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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

India-Pakistan: Need to Tackle Basic Issues

Sunday 15 March 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty

If at Surajkund, Narasimha Rao has effectively warded off all challenge to his leadership within his own party, it is time for him now to identify the prime issue for the business of governance in the list of priorities facing him. In other words, now that he has consolidated his position as the Congress President, he has to enforce his authority as the Prime Minister.

There are many areas where this needs to be done, both at home and abroad. There is, however, one item which definitely claims the Prime Minister’s urgent attention for both our internal and external politics: this is our fast deteriorating relations with Pakistan. The urgency of taking the first step towards halting this deterioration of relations with our close neighbour is heightened by the fact that in just over ten days from now the heads of government of all the South Asian countries would be meeting at the SAARC Summit at Dhaka.

A number of issues pertaining to the problems now being faced by the Narasimha Rao Govern-ment relates to India-Pakistan relations. From Kashmir to the bomb blasts in Bombay, official and semi-official reactions—apart from the instant response of quarters normally allergic to Pakistan in our country—have ascribed an active role to the Pakistan Government, particularly its ISI agency. Regarding Kashmir, the longstanding Indian complaint has been that secessionist elements have been getting encouragement and support from Pakistan.

In the recent bomb blasts in Bombay on March 12, the Union Home Minister’s first statement in Parliament on March 15 asserted that “the explosions had been definitely engineered by a foreign country through local agents” and reiterated that the blasts were the handiwork of “a foreign country and not a foreign terrorist organisation”, though he conceded that he could come to no definite conclusion that Pakistan’s ISI was behind the blasts. Ten days later on March 25, the External Affairs Minister addressing the Foreign Correspondents’ Club hinted at the possibility of the ISI extending protection to the Memon family who are alleged to have been involved in the Bombay bomb blasts. On March 27, it was the Maharashtra Chief Minister speaking at the AICC session who specifically attacked the ISI for masterminding the outrage even to the point of claiming that the culprits had been trained at Lahore, according to a plan. The government can, of course, take the plea that the ISI involvement became clear only after close investigation, and not before.

What is surprising in the entire episode is that as early as on March 14 the Bombay Police informed the press about the suspected involvement of the Memon family in the blast on March 12. On March 15, it now transpires, the Bombay Police informed the Centre that Yakub Memon and his family had left Bombay for Dubai hours before the blast on March 12. And yet as late as on March 20, the Police Chief of Dubai disclosed that uptil “12 noon today” he had received no official request from the Indian authorities to detain the two prime suspects, Iqbal Memon and Yakub Memon, while actually the Memons were suspected to have flown out from Dubai to Karachi on March 17.

More intriguing is the fact that the Pakistan authorities were contacted about the Memon suspects only on March 23, that is, six long days after their disappearance from Dubai. It is a legitimate question to ask the government that when on March 15 the Bombay Police had established that the Memons had escaped, why were Pakistan and all the neighbouring countries of South Asia not alerted by New Delhi to be on the lookout for the absconders? If an assailant escapes from the Capital, it is a normal routine affair for the Delhi Police to immediately alert the neighbouring states. In this particular case when the Union Home Minister told Parliament on March 15 that he suspected foreign involvement in the Bombay blast, how was it that the matter was not taken up by New Delhi with the neighbouring governments, including Pakistan?

In this context one has to take note of the formal position of the Pakistan Government. Apart from the Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, sending a message to Narasimha Rao condemning the Bombay bomb blasts, he sent a message offering full cooperation in the investigations, even disclosing that he had directed Pakistan’s security agencies to take immediate steps to check recent arrivals from Dubai to Karachi in order to apprehend the criminals. While it may be argued that nothing tangible on this score has so far been received from Islamabad, what is inexplicable is the delay of six days on the part of the Indian authorities to put up a request for apprehending the Memon suspects—a delay which hardly betrays any sense of urgency to catch the culprits.

One is also left to wonder if anybody entering the country sub rosa under a different name as the Memons did—according to the press dispatches from Dubai—could be apprehended easily six days after the entry. Even if one were to complain that the Pakistani authorities have been lukewarm about the case—as one felt listening to the orations at Surajkund—our own record hardly betrays any sense of urgency in catching the Memons.

Looking at this incident in the wider context of Indo-Pak relations, one would have expected the despatch of a high-powered team from New Delhi to Islamabad to discuss ways and means of curbing such terrorist ourtages in both the countries. If Bombay could be the target of terrorist bombing, what prevents Karachi or Colombo or Chittagong escaping such an outrage? Would it not be the wisest course for our government to take the bold initiative in such a matter of common concern? A direct approach to the Pakistan Prime Minister, particularly after his offer to cooperate fully in the investigation to apprehend the culprits, should be the correct Indian step.

The Prime Minister of India has had half-a-dozen encounters with the Pakistan Prime Minister in the course of his trips abroad. While these meetings might have been correct as per protocol, they produced little substantive by way of improvement in India-Pakistan relations. What is urgently needed today is a more determined effort at boldly tackling the issues of common concern. Understandably, the Kashmir issue would require protracted discussion: perhaps the climate for it needs to be created by bringing normalcy in the Kashmir Valley through some fresh initiative on the part of the Centre, and only after that the Indo-Pak aspect of the problem could be effectively tackled.

More practical would be to settle the Siachen dispute, which has already been discussed threadbare and is only awaiting decision at the summit level. As for other issues, common measures to curb Bombay style terrorism should be on the agenda for Indo-Pak understanding as also for the SAARC Summit. Any progress in this direction would go a long way towards preparing the ground for other more intractable issues to be taken up.

With his wide experience in handling India’s relations with its neighbours right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, our present Foreign Minister also can and should certainly contribute signifi-cantly towards improving India-Pakistan relations which has become so insistently imperative for both countries today.

(Mainstream, April 3, 1993)

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