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The courage to trust

india Updated: Sep 24, 2006 14:59 IST
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Come October, some fresh pairs of hand will take charge at the Foreign Office in South Block and the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. With this, there will be a marked shift in the official perception, if not policy, of dealing with Pakistan — one that seeks to recognise our neighbouring state as both a source and a victim of terrorism.

It is a view that has been increasingly articulated by foreign secretary designate Shiv Shankar Menon in the last few months of his tenure as Indian envoy to Pakistan. It is a view High Commissioner designate Satyabrata Pal will increasingly advocate in the coming months. It is a view that will set the tone for the joint anti-terror mechanism being drawn up on the Indian side.

The thrust of the mechanism would be intelligence sharing — focusing on the terror and sleeper modules across India, but excluding those in Jammu and Kashmir. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have created trouble for Islamabad too; so cooperation would be extended on them. But the Kashmir-specific groups would remain out of the purview of this mechanism.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who agreed in Havana with President Pervez Musharraf to set up the joint institutional mechanism, denies that there has been a paradigm shift in New Delhi’s policy towards Islamabad. “There is no shift in our stand,” Singh said while returning from Havana.

At home, the decision has been greeted with predictable howls of “sellout”, “sleeping with the enemy” and “capitulation” to US pressure. This echoes the standard response to any act of terrorism in India — pointing an accusative finger at Pakistan and terming it a “manufacturing unit of world-wide terror” or “fountainhead of jihad” in official communications.

“There is a section of the bureaucracy that loves hatred of ‘the other’,” says senior Supreme Court advocate A.G. Noorani, who in a recent conversation with Musharraf suggested a joint counter-terrorism mechanism. This is the institutional legacy the new policy makers will have to work against.

Setting the tone

This is, however, not the first time the security agencies from India and Pakistan would be cooperating to root out terror. When they met in Islamabad on the sidelines of the fourth SAARC summit in December 1988, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto reached an agreement on intelligence sharing with the specific aim of rooting out Sikh militancy.

“Pakistan cooperated on Sikh militancy, but stopped any information flow on Jammu and Kashmir,” says Iftekhar Geelani, commentator on India-Pakistan relations and son-in-law of the Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “After 1990, the cooperation stopped. Now, the Track II (back channel) communications are almost at an end because all the proposals are on the table. Only, the road to the solution needs to be found and public opinion created.”

That is why Noorani admires the vision of the Indian leadership in acknowledging that the sources of terrorism are not necessarily one, and that there may be “free agents” among terrorists posing as strong a threat to Pakistan. “If we have strong evidence, we can pin them down,” says Noorani.

But there are sceptics even among those willing to give the mechanism a try, like Commodore Uday Bhaskar of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. “This could be the most effective confidence-building measure,” Bhaskar says. But, at the same time, he maintains: “Unless the Pakistan Army undergoes a lobotomy and has a radical change of mindset, it is unlikely any such mechanism can succeed.”

Tiding over the ‘trust deficit’

Formulations on how to constitute the joint mechanism are being deliberated within South Block between the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministry of external affairs. Should it, like India’s counter-terrorism mechanisms with other countries, be headed by an additional secretary level official? How much intelligence should be shared at what level and by whom? The concerns are more than just procedural — they are almost existential.

There is unease on the part of Pakistan intelligence agencies too. Acknowledging it, Musharraf said Pakistan had “certain apprehensions” over New Delhi sharing information on Balochistan, but the feelings were mutual.

The outgoing Pakistani High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan says Pakistan is ready to seriously address India’s concerns under the joint mechanism if New Delhi provides “serious and concrete evidence”. He says, “The intention is that there should be serious, quiet and real-time sharing of intelligence and cooperation.”

Senior Pakistani commentator Imtiaz Alam says, “There is a need to transcend the state of enmity and achieve a state of amity.” Since intelligence agencies have been the “driving force in perpetuating enmity, it is vital that they cooperate and consult”. Musharraf, says Alam, is “a man in a hurry, with less than a year to deliver (before elections). He is very keen to achieve something lasting”.

The bottom line, however, is the “trust deficit” between the establishments of the two countries. The joint mechanism would need to get off swiftly and deliver results, however small, to gain credibility. Only then would it be the “new beginning” Manmohan Singh hopes for.

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