Pakistans U-turn

Published : Dec 19, 2008 00:00 IST

A FEW hours before the Mumbai terror attacks began on November 26, Union Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta had just finished his two-day talks with Pakistans Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah in Islamabad, rounding off his visit with a courtesy call on Rehman Malik, who heads the Interior Ministry.

The talks were very positive. The whole point is to move forward and to see how we can do it in a more meaningful way, Gupta told two Indian journalists in his room at the capitals high-security Serena Hotel, the only five-star accommodation that remains after the destruction of the JW Marriott in August.

The meeting, which took place in the framework of the composite dialogue process, was held to discuss issues relating to terrorism, drug-trafficking, counterfeit money, visa liberalisation and the problems faced in returning nationals of one country from the jails of the other.

The Indian official played down the discussions on the issue of terrorism, saying the Pakistani officials were receptive to Indian concerns. He would not be drawn into a discussion on exactly what concerns his side had flagged at the meeting.

We did not get into discussions on individuals or specific cases at this meeting, Gupta said. We conveyed to them that there have been incidents of terrorism in our country and issues relating to involvement of Pakistan have come up, and that this is a matter of concern for us.

According to Gupta, the response was very positive, with the Pakistani side emphasising that they are willing to cooperate. Another Indian official who sat in on this conversation added: Lets put it this way. The attitude is not one of denial any more; they are more willing to sit down and talk about these issues, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The mood in the room was upbeat, and Gupta told the journalists that they must do their bit to improve the ties between the two countries by focussing on positive developments rather than dwelling on how many names of suspects the Indian side gave Pakistan, and who these suspects were.

Famous last words. In less than 24 hours, every positive development between India and Pakistan would be clouded by the Mumbai attacks as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his address to the nation, first made a veiled reference to a suspected Pakistani link, which was followed by a more direct charge by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

The new government in Pakistan has made no secret of its desire to normalise relations with India in every possible way. Only a few days before the Mumbai carnage, President Asif Ali Zardari was the toast of Delhis chattering classes after his speech through a television link at the Hindustan Times Summit, where he said, there is a Pakistani in every Indian and an Indian in every Pakistani, adding for good measure that he did not know whether it was the Pakistani or Indian in him that was speaking at that moment.

Zardari, who has openly espoused a vision for ties with India different from any Pakistani leader until now he wants to set aside the Kashmir issue, he wants to trade with India, he wants Indian companies to invest in Pakistan also turned his countrys nuclear doctrine upside down by declaring that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict with its neighbour.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, as tensions suddenly built up, literally overnight, in the bilateral relations, the unprecedented decision by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to send the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to New Delhi appeared intended to defuse the situation. It was the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government saying to Manmohan Singh: We want good ties with India; we will go any length towards this even if it means doing the unthinkable.

The Prime Minister was emphatic that there was no link between the attacks and Pakistan, but his decision that the ISI chief would visit India at the earliest also seemed to send out the message that if some elements within the country had carried out the attack, the government had no link with them.

But evidently, it was not a well-thought-through decision, well-intentioned though it might have been. Months earlier, the PPP-led government had been forced by the all-powerful Pakistan Army to withdraw a decision to take over the ISI, which is a military-led intelligence agency.

In a replay of that, within hours of the announcement to send Lt. Gen. Pasha, the government clarified that it would be sending only a representative of the ISI, not its Director-General. The correction came after a late-night meeting between Zardari, Gilani and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The decision to send Lt. Gen. Pasha had apparently not gone down well with the Army.

But unlike the governments decision to take over the ISI, this one was widely criticised even by the media, the opposition parties, and retired officials from both the military and the bureaucracy. Pakistan is bristling at the Indian allegation that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack came from its territory. The widespread view in Pakistan is that the Indian establishment and media resorted to a knee-jerk accusation without evidence and that this was India at its habitual worst.

The overwhelming view is that the attack was carried out by home-grown groups, while some as evident in public phone-ins to talk shows even hold the conviction that the entire siege was staged by an Indian intelligence agency in cahoots with the U.S. and Israel to defame Pakistan and create grounds for its dismemberment.

Given this environment, Gilanis immediate acceptance of Manmohan Singhs request to send over the ISI chief has created widespread outrage. It has led to a worsening of the bilateral relations: Pakistanis are smarting at the thought that the Indian government had the gall to summon the ISI chief.

The subsequent U-turn by the government has sent the message out to India, and indeed the world, that the PPP-led government may have a new vision of the bilateral relations but cannot deliver on this because, notwithstanding the arrival of democracy, the Army is the final arbiter of power and policy in Pakistan.

Nirupama Subramanian
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