies will have to encompass a wide variety of responses.
Police forces in almost all states are woefully ill-equipped and ill-trained. Sikh militants in the 1980s typically had deadlier guns and faster motorcycles than the Punjab police. The situation changed only after KPS Gill persuaded the state government to greatly improve equipment and training. However, once the Sikh militancy was quelled, interest in this approach eroded. Currently, 96% of Punjab police spending is on wages, and little is available for anything else.
The situation is similar in other states. Worse, a new Pay Commission award is in the offing, and news reports suggest this may mean a 40% rise in the wages of all government employees. If so, that will further squeeze spending on police training and equipment.
Clearly the central government needs to fill the breach. The Israeli training of the SWAT team reportedly cost only Rs 1.5 crore. That is peanuts. Canisters of noxious chemicals and gases are not expensive, nor are low-tech drones. What’s needed is not a mountain of cash but an unrelenting focus on capturing future militants alive.