Lessons from Punjab for US

Osama bin Laden must be delighted with American quasi-imperialism in Iraq. Instead of quashing terrorism, the US has surely created more terrorists.


US troops in the restive city of Fallujah.
This will worsen Islamic militancy in other countries, including India. Last week’s Islamic uprising in southern Thailand is evidence of this.

Next, Islamic militants in Iraq may hole up in the sacred shrines at Najaf and Karbala. Removing them will then be fraught with danger, as Sikh terrorist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale demonstrated at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Americans need to study how Punjab dealt with terrorism.Once Bhindranwale installed himself in the Golden Temple, not even rival Sikh factions liked the idea of allowing the police or soldiers to root him out.

In 1983, police DIG Atwal was shot at the Temple entrance, yet Sikhs of all stripes warned against police entry into the sacred shrine, and timid politicians did nothing.

This emboldened Bhindranwale, who began a reign of terror from his religious sanctuary. To finish him, Indira Gandhi launched Operation Blue Star in 1984.

Army tanks stormed the Golden Temple complex, shattering buildings like the Akal Takht. The militants were killed, but so too were pilgrims (rumours soon exaggerated their number to 10,000).

Ordinary apolitical Sikhs were outraged: they saw Blue Star as an attack on Sikhism. Two such Sikhs happened to be Indira Gandhi’s security guards. They gunned her down. Mass killing of Sikhs in Delhi followed, further fuelling Sikh terrorism.

Then came the Rajiv-Longowal accord, which promised peace, but Longowal too was murdered. Akali Chief Minister Barnala could not restore normalcy, and soon militants were back in the Temple again.

To get them out, Rajiv Gandhi devised Operation Black Thunder in 1988. No military assault this time. Instead, the police used time rather than force as their main weapon.

They surrounded the Temple, cut off food supplies, and installed sharpshooters on mina-rets overlooking the Temple. They aimed at militants, not sacred buildings.

Pilgrims were given plenty of time to leave (indeed a cease-fire was decreed from time to time).

The morale of the militants declined steadily as they realised that they would be starved out. Ultimately, they surrendered.

It was a victory. Yet, terrorism remained powerful in Punjab. President’s Rule was imposed and the Army was deployed. This military strategy failed mise-rably.

So a fresh election was ordered in 1992, and won by the Congress because the Akali Dal boycotted it.

The new Chief Minister, Beant Singh, saw clearly that militants could not be bribed with office or won over. They could not be overwhelmed by the Army. But they could be infiltrated and crushed by the police, provided a blind eye was turned to civil liberties.

Beant Singh supported the bullet-for-bullet approach of police chief KPS Gill, who copied terrorist tactics and used extra-judicial killings. He soon crushed the terrorists, and became a national hero.

In his book Punjab: Knights of Falsehood , Gill argues strongly that terrorism in Punjab was defeated not by some mystical force called popular will but by force of arms.

As long as the militants looked strong, the public appeared to be with them. But when Gill started winning the war of blood, the public rallied behind him.

The lessons for Americans in Iraq are clear. First, prevent militants from gaining sanctuary in sacred shrines. Second, if they nevertheless get in, do not depend on moderates (like Ayatollah Sistani) to get them out. Third, never use armed force against a shrine: it will look like a religious assault.

In Falluja, US forces have bombed a minaret of a mosque from which militants were firing. US General Kimmit told reporters that this was not a religious issue, and he would get the minaret rebuilt.

He obviously does not remember Indira Gandhi’s use of her pal Santa Singh to rebuild the shattered Akal Takht. Main-line Sikhs refused to accept reconstruction by people they regarded as apostates: when they regained control of the Takht, they tore down the reconstructed building and rebuilt it yet again. Americans, please take note.

The final lesson from Punjab is that armed forces cannot quell terrorism. The task requires skilled, ruthless police who will not stop at torture and extra-judicial killings.

The only way to achieve this in Iraq is to hand over the task to local thugs in uniform. The US has done precisely this in Falluja, ceding control to a new security force of former Iraqi soldiers headed by General Salih. Those once dismissed as thugs are now back in charge.

Gill could violate civil liberties and yet become a hero. US forces cannot: they will be excoriated at home and in Iraq. But Gen Salih might get away with it.

This will tarnish US claims that it is bringing civilised values to Iraq. Yet, it looks a far superior strategy to military pacification.

What do you think?