Gurdaspur and Pathankot: An Unfinished Task?
Recently, two attacks in Punjab exposed the vulnerability of the regions Indo Pak border. The first attack was on the Dinanagar town of Gurdaspur district in July, 2015. The next attack was a strike in the wee hours of 2nd January at the Pathankot Airbase. Both these attacks were shortly followed by the meetings between Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif, first at Ufa and the next being a surprise visit by PM Modi to Lahore.
…the Indian policy making circles realise that Gurdaspur is indeed an unfinished task for Pakistani army and the ISI, who have exhausted conventional as well as unconventional means of pressure tactics to create disturbance in the region.
The dominant debates were regarding defense preparedness to thwart such attacks, swiftness of decision making, coordination among authorities and porous borders which eased the militants’ infiltration. Amidst the surprise and chagrin the Indian establishment was caught with, a key issue rarely discussed was the geopolitical significance of these terrorist attacks. Both these attacks took place in the Gurdaspur district (Pathankot was carved out of Gurdaspur as a separate district in 2011).
The rationale to strike at Gurdaspur has certain valid explanations. Gurdaspur is a significant to recall in the context of demarcation of the Radcliffe line. It is said that while drawing the Indo-Pak border, the Chairman of the boundary commission, Cyril Radcliffe had first placed the border district of Gurdaspur in Pakistan as it consisted of a Muslim Majority population. Later, he placed three tehsils of Gurdaspur in the Indian side of Punjab while allocating one Tehsil, the Shakargarh Tehsil to Pakistan’s Punjab. The Pakistani side lodged a strong protest against this move and accused Indian leaders of influencing this decision.
Pathankot also lies at the trijunction of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir making it a strategic point for any attacker to sneak into other states. Most Importantly, The National Highway 1(A) passes through Pathankot which is the sole the highway link connecting the Kashmir valley. During the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, the Pathankot airbase was repeatedly attacked by the Pakistani air force as it lies in the first line of defense against any Pakistani aggression. It is located barely 40 kilometers from the border. During the 1965 War, Pakistan Army’s commandos from the Special Services Group had raided Pathankot airbase and other forwards airbases.
The Gurdaspur-Pathankot lies close to east of the Shakargarh Bulge, a cartographic protrusion on the Punjab- Jammu & Kashmir continuation that borders Pakistan. The strategic importance region is explained by Major General Sukhwant Singh in his book India’s Wars since Independence :
During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, this bulge was a theatre of intense fighting where Indian army successfully thwarted the Pakistani offensive…
“The Shakargarh bulge juts out like a tongue from the main landmass of Pakistan between the Chenab and the Ravi. It southern portion rests on the Ravi, the northern runs parallel to the Shivalik range, leaving a narrow segment between the international boundary and the hills, and its tip points towards Madhopur headworks and the Pathankot military base beyond. The main road and rail communications between Pathankot, Samba and Jammu run very close to the border throughout. In the south, the sensitive areas of Amritsar, Batala and Gurdaspur in Punjab state lie within easy striking distance across the Ravi”.
During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, this bulge was a theatre of intense fighting where Indian army successfully thwarted the Pakistani offensive and this battle is counted among one of the most successful feats achieved by the Indian army.
Forty Five years later, two back to back attacks must alarm the Indian establishment that there are elements within the Pakistani establishment which have zoomed in on the Gurdaspur-Pathankot belt, thus reviving the debate about its strategic significance as well as the circumstances in which this region was allocated to India. It is high time that the Indian policy making circles realise that Gurdaspur is indeed an unfinished task for Pakistani army and the ISI, who have exhausted conventional as well as unconventional means of pressure tactics to create disturbance in the region. A combination of a successful entry point of drugs, and lately terrorists, it is a high time that gaps are plugged. The region is sitting on a powder keg and is on the verge of explosion.