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India - Pakistan: Some new some old unanswered questions

by Jawed Naqvi, 2 July 2010

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Dawn, 1 July, 2010

Missing the questioning spirit

THE Indian prime minister has said that the only way to approach relations with Pakistan was to trust it, but with requisite verification. If there is a genuine inclination to mend ties, doubt rather than trust could be a more positive approach.

India can legitimately continue to doubt Pakistan’s overt and covert doings provided Indian policymakers also learn to introspect. They should diligently verify and crosscheck actual as distinct from imaginary factors that give rise to their doubts. The same holds true for Pakistan’s often misplaced worries about India’s motives.

Verified doubt is scientific and it lays the foundation for merit-based trust. Karl Marx was not cynical when he proclaimed his motto was to ‘doubt everything’. There can be no denying that Pakistan by omission and commission has been a source of religious fanaticism and terror among its neighbours and, just as worryingly, also for itself.

The leaders of India and Pakistan recognised this reality in 2005 when they agreed that their peace process was irreversible. They came to the conclusion because they could identify, verify and isolate those they felt were hostile to their quest for durable friendship, as the Mumbai bombers no doubt were.

Yet bilateral talks have continued to run out of steam periodically ever since a serious effort was made in Lahore in 1999 to put them on the rails. The slide back was possible because subsequent efforts were anchored in mealymouthed tokenism rather than in a healthy questioning spirit. The advantage of a questioning spirit is that it is the opposite of an inquisition.

A true questioning spirit is usually introspective in nature, not accusatory. Take one recent example. Since four Pakistani prisoners were ordered to be released ahead of Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s recent visit to Islamabad, a worthwhile question to ask him was how many similar prisoners had remained behind in Indian jails. But the Indian media went to town about the generous gesture, turning the Indian home minister into a Roman emperor celebrating his daughter’s birthday. Pakistan periodically indulges in similar tokenism. A new list of each other’s prisoners will be exchanged on July 1. That should give a glimpse into the enormity of the mutual bilateral crime that Dr Manmohan Singh wants to airbrush with trust.

Perhaps the most important question that craves an answer from the recent confabulations between the two sides is why the talks have resumed. What has changed between November 2008 and now? When did the Indian prime minister decide that trust with verification was the best policy towards Pakistan and why could this not have been said in December 2008? The essence of the question really lies in the cynical suspension of the talks after Mumbai. Why were the talks suspended and what was achieved by that? Is another attack now ruled out?

Dr Manmohan Singh was in the opposition when the parliament attack took place in December 2001. He and some of his current cabinet colleagues had asked some probing questions of the government of the day. The courts have given their verdicts and now TV-sponsored ‘people’ are busy debating how the lone death row convict Afzal Guru can be denied presidential pardon (given to seven convicts last week).

However, even today a set of 13 searching questions that were asked by a group of lawyers, journalists and writers about the dubious parliament attack has not been answered. Since the questions pertained to an event that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of a nuclear conflict, recalling some of the lingering doubts should remain the duty of all those seeking trust between the two countries and between their governments and their people.

The entire parliament attack was recorded live on CCTV. Congress party MP (now minister) Kapil Sibal demanded in parliament that the CCTV recording be shown to the members. He was supported by the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptullah, who said that there was confusion about the details of the event. The chief whip of the Congress party, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, said: “I counted six men getting out of the car. But only five were killed. The close-circuit TV camera recording clearly showed the six men.”

If Dasmunshi was right, why did the police say that there were only five people in the car? Who was the sixth person? Where is he now? Why was the CCTV recording not produced by the prosecution as evidence in the trial? Why was it not released for public viewing? Why was parliament adjourned after some of these questions were raised?

A few days after the attacks, the government declared that it had ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of Pakistan’s involvement in the attack, and announced a massive mobilisation of almost half a million soldiers to the India-Pakistan border. The subcontinent was pushed to the brink of nuclear war. Apart from Afzal Guru’s ‘confession’, extracted under torture (and later set aside by the supreme court), what was the ‘incontrovertible evidence’?

Is it true that the military mobilisation to the Pakistan border had begun long before the Dec 13 attack? The courts acknowledged that Afzal was a surrendered militant who was in regular contact with the security forces, particularly the special task force (STF) of the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police. How do the security forces explain the fact that a person under their surveillance was able to conspire in a major militant operation?

Is it plausible that organisations like the Lashkar-i-Taiba or Jaish-i-Mohammad would rely on a person who had been in and out of STF torture chambers, and was under constant police surveillance, as the principal link for a major operation?

On Dec 19, 2001, six days after the parliament attack, police commissioner, Thane (Maharashtra), S.M. Shangari identified one of the attackers killed in the attack as Mohammad Yasin Fateh Mohammad (alias Abu Hamza) of the Lashkar-i-Taiba, who had been arrested in Mumbai in November 2000, and immediately handed over to the J&K police. He gave detailed descriptions to support his statement. If Mr Shangari was right, how did Mohammad Yasin, a man in the custody of the J&K police, end up participating in the parliament attack? If he was wrong, where is Mohammad Yasin now?

When these questions were asked in a book, Dr Singh was in the opposition. Today he is in the best possible position to lift the veil from over a cynical system that has an agenda far removed from his peace mission. He needs to doubt the system he heads.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.