From evidence-sharing to substantive cooperation

IT IS only very rarely that states which aren’t exactly friendly to each other are suddenly thrown into a situation where they need to cooperate. Such a situation has arisen in the Indian subcontinent with the utterly condemnable bomb explosions on the Samjhauta Express, which killed 68 Pakistani and Indian civilians.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sun 25 Feb 2007, 8:18 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:10 AM

The bombings show not only that Indian and Pakistani citizens remain vulnerable to the depredations of ruthless terrorists and mass killers, but also that the bilateral peace process has become the terrorists’ target.

Investigations haven’t so far revealed the attackers’ identities, but it’s only logical to infer that they wanted to torpedo the ongoing India-Pakistan dialogue. A major pointer is the attacks’ timing, on the eve of Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri’s visit to India.

This conforms to a well-established pattern of terrorists timing their acts to coincide with foreign dignitaries’ visits. Recall that 35 Sikhs were massacred at Chittisinghpura in Kashmir just before President Clinton’s visit in 2000. And in 2002, Kashmiri leader Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated a day ahead of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad.

What makes the Samjhauta Express bombings special are three things. First, like in Malegaon last year, a rare instance, a majority of those killed were Muslims. Second, this is the first time that Indian and Pakistani citizens have been attacked together.

Three, it’s no longer India alone that can ask Pakistan questions about terrorism. Pakistan too can legitimately raise questions about terrorism against its citizens on Indian soil and about the adequacy of safety measures on the train.

The incident compelled the two governments to respond. And they responded quickly, positively — and remarkably maturely. Neither indulged in finger-pointing. Both condemned the attack sincerely and spontaneously. India set up a counter at Lahore to issue special visas to the victims’ relatives.

The bombings provide the two governments an opportunity to cooperate with each other against terrorism. Although India has rejected a joint investigation into the attacks, it has agreed to share all information it gathers with Pakistan.

Contrast this to the Mumbai bombings of July. Then, in knee-jerk reactions, Indian officials blamed Pakistan-sponsored groups, but without producing clinching evidence. New Delhi cancelled a scheduled meeting between the two Foreign Secretaries.

If the two governments today work together purposively in providing relief to the victims, they will set the tone for a productive Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism, for which a meeting has been set for March 6.

We still don’t know precisely who was responsible for the train bombings. In both countries, there are terrorists driven by religious fanaticism who oppose the peace process.

Pakistan’s jihadi militants regard both President Pervez Musharraf and Indian leaders as "enemies". They have repeatedly targeted Pakistani leaders, including Musharraf, in as-yet-unsuccessful assassination attempts.

In India, a fanatical fringe of Hindu nationalists allied to the Bharatiya Janata Party also opposes the peace process. Among them is the notoriously communal Bajrang Dal. The Dal recently announced the formation of a "suicide squad", which would target "jihadi terrorists".

However, the involvement of groups external to South Asia isn’t excluded. The subcontinent has recently become more vulnerable to terrorism because of growing volatility in Afghanistan and rising tensions in West Asia, in particular, the stepping up of the United States’ offensive against Iran and Iraq’s insurgents.

Now, despite their differences, both India and Pakistan have a stake in taking on fanatical groups. If their leaders are wise, they would stop looking for villains exclusively across the border and treating each other’s agencies as the prime suspects in any terrorist attack, unless they have hard evidence.

Instead, they should look for ways of working together against terrorist groups. That is indeed the sense and the mandate of their Havana declaration of last September: to create an "institutional mechanism to identify and implement counter-terrorism initiatives and investigations."

For the moment, India has fought shy of joint investigation, but it should work towards this.

That would be the best way to test Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism in all its forms. Such cooperation will be far more valuable than incremental confidence-building measures.

There are two areas where cooperation would be fruitful: beefing up security arrangements at the air, road and rail transportation facilities that link the two countries, and exchanging intelligence on terrorist groups.

Last Sunday’s train attack exposed major flaws in the security arrangements at the Old Delhi railway station, from where the Samjhauta Express runs non-stop to the border. Passenger baggage was rarely checked thoroughly at Old Delhi. There were only six security guards at the station on Sunday to check total of 2,000 passengers and their relatives. Guards often used to let passengers bring in excess baggage without subjecting it to metal-detector tests — in exchange for a bribe of Rs 50 or 100.

The platform from which the Samjhauta Express leaves used to be freely accessible from all sides. Last Sunday, railway booking clerks issued tickets to several passengers although they did not possess valid passports and visas.

India has now done well to urgently institute 10 different measures to beef up security at Old Delhi, with thorough baggage checks, secure gates at the platform, and dog squads, etc.

An impartial and comprehensive probe into the train bombings will lay the basis for future cooperation on anti-terrorism operations through exchange of intelligence on different organisations active on both sides of the border .

However, this will demand a paradigm shift in the way India and Pakistan look at security and conceptualise terrorism. They will have to view each other in fundamentally different, non-adversarial, ways. India will have to abandon the Islamophobic view its core security establishment takes of terrorism. And Pakistan must rein in its secret agencies and end covert support for jehadi militants.

Such a paradigm shift will be stiffly resisted by the security establishments in both countries. But their political leaders must seize the initiative and move from evidence-sharing to substantive cooperation. One can only hope they muster the courage to turn the tragic bombing episode into an opportunity for peace.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in



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