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Keep the peace process on track

Siddharth Varadarajan

For the third time in less than a year, terrorists have attempted to derail the peace process between India and Pakistan. Handing them a victory is the last thing we should do.

IN TERMS of the choice of both target and timing, it is not difficult to surmise that Sunday night's bomb blast on board the link train of the Samjhauta Express was aimed primarily at stopping the peace process between India and Pakistan.

As the indigent, divided families who travel on it every week know so well, the time the train takes to run from Delhi to Lahore can hardly be justified by the laws of locomotion or the dictates of cartography. And yet, that journey is a symbol of the civilised neighbourliness ordinary Indians and Pakistanis so desperately yearn for, a hint of what the future might bring if only the understanding and compromise its name connotes were allowed to run to its final destination.

The terrorists who bombed the train are clearly not interested in that final destination. By murdering at least 67 passengers on the eve of a visit to India by Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, their intention is to provoke another bout of tension and finger-pointing between Islamabad and New Delhi. At the very least, their aim is to make the process of travel between the two countries so fraught with danger that few will want to take on the risk and inconvenience of the journey by train, bus or even plane.

In the wake of the coordinated bombing of several commuter trains in Mumbai on July 7, 2006, the terrorists were temporarily able to seize the initiative but that mistake must not be repeated again. Then, India postponed a scheduled meeting of Foreign Secretaries and within days the atmospherics began to degenerate. Policemen in Mumbai and Delhi spoke loosely about the "pretty good evidence" they had of the Pakistani establishment's involvement and it seemed as if the peace process was going into free-fall. In the end, however, the evidence turned out to be less than clinching. The realisation also dawned that dialogue and people-to-people contact help rather than hurt the country's interests.

After some deft pre-negotiation involving the creation of a joint anti-terror mechanism, India finally felt comfortable talking to Pakistan again.

Though India was right to criticise Pakistan for the latter's failure to act against terrorist organisations and training facilities on its territory, it erred in linking the future of the peace process to an incident for which Islamabad's complicity could only be inferred but not established. Indeed, nearly seven months after the blasts, evidence of Pakistan's official complicity continues to elude Indian investigators. Unfortunately, this failure to follow through with the specific allegation will no doubt be used by Pakistan to question the validity of India's general case that terrorist groups continue to operate from its territory.

Fundamental question

At the heart of the Indian policy dilemma lies a fundamental question: is the government of Pervez Musharraf involved in the instigation, planning or execution of terrorist acts such as the blasts in Mumbai and Malegaon and on the Samjhauta Express? There is no doubt the Pakistani establishment has the capability to mount these kinds of covert operations but it is not clear what its motive would be, or what it would stand to gain from a termination of the peace process because there can no longer be any doubt over what the underlying logic of these blasts is.

But if the answer to the question of General Musharraf's involvement is `No', then does this mean there are terrorist groups on the soil of Pakistan that are able to operate independently of, and in opposition to, the Pakistani state? It is obvious that this is so. The numerous bombings that have taken place inside Pakistan such as in Karachi last year on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, the suicide attacks on Pakistani soldiers, and the attempts that have been made on General Musharraf's own life all suggest such "independent" terrorist groups not only exist but are flourishing.

What is not clear, however, is the extent of connectivity between Pakistan's "independent" and "dependent" terrorist outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Islamabad and Washington may like to pretend a Chinese Wall separates the two; in reality, there is mixing and osmosis of men and materiel. That is why the Pakistani establishment is at once both a sponsor and a victim of terrorism.

Three years after promising to act, the Pakistani government remains indifferent to the existence of terrorist groups on its territory. Prominent individuals such as Masood Azhar go in and out of house arrest but the activities of their organisations continue more or less unchecked.

At the same time, the overall scale of cross-border violence and infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir has fallen, though the scale and audacity of terrorist strikes elsewhere in India has gone up.

In assessing its general policy to Pakistan, India knows there is no viable military option or compellance strategy to deal with this problem. The massive military mobilisation during Operation Parakram proved conclusively that India has no option other than diplomacy in dealing with Pakistan.

This does not mean ending terrorism should not be the top-most priority for India. The Government should continue to insist that Pakistan fulfil its January 2004 commitment of not allowing its territory to be used for terrorism directed against India. Shutting down existing and new groups as and when they come up and arresting their leaderships is a verifiable demand that India should make. And for evidence of compliance, it need rely merely on the ample reports that the Pakistani press itself publishes from time to time, rather than on "narco-analysis" and "brain mapping" of terrorist suspects on this side.

Before using the continuation of the peace process as a lever to try and stop terror again, however, India needs to ask whether the peace process has in any way compromised its national security.

Today, many more visas are being issued to Pakistanis than in 2004. Trade is up, both direct and indirect. New transportation routes have opened up in Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan. Business delegations visit each other far more frequently. If any of this has led to national security being compromised on the margins — for example, some 30-odd Pakistanis who applied for visas to watch cricket two years ago have yet to return home — surely our agencies can devise a better system of address verification, information-sharing, and so on so as to minimise the risks involved in encouraging closer people-to-people contact and travel. In the long run, greater travel, tourism, and trade will enlarge the constituency of people inside Pakistan who support the normalisation of relations with India. This, in turn, could eventually alter the political dynamics within Pakistan.

It is also largely thanks to the ongoing peace process that India and Pakistan have established a common vocabulary on Kashmir, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Today, both sides agree that the solution lies in transcending the Line of Control dividing Jammu and Kashmir. This shift in thinking can hardly have endeared General Musharraf to the extremists who regard Kashmir's territory as their own sacred battleground.

It is precisely the prospect of a peaceful solution that has got the authors of the Samjhauta Express and Mumbai train blasts so worked up. Rather than allowing terrorists to dictate the pace and content of the peace process, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf must insist on keeping the initiative in their own hands. There can be no turning back now. The Samjhauta Express martyrs must not have died in vain.

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