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Guilt and redemption?

india Updated: Feb 14, 2009 01:02 IST

Let’s be honest. When Pakistan’s reply finally came it wasn’t what any of us expected. After weeks of denials, contradictions and obfuscations it was almost unreal to watch Pakistan’s Interior Minister tell it like it is. Yes, he said, the Bombay attacks were (partly) plotted in Pakistan; yes it was the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba that held the remote control and yes, the boats left from the shores of Karachi. It was pretty astounding, given that just a couple of weeks ago the country’s National Security Advisor was sacked for merely conceding that Kasab was a Pakistani national.

India’s official response has been understandably cautious and opaque. “Positive development” is all that the government’s top ministers were willing to say with a familiar call to “dismantle the terror infrastructure.” But in a sense, this was almost a transformative moment. It’s the first time in decades that Pakistan has had to book nine of its own citizens for acts of terrorism in India.

And this time, there was no context for crouching behind ideology or Kashmir or phrases like “mujahideen”. Washington may have played the role of ventriloquist but the admissions we heard from Rehman Malik were almost identical to the charges made in India’s official dossier. There were a couple of digs at India (“Ali from Sialkot is like Sharma from Delhi,” among the more provocative ones) and a few contentious questions (how did the terrorists get Indian SIM cards; was there a local link?) but everything else more or less tallied with the Indian formulation.

So, what happens next? Will this take India and Pakistan back from the brink? Will the two countries turn a corner again? Or will the stalemate drag on in perpetuity? My sense is that Pakistan’s response has certainly altered the temperature but winter hasn’t quite moved into spring yet.

Here’s what possibly worries the Indian government. Has Pakistan managed to play out a fantastically clever image-building exercise with the international community that buys it an inordinate amount of time, without forcing it into action? With Islamabad localising action against nine suspects, have the big guns walked free? If Pakistan admits that the Laskhar-e-Tayyeba was the terrorist group that planned the attacks, how does it explain why its chief ideologue Hafiz Saeed is only under house arrest?

Every time this question is asked of Pakistani journalists or politicians, they argue that a court must decide whether Hafiz Saeed needs to be in prison or not. But the Indian government will then ask President Zardari why he did not trust his country’s courts to deliver justice when his wife was assassinated? Why did he want the United Nations to investigate Benazir’s killing? And why has his government not reinstated the sacked Chief Justice? The recent release of Pakistan’s nuclear godfather-turned traitor — A.Q. Khan — by an Islamabad court has only complicated the perceptions of which side, if any, Pakistan’s judiciary is on.

India’s reservations are entirely legitimate. But in the meantime, there are a few minor obfuscations of our own that we have to abandon. There was much media to-do after Bombay’s top cop said, rather matter-of-factly, that the terror attacks did have some local links. He argued that logistical support might have been provided domestically. Yes, perhaps he spoke out of turn and contradicted the official government position. To that end, the need to talk is clearly embedded in the subcontinent’s DNA. But, did he really say something that needs to make us paranoid?

We have known for weeks that Fahim Ansari, originally from Goregaon in Bombay, played some part in the larger conspiracy. Hand-drawn maps of the city were recovered from him during interrogation. Even the FBI asked to question him to investigate his role in the 26/11 attacks. Some reports even suggested that while in custody, he told the police that Bombay could come under attack. And nobody took him seriously.

The Fahim Ansari story did not in any way take away from the fact that the nerve centre of the operation was in Pakistan. And despite the rhetorical face-off between Narendra Modi and P. Chidambaram, it doesn’t make a larger political point about the loyalty of India’s Muslims either. The world isn’t going to look at Pakistan’s culpability differently just because investigations point to a handful of local terrorist connections. So when Bombay’s police chief made the point about local arrests he possibly goofed up in how he articulated it. But we needn’t expend much more defensive energy on it.

So, if one of Pakistan’s 30 questions is on how the terrorists got hold of local mobile phone numbers, let’s answer it without going into an aggressive-defensive tailspin. If they raise questions about whether there are any linkages between the Bombay attacks and the Samjhauta Express blasts, let’s tell them what we know. To have confidence in one’s position is to have the ability to be transparent. And we must be able to answer all the questions they ask of us.

India’s scepticism about Pakistan’s ability or willingness to strike at the root of terrorism is valid. But, listen carefully to the noises from the other side of the border as well. The Laskhar has swiftly attacked the Zardari government for ‘surrendering’ to India and trying to seek ‘a pat on the back’ from the United States. The United Jehad Council — a conglomerate of terrorist groups — has warned of violence travelling to cities like Lahore and Islamabad, if the ‘sell-out’ continues. Pakistan’s security establishment may have created the proverbial monster that could bite the hand that used to feed it. But India is not safe either, if that happens.

In a scenario where every choice is laden with risk, India’s best bet may be to keep pushing international opinion. Talk, in this case, may not be cheap. But it has to be done.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.