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What caused India's about-turn in Havana?

September 27, 2006 18:47 IST
Irrespective of the bonhomie between the leaders of the two estranged countries in Havana, it is certain that our foreign policy with regard to Pakistan continues in the same old inconsistent, confused and 'trial and (t)error' fashion.

The latest proclamations by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which supposedly amount to giving a clean chit to Pakistan on the terrorism count and the subsequent resumption of the peace process, has come under severe criticism from all quarters.

The leading lights of the previous NDA government, once vehemently criticised by the Congress-led Opposition for adopting a wavered approach toward Pakistan, have wasted no time in returning the favour.

Addressing the media accompanying him to to Brasilia and Havana, Dr Singh gave a new twist to the government's Pakistan policy by stressing the need to strike a balance between engaging with Pakistan and continuing to tackle 'external sources of terrorism.'

But more importantly, in a significant, unexpected shift, he created a domestic political storm by conceding for the first time ever that Pakistan itself is a 'victim of terror' and the terror acts against India could have been undertaken by 'autonomous jihadi groups' which are beyond General Musharraf's control.

The pressure which had built on Pakistan since the 7/11 blasts in Mumbai and the subsequent suspension of the composite dialogue process fizzled out in a flicker. This is a major concession to Pakistan, which would legitimise all future terror attacks against India without any blame being put on General Musharraf's regime.

Dr Manmohan Singh not only allowed the Opposition to train its guns on him again, but also provided on a platter the much needed space and respite to General Musharraf at a time when he has been under intense domestic pressure following Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti's killing.

With his latest remarks, the prime minister seems to have conveyed that New Delhi, in contrast to the popular perception, would continue with the dialogue even if the terrorist attacks do not end.

Unfortunately, it also suggests that the threshold of our tolerance to Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism has no limits.

The shift also trivialises and negates Manmohan Singh's proclamation in July 2005 in New York where he had said that being the prime minister of the world's largest democracy, it would not be possible for him to go beyond public opinion if such terror attacks continued against India.

It is rather difficult to fathom what prompted the prime minister to shift from India's traditional stand of holding Pakistan's military regimes and ISI responsible for all terror attacks undertaken over the years in India. Such a concession has not only weakened India's case of seeking extradition of 20 top terrorists staying in Pakistan but also given other neighbours like Bangladesh room for anti-India activities in the garb of 'autonomous' acts.

Besides, the parameters to differentiate between a Pakistan-sponsored and autonomous group are very difficult to determine. Also, even while certain incidents can be regarded as acts of 'autonomous groups,' can Pakistan be absolved of its responsibility of controlling them?

Evidently, in matters pertaining to Pakistan's security, General Musharraf's government unhesitatingly sanctioned the use of artillery, rockets, helicopter gunships and tanks against rebels in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and Balochistan. It even went to the extent of eliminating the veteran Baloch leader, former governor and chief minister Akbar Khan Bugti.

Any student of Pakistan affairs would vouch for the capabilities and potential of the Pakistani military, especially in the light of what it is doing in Balochistan and the FATA. It is thus rather difficult to digest their helplessness and inability in prevailing on the anti-India groups.

The prime minister's remarks would substantially reduce the seriousness and intensity of all future warnings which India may have to issue in response to untoward incidents. Very few, including Pakistan would take India seriously when it says that 'there is a need to do more' and Pakistan has not 'done enough' to control groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Hizbul Mujahideen, among others.

Having received the benefit of doubt from India over its role in anti-India activities, a relieved Pakistan would now be least concerned about the evidence which India has provided from time to time of its sponsorship and support of terrorism. Having agreed to engage irrespective of terrorist attacks in India, the onus will now rest solely on India to continue the engagement with Pakistan.

The composite dialogue with Pakistan was suspended after the 7/11 Mumbai blasts, and India had given a firm message that for the peace process to continue it was necessary for Pakistan to do more with regard to terrorism. It is natural to ponder that if the blasts led to the suspension of talks with Pakistan, then what has changed since July on the ground and in Pakistan's policies to prompt the prime minister to give akistan an alibi?

