ISI machinations can’t be brushed aside

There are a number of reports about Pakistan trying to revive militancy in Punjab, besides dropping weapons for use by militants in Kashmir.

ISI machinations can’t be brushed aside

Corridor an opportunity? ISI is always on the lookout to exploit dissensions.

Lt Gen NPS Hira (Retd)
Former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

There are a number of reports about Pakistan trying to revive militancy in Punjab, besides dropping weapons for use by militants in Kashmir. Given the past diabolic history of the ISI in Punjab, such incidents are no surprise. India is soon to permit 5,000 pilgrims to visit Kartarpur Sahib every day. To avoid any trouble in future, it is important to look at our experience with Pakistan so far.

There were perhaps more players responsible for Punjab militancy within the country than outside. The political parties of the day had their equitable share in the problem. The Punjab police, silent spectators at one stage, later rose to the occasion to get the state out of the dire mess. There is one dimension of the conflict which was not unmasked in its entirety: the role of Pakistan’s ISI.

Intelligence operations being covert in nature, escape attention. The only agencies which get to know about their designs are the security forces or the adversary agencies. A first-hand authentic account of the ISI, which indeed was an eye-opener to the world about its capability, was narrated by Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf of the Pakistan army who was in charge of the ISI’s Afghanistan operations. The revealed magnitude of the operation and the audacity of the ISI shook everyone. Around the same time, the ISI had a parallel operation going on in Punjab, equally notorious. 

The major intelligence agencies of Pakistan are the ISI, IB and military intelligence. It was the poor performance of Pakistan’s IB in 1947-48 war against India that led to the raising of the ISI. It was an external intelligence agency with a major focus on India. General Ayub Khan was distrustful of Bengali police officers in East Pakistan IB. Therefore, he decided to assign the task of internal intelligence of East Pakistan to the ISI. As time went by, there was an increase in the mandate of the ISI in the internal matters to include West Pakistan. When India began to have problems in Nagaland and Mizoram, a separate cell was added in the ISI to exploit trouble in the North-East. Thereafter, a separate cell was raised to assist Sikh Home Rule movement which was in its nascent stage at that time. It was General Zia-ul-Haq who assigned the entire internal intelligence of Pakistan to the ISI. His prime motive was to keep surveillance on his main adversary Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party. Since then, there have been occasional efforts by the Pakistan government to cut down the ISI mandate, with little success.

To begin with, the Khalistan movement was majorly an expatriate venture. It was a master stroke of General Zia-ul-Haq, who shifted the centre of gravity of the Khalistan movement to Pakistan. Zia’s problem was the existing antipathy between the Sikhs and the Muslims, arising out of India-Pakistan partition violence. To mitigate that, he got the Sikh shrines in Pakistan restored and encouraged Sikh pilgrimage. He provided logistics and international propaganda to the movement through Pakistani press. The hypothesis was that keeping Punjab destabilised through militancy was equivalent to Pakistan having an extra army division in war against India at no cost, which holds good even today.

Add to that, the internal politics of Punjab at that time had made the state vulnerable. The evidence of the ISI support to the Khalistan movement can be assessed from the fact that after Operation Bluestar in 1984, the Army recovered 560 rifles, 40 light-machine guns, 90 carbines, 150 pistols and two anti-tank rocket launchers from the temple complex. The ammunition recovered was enough to last a sustained battle for days. The recovery of machine guns and anti-tank rocket launchers in such numbers is a clear evidence of the support from across the border. Had it not been for the support, guidance and training imparted by Pakistan, a state-level law and order problem could not have reached a crescendo. The problem had to be dealt with a fierce war-level action. The Indian Army suffered more than 300 casualties and injuries in one night.

The ISI is a bad word not only in India, but across the globe. It is the largest intelligence agency in the world. It is assessed to be around 10,000 officers and staff, in addition to its informers and assets. Its methods include lobbying and influencing opinions about Pakistan through think tanks in important cities the world over.  Some studies have assessed it to be among the highest rated intelligence agencies. The BBC rated it at number two in the world, next only to Mossad of Israel. The Guantanamo Bay file leaks show that the US considers the ISI to be a terrorist organisation as dangerous as the Al-Qaeda.

During the Punjab militancy, the ISI modus operandi was to fuel the local issues between Sikhs and Hindus by engineering acts of desecration and propaganda. Unaware of ulterior designs, Punjab militants played into the ISI’s hands. Punjab, at present, is peaceful but some local issues can be fomented. Pakistan has been constantly pursuing the policy of ‘death by thousand cuts’ against India. The ISI is very pathological about its work, always on the lookout to create and exploit dissensions.  

Our experience so far with the Line of Control (LoC) and border crossings established between India and Pakistan is that the ISI has been constantly at work to trickle in fake currency, drugs, weapons besides subversion. There are many reasons to rejoice at the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, but we will need to watch out against subversion in particular. Pakistan has ulterior motives to waive visa to encourage the number of visitors. It is India which needs to be on the guard. As I saw it happen when trade was opened between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in 2008, politicos tend to downplay the security perspective for their own reasons. The trade was opened without even installing full-body truck scanners. The trade route has become an additional avenue for the ISI to smuggle in currency and weapons. 

Any mass crossing of the border or LoC, on whatever account, has been seen to serve as a coordination place for the ISI’s sources and militant organisations. Such meeting points obviate the need for using radio or mobile communications, which are susceptible to interception by security forces. Therefore, there must be no complacency and short-cuts in monitoring the visitors and installing the biometric equipment, including face recognition software, at the ICP. Given the past experience and desperation of Pakistan, seen after the revocation of Article 370, it may be naive to think the ISI will let go of any such opportunity. Our intelligence agencies are up against one more challenge.

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