The Headley affair

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

The Shyam Niwas building in Mumbai where David Headley stayed.-SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

The Shyam Niwas building in Mumbai where David Headley stayed.-SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

According to many people in India, the United States is utterly insensitive to Indian sentiment and is literally frustrating Indias lawful endeavours to interrogate David Headley of 26/11 notoriety. The country, which is now quoting the law to deny Indian investigators access to Headley, is widely perceived to be no great respecter of law, with its dubious record in handling terrorism and terror suspects.

Despite some brave words and the equally brave face of the mandarins in the North Block, which houses the Ministry of Home Affairs, India seems nowhere close to talking to Headley, who has cleverly manipulated the law to keep its agencies at bay. The controversial concept of plea-bargaining, which is slowly making its appearance in Indian law, has come to his rescue. As a reward for confessing to all his illegal actions, including facilitating the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, he has been spared the death sentence. He has also earned immunity from further legal action, including extradition to India.

As I write this, I understand that a letter from the Home Ministry seeking access to Headley is ready for dispatch to the U.S. Department of Justice. If India succeeds, its security officials may get to interrogate Headley at a U.S. jail, but only after getting permission from the relevant U.S. court and probably only in the presence of agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

This tortuous process is demoralising, and India, the affected party, is being made to look comical. The law is an ass may be a hackneyed phrase but nowhere is it more appropriate. Here is a diabolical character who suppressed his Pakistani origins, using a Christian name, and prepared the ground so ably for a brutal attack on Indias financial capital. He still manages to dodge India.

It is quite possible that Mohammed Ajmal Amir Iman Kasab and company may not have achieved all that they did if Headley had not done the recce with such a professional touch. Headleys crime is therefore no less punishable than that of Kasab and his teammates. And still, India cannot interrogate Headley and get to know who his Indian accomplices are who continue to hide themselves in the community. If this is not a travesty of justice, what else is?

Criticism against the North Block in the Headley case is, however, not wholly justified. It has done its homework reasonably well and has gone about the task of getting at Headley in a methodical manner. The scepticism arising from the Home Ministrys failure to secure Headley ignores the fact that the fate of such international investigations rests not on the merits of a case but on a countrys clout among the comity of nations. Let us face it. India does not have the kind of authority in the international community that it assumed it had. The growing feeling is that the U.S. needs Pakistan more than it needs India, and this is why things are not moving as fast as they should in the Headley case. This may not be entirely correct. Nevertheless, Headley is going to be a thorn in India-U.S. relations for quite some time to come.

There may be any number of reasons for the U.S. to be cool towards Indias request. One is the strong suspicion that Headley had worked for one or more U.S. agencies in Pakistan. If this is true, Indian officials questioning of Headley, if and when it takes place, will be tightly controlled by the FBI. No questions on his past might be allowed. The Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) team that is expected to be entrusted with the task could be required to stick scrupulously to his role in 26/11. This could be annoying and it may also whittle down his culpability if he is ever brought to trial in India.

A silver lining is that Headleys co-conspirator Tahawwur Rana, a Canadian citizen who lives in Chicago, is available to India for interrogation. He has pleaded not guilty and therefore does not enjoy the benefits of a plea-bargain. Also, in a sense, he is equally, if not more, important to India than Headley because Rana was present in India at least a short while before 26/11. One report categorically states that he was in India in the third week of November 2008. According to the FBI, he had four Pakistani handlers, possibly all of them belonging to the Pakistan Army. Also, he had active contact with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and, in all probability, had an accurate knowledge of the LeTs future plans in India.

The million-dollar question is how much the FBI will cooperate with India in debriefing Rana. There should not normally be any inhibitions because what Rana knows could not embarrass the U.S., but it may not want Pakistan to feel any discomfiture in the context of Ranas admitted links with the Pakistan Army officers.

Just now, these are only within the realm of speculation. I do not foresee any great reluctance on the part of the FBI to share information with Indian law-enforcement agencies. Any wanton failure to part with information could prove costly. This is because India, in a retaliatory mood, could always ask the U.S. to withdraw the FBI presence from its Embassy in New Delhi. I still recall the difficulty with which it came into India.

This was an act of grace and realism on the part of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, way back in 1999-2000. The matter had been hanging fire for decades, and suddenly India agreed to the placement of FBI legal attaches in the Embassy. I believe that the arrangement has been mutually beneficial. This is why the Barack Obama administration should go out of its way to share all that it knows about Headley and Rana.

I would like to deviate slightly from the subject of action against two known terror suspects to that of protecting our railway systems. This is in the context of what happened a few days ago on the Moscow Metro.

Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up and caused havoc at two metro stations during the morning rush hour. My very logical question is how well protected is our prestigious Delhi metro. I am sure that E. Sreedharan and company have taken adequate care of this. Even then, I am a little sceptical of the state of alertness of most of our public transport personnel. The authorities should also not spare any effort or investment to safeguard metro systems coming up in other cities. Public transport is going to become more and more vital as roads are getting horribly clogged. The Delhi metro should lead the way, especially as the Commonwealth Games are around the corner.

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