It is both ignorant and childish to try and assess the trial of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operative, David Gilani Headley, in terms of what India has gained and the United States has conceded. The Headley case is best seen as a step forward, and a significant one at that, in the development of a long-term counter-terrorism relationship between the world’s largest and the world’s oldest democracies. Even during the administration of George W. Bush, the security agencies of the two countries cooperated haphazardly and with great reluctance. Sharing intelligence, coordinating cross-border police efforts and accepting bilateral legal jurisdictions are among the most sensitive facets of diplomatic relationships. It does not help that both India and the US share a prickliness about sovereignty, a loss of face and have independent judiciaries.
There can be little doubt Washington did go out of its way to address New Delhi’s demands regarding Headley, even if it declined to ship him to India. First, it is the rarest of rare cases for a country to extradite its own citizen to a second country for trial. India’s treatment of its own citizens is no exception. Second, persuading the US to accede to India’s demand that it have interrogatory access to Headley is a remarkable concession. Most governments allow such access only to their closest strategic allies — and that too occasionally. Third, the Headley case has helped consolidate a growing US sentiment that Lashkar has evolved into a global rather than India-centric terrorist threat.
The real legacy of Headley’s trial was that it tested a burgeoning counter-terrorism relationship — and that was not found to be wanting. Both because of the sensitive nature of the data gathered and the mildly paranoid nature of the agencies that hold the information, intelligence-sharing is one of the most difficult bridges to cross in international relations. Yet, such cooperation is essential given how rapidly Islamicist terror groups have expanded their networks across borders.
Terrorism cannot be defeated if its victims decide to fight it separately. Lashkar’s use of a US citizen as an advance scout is an example of how terrorism is a globalised network. There will be hiccups in India’s counter-terrorism relationship with many countries. The focus should be on the broad trend of the relationship and the political will of both sides to iron out the differences that are bound to crop up. India and the US have suffered enough from terrorists to know the stakes involved.