One can only speculate that India may have decided to lower the ante with Pakistan --perhaps at the behest of the US -- so as to undercut the 'nuclear flashpoint theory' with reference to the India-US nuclear deal. But India could have done this without necessarily giving Pakistan a clean chit. Also, if the US president favours sending troops into Pakistan to capture Osama Bin Laden, then why does India have to be nice to Pakistan ignoring its own security interests?

Another possible explanation can be Manmohan Singh's non-aggressive leadership style. His softening under alleged US pressure puts him at par with his Congress predecessor P V Narasimha Rao, who is said to have buckled under US pressure and shelved the nuclear tests in 1995.

In contrast, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee can be projected as a statesman whose leadership consisted of diplomatic sagacity and courage. He had mandated the 1998 nuclear tests without any fear of international or domestic backlash and had undertaken the historic bus trip to Pakistan amidst heightened tension between the two countries.

Apart from Dr Singh's much-talked about policy proclamations, the newly envisaged Indo-Pakistan Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism is drawing flak too. The basic point of contention here is 'trust' which is essential for the mechanism to take off, let alone succeed.

There are several institutional problems and bilateral contradictions too which are vital to examine before this mechanism can be put into service.

Terrorism was one of the eight issues under the formulation of the composite dialogue process of 1997, which called for setting up a mechanism for bilateral cooperation and exchange of information at the interior and home secretary level on the subject. So this is not a new mechanism.

Was the earlier mechanism a failure? If so, what guarantees are there that the new mechanism would not suffer a similar fate?

Second, wouldn't it be naive of the two sides to expect a robust cooperation between two rival agencies -- Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence and India's Research and Analysis Wing? The two agencies which have always seen each other as competitors in the field would be very sceptical in cooperating under the shadows of the past.

In August, the Indian Central Bureau for Investigation and Pakistan's Federal Intelligence Agency met after 17 years to discuss human trafficking, counterfeit currency and illegal immigration. Considering the long-prevailing apprehensions, misperceptions and rivalry between the two sides, sceptics regarded this meeting as a mere formality and did not expect substantial gains. The same would be the case under the new mechanism.

Third, Dr Singh's statement that Pakistan is also a 'victim of terror' like India, ignored the basic difference between the two cases. Pakistan is a victim of terror because of its own jihadi polices and hobnobbing with fundamentalist groups over the years. India is a victim due to Pakistan's policies.

There is no similarity between the two cases. Also, there can be no joint mechanism which deals with the kind of terrorism Pakistan faces -- sectarian and sub-national in nature, and the one which India confronts -- sponsored by Pak-based groups.

Fourth, the most important lacunae in the new mechanism is that there is no clear provision for taking to task or handing over the terrorist who are found guilty for terrorist activities. Dawood Ibrahim has been kept out of the purview of the new joint mechanism. With such inbuilt riders and lacunae, isn't the new mechanism doomed?

Lastly, in an interview on a television channel on September 21, Pakistan High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan, who seemed to favour the new mechanism, hedged when asked whether, if the joint mechanism succeeded in getting evidence against any terrorist leader in Pakistan, he would be handed over to India.

Incidentally, reports implicating Azam Cheema, the Lashkar commander in Bhawalpur, in the 7/11 Mumbai blasts are a blatant reminder of Pakistan's involvement in terrorist activities in India. Will Pakistan hand over Cheema to India to prove its bonafides? No way! Giving a flavour of things to come, Aziz Khan says unless they investigate the matter themselves, no decision can be taken.

In a nutshell, one wonders whether the unilateral concessions made by New Delhi would go beyond soothing nerves in Islamabad while India prepares itself for likely terrorist attacks, with Durga Puja and Diwali round the corner.

How peacefully the coming festivals pass would perhaps determine whether the prime minister's about turn in Pakistan policy was prudent or a costly historic concession to Pakistan.

The author is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.

Complete coverage: Dr Singh at NAM | The India-Pakistan peace process

Ashutosh Misra