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Chasing a shadow

New Delhi allowed the FBI to question 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab in person. But now the US has struck a deal with India’s most-wanted, David Headley, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2010 22:45 IST

Now that the light-eyed Pakistani American who waged war against India and plotted the ruin of Mumbai in meticulous detail has finally pleaded guilty — we are being told that all is not lost. After the cushy deal that David Headley has cut with the Americans, it’s brutally clear that India will never get hold of the man who criss-crossed our country like some Super-Bomber, surveying targets and picking new victims. But, apparently we are still meant to be pleased that Indian investigators may eventually be able to talk to the man in some shape or form. So what if a government who demanded extradition now has to quietly contend with a reduced sentence for Headley and one that India will have no say in.

Never mind the humiliation of our sleuths being turned back from the United States when they first arrived to question him. And forget the fact that India allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to interrogate Ajmal Kasab for nine hours away from the formal constraints of court trials and the relentless gaze of the public eye. Since 26/11 claimed the lives of six Americans, the FBI felt it had an automatic entitlement to that meeting. But the murder of more than a hundred Indians in the same attack; one that left India naked and vulnerable forever, does not apparently give us the same rights in reverse. But no — we are being asked to forget all of that and be grateful for the fact that Headley may now testify in the trial via videoconference. As they sometimes say in Ronald McDonald’s land: “Gee Whiz.” What a joke.

There can be only two explanations for this astounding double standard: hypocrisy or secrecy. For several months now questions have been raised about Headley’s curious and untold past. His differently coloured eyes (one brown, one blue) may as well have been a metaphor for a life steeped in schizophrenia. We know now of his two wives and about his American socialite mom who ran a swinging bar and his Pakistani diplomat dad who encouraged a regimented orthodoxy. But Headley’s version of East- meets-West turned out to be his stint in Pakistan working as an undercover informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In an eerie déjà vu of what is unfolding now, back in 1998, Headley managed to get a 10-year sentence for smuggling heroin reduced to just two years in prison. In return, he agreed to “conduct undercover surveillance operations for the DEA”. What happened next is where the story blurs. Did he navigate his way through Pakistan’s narcotics underbelly and infiltrate the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba as a US informant? Or did he stop working for the Americans at some point and turn rogue? If so, at what point before 26/11 did this happen? How did a man with a proven felony travel in and out of America and indeed, across the globe, with such ease? And even more to the point: if Headley was under the FBI’s surveillance one month before the 26/11 strikes, why was this information not shared with India? How did Headley manage to make a trip to India in April, 2009, five months after the Mumbai attacks, if he was being watched by the Americans?

So far, all of these queries have been dismissed as the imaginative creation of people who read too many spy thrillers. But if we were all wrong, could someone just tell us what an alternative narrative may read like? Not just has America denied Indian investigators access to the principal architect of 26/11, they have gone and saved his life.

And this is the second time that Headley has managed to strike a compromise while in custody. Isn’t that enough to make anyone suspicious? Rahul Bhatt, the Mumbai actor and gym owner who was befriended by Headley for months, says he always called him “Agent Headley”, because, “he used to come up with fascinating trivia, used intelligence jargon, knew his stuff”. The government may dismiss those remarks but the fact is that Bhatt knew about Headley’s stint in prison before the Americans had decided to share that information with us. The home ministry says it believes the American denial on Headley not being an agent/rogue agent. But how does it explain the curious case of the US striking a deal with India’s most-wanted terrorist?

If the opaqueness around Headley is not to do with his past as a DEA informant, then the US’s handling of the case is even stranger to explain. Danish journalists are now citing their own intelligence sources to say that their investigators have already been able to question Headley on the retaliation planned against the Danish cartoons. If that is the case, why would India have been kept on hold for so long?

No one is pushing the case for bizarre paranoia or reflexive anti-Americanism. But the truth is that there is growing disquiet over whether the United States is a serious partner in India’s fight against terrorism or whether this will be a battle that is ours to wage alone. The Obama administration’s changing Af-Pak policy already appears to be that of a government that doesn’t have India on its mind. The Headley mystery may just take the simmering discontent to boiling point. One hopes that our government will not shy away from expressing displeasure in order to preserve some larger semblance of common goals.

After all, even the carrot offered to India in getting Headley to testify in the trial remains wrapped in uncertainty. Will this be an actual interrogation opportunity or a mere regurgitation of his American deposition? Even the government doesn’t appear to know at this stage and that leads us to a more disturbing question. If the 49-year-old mastermind gets the leniency of life, should Kasab, the 21-year-old footsoldier for Headley’s plans, be confronted with possible death?

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 19, 2010 22:42 IST