Dec 3, 2008

World - Will Mumbai Chill the India-Pakistan Thaw?

Ishaan Tharoor

Whenever terrorism rears its head in India, it probably has left its tail in Pakistan. Or so seems the knee-jerk instinct of many Indians. But in the wake of last week's Mumbai terror attacks, that sentiment may be, in this instance, correct. Ongoing investigations by Indian police - helped in part by the capture of the sole surviving terrorist, 21-year-old Pakistani Ajmal Amir Kasab - suggest that the attacks may have been conceived and carried out primarily by Pakistanis, with the backing of noted terrorist organizations acting within Pakistani territory. This is a revelation that will surprise few Indians, and provide fresh political capital to others. Already, the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist group based in Mumbai, has openly declared that it won't allow Pakistani artists to perform in the city. Even ordinary civilians are turning hawkish. "We need to tell them that enough is enough," says Sheikh Noor Ahmed, who owns a hotel close to the bombed-out Taj Mahal here in South Mumbai. "Gandhi's days are gone. Gone are the times when we'd turn the other cheek if someone slapped us." (See pictures of Mumbai after the massacre.)

But how India can slap back at its troublesome neighbor is a question with no easy answer. Recent months have seen a significant thawing in ties between the two nations, with trade expanding across the heavily militarized Kashmir border. Pakistani President Asif Zardari has made pronounced gestures of friendship, some of which have put him in hot water with his own people - such as his statement earlier this year that he did not consider India, with whom Pakistan has fought three bitter wars since 1947, a threat to its western neighbor.

Though the thirst for solid action is palpable among Indians, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ruling Congress Party do not want to undermine the growing relationship with their Pakistani counterparts, which, until the attacks, promised to be one of the more fruitful ententes in South Asia's fractious history. In the days after the events of Nov. 26, New Delhi never explicitly pointed fingers at Pakistan - let alone massed troops along the border or escalated tensions the way a preceding government in 2001 had done after militants struck the Parliament building. "You have to take action without undercutting the people who want to cooperate with you," says Amitabh Dubey, director of India research for Trusted Sources, a London-based risk consultancy firm. "But they're going to have to be seen to do something."

New Delhi has already sent Islamabad a list of some 20 terrorist suspects currently thought to be hiding in Pakistan, including the notorious don of Mumbai's underworld, Dawood Ibrahim, as well as the chiefs of anti-Indian extremist groups Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). Pakistan has yet to accede to these demands, though it has called for the formation of a joint investigative arm to ferret out terrorists who plague both nations. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to land in New Delhi on Wednesday in a show of support for India's fight against terror. "What we are emphasizing to the Pakistani government," she told reporters in London on Monday, "is the need to follow the evidence wherever it leads."

The evidence may lead to a sticky situation for the U.S., which is desperately trying to focus Pakistan's government on combating resurgent militants along its inflamed border with Afghanistan. In the run-up to his presidential campaign, President-elect Barack Obama claimed he'd be willing to unilaterally launch targeted strikes against terrorist camps operating within Pakistani territory - a lesson not lost on Indians eyeing the bases of groups like LeT, which allegedly trained the Mumbai attackers. "There has been an international legitimization of such a strike in Pakistan," says Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. While few think India will take such provocative action, the ruling Congress party is facing intense domestic pressure from opposition parties that, as elections loom, have labeled Singh's administration as soft on terror. "The Congress party has to be seen as strong. The country's asking for it," says Banerjee.

To assist India, the U.S. must play a pivotal role, suggests defense analyst C. Uday Bhaskar, in ushering in a political environment in Pakistan that does not give space to anti-Indian terrorism. This begins with a final reckoning within the Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence services. "The U.S. has over a 40-year relationship with Pakistan's army," says Bhaskar. "[Secretary of State] Rice ought to say: 'Guys, the script has changed.'"

The much more daunting challenge facing India's leaders, though, is one that cannot be solved by pointing fingers. The audacity of the strike against Mumbai's ritziest neighborhood and the carnage that ensued has exposed troubling holes not only in India's security apparatus, but in whole realms of domestic governance, from its leaky immigration policy to how municipalities are funded to how its minorities are treated. That requires the sort of earnest, thankless hard work few governments can muster, especially while campaigning for elections. Meanwhile, India's public is fuming. "Today," says hotelier Ahmed, almost shaking with rage, "we must put an end to this nonsense once and for all." With reporting by Madhur Singh/Mumbai and Jyoti Thottam/New Delhi

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