From Horror, an Opportunity for Peace

by , February 23, 2007

NEW DELHI – Horrific as it was, the fire-bombing of a speeding India-Pakistan train, killing 68 civilians from the two countries, is being seen as an opportunity for their governments to cooperate on anti-terrorism operations and reconceptualize security issues.

"The incident only adds to the urgency for us [India and Pakistan] to cooperate," Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid M. Kasuri told reporters on landing at the New Delhi airport on Tuesday. He then proceeded to the government hospital where several of the critically injured were brought from the site of the bombing, 82 km away.

Sunday’s grim message was unmistakable. Not only are Indian and Pakistani citizens vulnerable to the depredations of terrorists, but the India-Pakistan peace process is itself a prime target. Although investigations have not yet led to a disclosure of their identities, it is it only logical to infer that the attackers’ likely objective was to torpedo the ongoing dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad to resolve mutual problems, including Kashmir.

The timing of the attack, on the eve of Kasuri’s four-day visit to India, to co-chair the revived India-Pakistan Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) with India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, reinforces the same inference. On several occasions in the past too, terrorists timed their acts of violence to coincide with foreign dignitaries’ visits.

For instance, 35 Sikhs were massacred in Kashmir just before Bill Clinton’s presidential visit in 2000. And in 2002, moderate Kashmiri political leader Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated a day ahead of the Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad.

"What makes the Samjhauta Express bombings special is that their targets were mainly Muslims, and that this is the first time that Indian and Pakistani citizens have been attacked together," says Sonia Jabbar, an independent Delhi-based researcher on South Asian relations and on Kashmir affairs. "The incident compelled the two governments to respond quickly. And they responded remarkably maturely."

After being partitioned in 1947, Indian and Pakistan have fought bitterly over the territory of Kashmir, which remains divided into portions controlled by the two countries.

Unlike in the past, both countries condemned Sunday’s attack sincerely and spontaneously, and promised each other full cooperation. India’s foreign office quickly set up an emergency counter at Lahore to issue special visas to the relatives of the victims so they can meet them.

The two governments’ willingness to work together purposively will be tested in the coming days by the degree of relief and compassion they can deliver to the victims.

"But their performance so far has been very good," adds Jabbar. "This is excellent augury for the Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism that they have agreed to establish. This agreement itself followed the ghastly Mumbai train blasts of last July."

Immediately after the Mumbai bombings, police and intelligence officials in India blamed Pakistan-based or -sponsored groups. New Delhi canceled a scheduled meeting between the foreign secretaries (chiefs of diplomatic services) of the two countries. But Indian officials failed to produce clinching evidence of Pakistani official complicity in the attacks.

There is intense speculation in both India and Pakistan over who was responsible for Sunday’s train bombings, and what their motives might be. In both countries, there are terrorists driven by religious fanaticism who oppose the peace process.

Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalists and jihadist militants regard both President Pervez Musharraf and Indian leaders as "enemies" of the larger "ummah," or the global community of Muslims. They have repeatedly targeted Pakistani leaders, including Musharraf, in as-yet-unsuccessful assassination attempts.

In India, a fanatical fringe of Hindu nationalists allied to the political Bharatiya Janata Party also opposes the peace process. Among them is the Bajrang Dal, a militant group composed of thugs which recently announced the formation of a "suicide squad," which would undertake bomb attacks against "jihadist terrorists."

However, the involvement of groups external to South Asia is not excluded either. "The region has become more vulnerable to terrorism in recent months with growing volatility in Afghanistan and rising tensions in West Asia, in particular, the stepping up of the United States’ offensive against Iran and Iraq’s insurgents," says Qamar Agha, a West Asia specialist attached to Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi.

Argues Agha: "Both India and Pakistan have a stake in acting decisively against such fanatical groups. If their leaders are wise, they would stop looking for villains exclusively across the border and treating each other’s agencies as the prime suspects in any terrorist attack, unless they have hard evidence."

Instead, adds Agha, "the leaders should look for ways of working together against terrorist groups which are their common enemies. Such active ground-level cooperation will be far more valuable than formal agreements on incremental confidence-building measures. That’s the best way of building trust and trying to find common solutions to shared problems."

There are two areas where such cooperation would be especially fruitful: beefing up security arrangements at the air, road, and rail transportation facilities that link the two countries, and exchanging intelligence on known and suspected terrorist and extremist groups.

Sunday’s train attack exposes major flaws in the security arrangements at the Old Delhi railway station, from where the Samjhauta Express runs nonstop to Attari at the India-Pakistan border.

Passenger baggage is rarely checked thoroughly at Old Delhi. A newspaper reporter found that there were only six security guards at the station on Sunday to check total of 2,000 passengers and their relatives. Bribery is widely prevalent and guards often let passengers bring in excess baggage without subjecting it to metal-detector and other tests.

The platform from which the Samjhauta Express leaves has no closed-circuit cameras. It is open and freely accessible from all sides. Anyone can get in and out while the train is parked at the platform for one and a half hours before departure. On Sunday, two railway booking clerks issued tickets to four passengers although they did not possess valid passports and visas, which are required under the rules.

The situation in Pakistan may not be very different. Experts believe that both governments must urgently tighten security arrangements at train stations with frequent and thorough checks of passenger baggage and body searches, physical isolation and inspection of coaches, use of sniffer dogs, etc.

Apart from this, "India and Pakistan must cooperate by jointly launching an impartial probe into the utterly condemnable train bombings," says Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which supports the peace process, but criticizes both governments for their handling of the Kashmir issue.

This will lay the basis for future cooperation on anti-terrorism operations through exchange of mutually useful intelligence on different organizations and groups active on both sides of the border .

However, argues Agha, "this will demand a paradigm shift in the way India and Pakistan look at the whole issue of security and conceptualize terrorism. They will have to view each other in fundamentally different, non-adversarial, ways. This won’t be easy and will be stiffly resisted by their security establishments. But their political leadership must seize the initiative and try hard."

(Inter Press Service)

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