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Dec 03, 2016-Saturday
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In just three days from now, the city of Islamabad will be the laboratory for a brave new experiment. Indian and Pakistani officials will sit across the table and act as if they are on the same side of the divide, in the first-ever meeting of the controversial joint anti-terror mechanism.

Eerily, the blasts on the Samjhauta Express should have been the perfect rehearsal run for this inaugural performance. After all here was a terrorist strike that had targeted citizens of both countries. And the victims were mostly poor Pakistanis returning home after meeting a long-lost brother, sister, uncle or aunt. The two countries could not have found a more powerful or poignant symbol of how terrorism is a common enemy.

So, this tragedy could have been a gigantic opportunity for both sides to marry restraint with imagination. Grief, in this case, could have been a galvaniser.

Instead, both bureaucracies, which have always been instinctively allergic to each other, erupted into unseemly petty squabbling. A devastated Pakistani citizen who had lost five children in the blasts became a bizarre battleground for the two governments. He was a key eyewitness and Indian officials, understandably, wanted time to talk to him and others like him who could help the investigations. Pakistani bureaucrats, also understandably, were angered that the Indian government had chosen to describe this process as “interrogation”. But, then they went into overdrive, accusing India of taking the injured people into “custody”. As the two sides fought like children in a playpen, a plane carrying seven injured men and women stood on the tarmac of the Delhi airport for five long hours. It was a cruel warning of just how tough it will be for any joint anti-terror mechanism to get off the ground.

Both governments should have simply thrown open the gates at the Wagah border and allowed all grieving relatives to walk across, irrespective of visas and passports. Instead, though attempts were made at special visa camps, there were still many who waited helplessly on the other side of the No Man’s Land as Indian relatives on this side identified their dead and sent them across.

The blasts on the peace train were not just an example of cross-border terrorism as we have known it for years. They were also a cross-border tragedy of the kind we have never known so far. And so, this attack could challenge and change, both India and Pakistan’s conventional responses to terrorism. It may persuade India to not always play the accuser and it could jolt Pakistan out of imagined victimhood.

To start with, India will have to weigh its words carefully before it points the finger of blame. Terror attacks that targeted our own people were simpler to be aggressive about. So what if we can’t always back up our allegations? So what if we still don’t have enough evidence to put on the table about Pakistan’s role in the Mumbai blasts? In the past, rhetoric was enough to feed off the instinctive mistrust that many Indians felt towards the other side. But this time, India will have to pause, take a deep breath, and actually gather proof, before it can demand explanations from Islamabad. And our investigative agencies will owe it to us to be much more transparent and not lose the truth in a maze of contradictions.

The early signs haven’t been too reassuring. The theories being offered up are clumsy and confusing and belong more to amateur detective novels than to serious diplomatic files. Were there five men who got off the train mid-way or two? Since the train isn’t meant to stop anywhere till it reaches the border, how did these men jump off? Why were they allowed to get off at all, instead of being taken in for questioning? If the coaches of the trains are sealed for security reasons, how does the question of anyone jumping off en route arise? Would a bomber really travel on the same train that he has planted explosives on? How many people got onto the train without a valid passport and ticket, and why? These are all questions still in search of answers.

But none of this means that Islamabad can escape either introspection or responsibility. If the blasts do end up being the handiwork of groups that still have a base in Pakistan, General Musharraf must honestly consider whether he has done enough to contain fundamentalism. Yes, there has been a spate of terror attacks within Pakistan in the last few months. But is this a country that is now paying a tragic price for following a dangerous, self-destructive policy? Why are men like Maulana Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed able to open offices, address rallies and walk free across Pakistan? Pakistani strategists within the military and the ISI must confront the dangers of being selective about terrorism. If Kashmir is a permissible jehad for mercenaries and fundamentalists, can they be stopped elsewhere?

Islamabad can no longer treat Kashmir as an exception to the rule. It must take an unambiguous position on violence. And acts of terrorism in the Kashmir Valley must be addressed by the joint anti-terror mechanism as well, if it is to have any real meaning.

The good news is that the peace process is still on track. Both sides believe that a breakthrough of some kind is within real reach. The terror attack, they say, is only a twisted affirmation of the success of back channel diplomacy. But as we watch the Americans finally pounce on the political establishment in Islamabad, let’s not gloat. A weakened Pakistani State could end up meaning more power for the religious mafia.

And in the meantime, the strongest response either government could make to those who tried to halt the Samjhauta Express in its tracks, is to increase its frequency and allow it to run every day, unfettered by bureaucracy and bribe-takers at the border.

After all, let’s remember one thing: almost 60 years ago when Partition drew bloodlines across the heart of a nation, a train across the border become the most awful symbol of the breach. Today, finally, the train is once again a symbol of homecoming. Let’s keep it that way.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7