The two most important issues raised by the Samjhauta disaster seem almost unnoticed amidst the flood of speculation whether it will affect the peace process. Leaving aside where a process, more full of hope than substance, might have been leading anyway, we should focus on two equally intractable problems underlined by the tragedy: the appalling inadequacies of New Delhi’s instruments for dealing with its challenges, and the even more frightening inadequacies of Islamabad for dealing with the Frankenstein of terrorism it created.
Assuming, as we must if there is any hope for the future, that this horror was inflicted despite Islamabad’s sincerity as now an enemy of terrorists, we are left facing a force of endless potential for mischief without any identifiable control. Just as it is futile, if natural and tempting, to blame Washington for the still unfolding enormity of harm its Iraq adventure has done to the world, so too must we set aside Pakistan’s creation of this whole vast network of terror, used deliberately as an instrument of State policy against us, and see how best to cope with the consequences.
But Islamabad’s intentions remain crucial. That, for the first time, the terrorists have struck on both sides simultaneously, symbolises how Pakistan itself is exposed to the viciousness it thought it could turn on and off against us. Can that sense of its own interest in more effective action against its creations become powerful enough to spur both its unilateral efforts and genuine cooperation with us to fight a common enemy?
Pakistan used to enjoy an extremely sophisticated elite, whose doubtlessly honest commitment to Islam by no means excluded modern liberal thinking and preferences virtually indistinguishable from enlightened equivalents elsewhere. Indeed, in some ways, notably in the courageous forthrightness of a press from which we could well learn, Pakistani society has been marked by many of the hallmarks of a forward-looking democracy — except, alas, democracy itself. As in India, such elites have been transformed or displaced by newly empowered elements of society, but whereas with us these new forces have, so far, learned to function within a democratic system — if not always as liberal as one would wish — in Pakistan the rise has been of the more traditional and religiously committed elements (as also here, but less extensively). Have the groups which provide what may be called the modern, liberal pressures within Pakistan, the sense to realise, and the strength to suppress, the threat they themselves face?
So many have left, and so many conform, the answer must surely be no — not without State support. We are told the regime faces so many challenges, and would face so may more if it tried harder to suppress its former henchmen, that we have to be patient. That is doubtless true; while they created the mess, we all have to clear it together. But that is far from meaning, as Pakistan and its friends are wont to tell us, that India must make concessions on its differences with its neighbour, especially on J&K. “ Remove the root cause of terrorism and you will remove terrorism” is a specious slogan, brandished by supporters of ‘freedom fighters’ all over, and rejected all over as a totally unacceptable rationalisation of an unmitigated evil.
No cause, even if indisputably noble, can justify the horrors inflicted on innocents; and the motives of the terrorists, and their manipulators who have harassed India for decades, are far from noble. Yes, the terrorists Islamabad created may be turning against it for not presently going further; and yes, they may be out of Islamabad’s control. Handling them with kid gloves may also be the only way, but the handling must be a lot more convincing than it has been. Years of evidence show that while cooperating (up to a point) with the US to catch anti-Western terrorists, Pakistan exempted India-focused terrorists from the main campaign, retaining them as instruments of State policy against us. And that is what they remain, statistics of reduced incidence proving at best that they can be controlled. If we allow for Islamabad’s limitations, it too must allow for both our mistrustfulness born of its past and the difficulty of reconciling its peaceable professions with several of its continuing policies, notably its increasingly blatant efforts to revive the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even accepting fully that Islamabad had nothing to do with Panipat, we need to see whether Panipat, where mainly Pakistanis were killed, has shocked Islamabad into real cooperation with us against creatures who are as dangerous to the kind of Pakistan its leaders claim to want, as to us. If nothing else, its agencies know fully where the cells are set up in India. But in any case there is no lack of ways in which it can help without any publicity.
The second lesson from Panipat involves so many of our domestic concerns, it calls for separate studies. We simply cannot afford a day longer to let our country suffer from the inefficiencies, and from the machinery and instruments of State action, which have manifestly rusted into increasing worthlessness. There are three aspects — doing the wrong thing, not doing anything and doing the right thing wrong; there are so many examples every day of all three lapses, you can each compile long lists. The net awful truth is that we have let sloppiness, neglect of basic duties, misuse of authority, to say nothing of corruption, become so much the norm that cleaning the Augean stables was a simple task compared to extricating ourselves from this cesspool of uncaring. Worst, the agencies through which a State serves its people’s basic needs don’t even know what to do, except keep passing the buck.
Granted that terrorism is everywhere stealthy and unpredictable; have we in place even the elementary precautions. Most important of all, have we a system to check and ensure that those entrusted with specific tasks are carrying them out? Much has yet to be learned about what led to Panipat, but the bits and pieces emerging just leave one staggered in amazement. It is bad enough that there are absolutely no security arrangements in Delhi railway stations to check for such dangers; here we have our Home Ministry telling us it had advance information and yet nothing was apparently done. To add shame to our dismay, several of the passengers have told the press that all the security personnel at Delhi Junction were interested in was making money. And what to make of our railway security forces actually helping the possible perpetrators jump off the moving train — itself wrong — just because they claimed another destination?
Without being premature, we need not await further details to see that there have been failures of thinking things out in advance, of doing even what can be done within limitations of resources, of attending to the routine of one’s duty. The utter stupidity of the guards on the train raises the further issue of the kind of people our system now forces us to suffer in various positions of authority, high and low alike. We just cannot go on like this — but will our politics permit reform?
The world is now reckoning us among the major players in the international arena. While preening ourselves over that role, we might first reflect on how we can play it if we let our State keep slacking over its duties? And how many more Panipats will we need to wake up?
K Shankar Bajpai is former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, China and the United States