Never me. I have never said that Pakistan is a victim of terrorism, said foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, briefing journalists earlier this week on day-long talks with Pakistan foreign secretary Salman Bashir.
Menon was responding to a journalist who wanted to know why India’s “tone” had changed from the time when New Delhi had described Pakistan as a “victim” of terrorism. “Never,” said the foreign secretary, “show me an instance.”
Turned out the phrase had actually been used by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on board his aircraft en route to the September 2006 NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) summit in Havana, Cuba, on the sidelines of which he was to meet Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. That was when both sides agreed to an anti-terror mechanism, which has since practically been reduced to a talkshop because each gives the other half-hearted evidence each would rather ignore.
The Mumbai train blasts had taken place two months earlier, killing more than 200 people, and Singh was asked, according to The Hindu newspaper, how he would reconcile the fact of Pakistan being both a sponsor and a victim of terrorism. Menon was on board that flight, foreign secretary-designate, serving out last few weeks as high commissioner in Pakistan. In reply, Singh noted that India had given substantial evidence to Pakistan in the past about its role in promoting the terror factory.
But it was also true, he added, that terrorist incidents continued to take place in Pakistan, that it was a “victim of terrorism”, that groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed could act autonomously and India was worried that Pakistan had not done enough to control those elements.
So what was it that led Menon to adopt a much harsher tone this week, going to the extent of saying that the dialogue with Pakistan “was under stress”?
In one word, Kabul.
This month’s suicide bomb attack at the Indian high commission in Kabul, in which 41 people including the defence attache and a political counsellor were killed, are said to have moved Menon considerably, even emotionally. Having been high commissioner to Pakistan, he knows the neighbour well. He knows, for example, that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and its links with the Pakistani army mean that it often functions as a state within a state.
The Americans and the Afghans have complained about Pakistan’s role in destabilizing the war against terror, and after the Kabul attack, India joined that list.
The dapper Menon did not hesitate to point an accusing finger at Pakistan. There are “elements within Pakistan” responsible for the mounting violence against India, such as in Kabul, he said.
Menon knows Pakistan well, so why play the blame game this time? After all, several Indian governments have tried the same thing before, but to no avail. Menon also knows perfectly well that India hesitates to give real intelligence to Pakistan because it doesn’t want it to crack its sources. Moreover, Indian intelligence agencies have proved inept in investigating the Samjhauta train blasts, for example. There is simply not a shred of evidence they have put together since the February 2007 blasts.
The real impact of the cold-blooded games diplomats, politicians and intelligence agencies play is on the people. When relations sour between India and Pakistan, it’s the people caught in the middle who are hit the worst.
The Pakistan blame game seems to be following a familiar routine. When things turn awry at home, invoke the foreign hand. Holding Pakistan responsible must have been easier to do when the government seemed to be under siege on the US nuclear deal—the Pakistan talks took place on the eve of the trust vote—and Delhi wanted to parry criticism about being soft on terrorism.
The Pakistan foreign secretary was predictably furious. Don’t think India can put Pakistan on probation, Bashir told journalists. Within the space of a few hours, India-Pakistan relations had quickly reached another low. The irony is when Bashir went to meet L.K. Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader told him that there was “total consensus” in India on promoting dialogue with Pakistan!
Now that Singh has won his trust vote over the nuclear deal, will he have the time to see through the other parts of his foreign policy agenda, before general elections? India’s Pakistan policy seems jaded and a revivified Singh could easily bring back the colour if he visits Pakistan with an agenda on mind: Sign the Siachen agreement, waiting since the time of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto; the pact on fixing maritime boundaries at Sir Creek is also ready.
Just as Singh did not leave the nuclear deal to either his bureaucrats or his party, the Pakistan initiative is far too important for motley groups to control. The perfect answer here would be to invoke the services of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, who simply decimated the BJP-Left opposition on Tuesday night on the nuclear deal. Imagine what he would do to them on Pakistan.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org