India-Pakistan: United against terror?

Posted in Terrorism | 18-Apr-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) shakes hands with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf after making a joint statement in New Delhi April 18, 2005.

NEW DELHI: One success of the India-Pakistan peace process is the emerging unified voice against terrorism. India has for long blamed the Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf as well as the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence he controls for fomenting cross-border terrorism. The two countries almost went to war consequent to an attempt by terrorists to storm the Indian Parliament in December 2001. However, two recent developments are a clear indicator that the peace process that has been described by Musharraf as ``virtually irreversible’’ during his weekend visit to India, has indeed gained a new momentum.

Pakistan-based militant organization Hizbul Mujahideen, which has for long waged a bloody battle in Indian Kashmir has renewed an offer (a similar offer was made in 2000, but no headway was made) to hold talks with New Delhi. ``If India invites us for talks, we'll come to the table,’’ said the organization's chief Syed Salahuddin. Salahuddin said the ``freedom fighters’’ did not oppose the 14-month peace process between Pakistan and India. ``We want India and Pakistan to come closer because it augurs well for India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris and reduces chances of war,’’ he said. Observers here say that an offer from the Hizbul, which in the past has openly supported such organization as the Lashkar-e-Taibba, cannot happen without the go-ahead by the Pakistani establishment. Though it will be presumptuous to predict whether anything worthwhile will result, with the offer hardly seen as a change of heart of extremists, it is an indication of the pressure that is being mounted on terror outfits both in India and Pakistan.

The second recent event has been the uniform derision by both India and Pakistan of the attempts to sabotage the inauguration of the first bus service between Indian and Pakistan Kashmir. In a statement Pakistan has said that the threats to the bus service were ``uncalled for’’ as only ``genuine Kashmiris’’ would be traveling. ``We see the Kashmir bus service as a significant confidence-building measure, specific to the people of Jammu and Kashmir and a measure to alleviate the sufferings of the Kashmiris,’’ the foreign office spokesman, Jalil Abbas Jilani has said. Musharraf condemned the failed attack in Srinagar on the passengers staying at a tourist lodge.

More importantly, India did not see any reason to distrust the incumbent Pakistani regime for having orchestrated the attacks in any way and the bus service kept its date with history on April 7. Clearly the feeling is that Pakistan, including Musharraf, might at one time have indulged in promoting terror outfits against India, there has been a turnaround now with the hunter now the hunted. The joint statement issued by India and Pakistan consequent to the meeting (morning April 18 in New Delhi) between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Musharraf has highlighted that more contact between the two countries will mean less terror.

Reports from Pakistan indicate that Musharraf faces flak from extremists who are now gunning for him given his support to the peace process in India. He is looking to turn Pakistan into a moderate Muslim nation as well as seek out Benazir Bhutto for political legitimacy. From Musharraf’s point of view, there aren’t too many options given the keen eye that the USA is keeping on the region.

One primer that Musharraf is a prime target of the terror groups was the security envelope that has surrounded his visit to India over the weekend, ostensibly to watch a cricket match, but more in the nature of a mini summit. Most of south Delhi, where Musharraf traveled and lodged, was out-of-bounds for the citizens of the capital. This correspondent can only recall similar security arrangements for President Bill Clinton when he visited India.

Indeed, the pre-dominant thought among security agencies in India is that the top Pakistani establishment is for peace at least for now. It is the middle and lower levels that have for long fed off the spoils of a proxy war with India who are the main threat. These will have to be tackled by India independent of Islamabad’s ability or predilection to take them on. The insistence of a ``soft border’’ by both Musharraf and Manmohan has made matters more difficult. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri has said that Pakistan favors opening of more bus routes depending upon the success of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. There are reports that trucks may be allowed to ply between Indian and Pakistan Kashmir in order to promote the highly lucrative business of flowers.

There is no gainsaying that if there has been success in checking terror activities in Indian Kashmir it is due to strict vigil by security forces as well as the implementation by India of the fencing along the Line of Control (LoC) that separates Indian and Pakistan Kashmir. This has resulted in a marked decline in the levels of infiltration of armed militants. Infiltration levels are usually down during the winter months (November-February) due to heavy snowfall but picks up after April once the snow melts when the security forces have to be on their toes. Officials fear the period of lull is over.

The problem becomes particularly acute as the only document (for the bus service) that will be required to access Indian Kashmir and vice versa will be entry permits that can be procured at the local level, as per the agreement reached between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan. Officials warn that there have been innumerable instances of Pakistani national’s who have not returned to their country after the expiry of their visas, presumably to set up terror cells or indulge in sale of arms and narcotics. Security agencies also aver to the fact that there already is a discrepancy in the number of people who have come and gone back in the wake of quick visas issued to cricket fans who have flocked to India to witness the just concluded cricket series between the two countries.

According to a senior official of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) that oversees internal security: ``While there is no denying fact that the India-Pakistan peace process must proceed with the bus service a major step forward, the government has to take care to ensure that the intelligence structure in Kashmir is strengthened once the physical barriers to entry are reduced.’’

Similar fears have also been voiced by the Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has warned the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance against converting the country into a ``soft state.’’ A delegation led by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the original architect of the peace process with Pakistan which took off under his aegis in January last year, met Manmohan recently to impress the issues arising out of the bus service. The move, the BJP leaders felt, could gravely affect the ongoing efforts by the armed forces to check Jehadi infiltration from across the border.

Asked whether the BJP felt the UPA government was going ``soft” on terrorists, former finance as well as foreign minister Jaswant Singh said: ``I don’t want to get into a debate, but the actions speak for themselves. In that case, why have a LoC, barbed wires or armed forces?’’

Indeed, going by the ``out-of-box’’ phraseology constantly re-iterated by Musharraf in India, the road to further Indo-Pak entente seems only to be widening. The threat of terror, however, looms. But, for once India is not blaming Pakistan.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)