Journalist | Writer | Analyst
8 January 2009
After evidence dossier, direct accusation against Pakistan strikes discordant note
New Delhi: In a strategy that runs the risk of sending contradictory signals to Islamabad and the world about the nature of Indian policy, the government has followed the handing over of a dossier linking “elements in Pakistan” to the November 26-28 Mumbai attacks with a full-throated accusation that the terrorists who killed more than 170 people “must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan.”
If the handing over of evidence on Monday suggested India was seriously interested in goading Pakistan into following concrete leads thrown up by the Mumbai investigation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarks 24 hours later seemed to indicate New Delhi had already decided this was not going to happen. His use of the words “must have had” to qualify the accusation was a giveaway that the Prime Minister was still not absolutely certain of his charge. Certainly, the dossiers India has prepared for Pakistan and the 14 countries which lost nationals in the Mumbai attacks do not contain material which substantiates this belief. And yet he chose to up the ante by making a direct accusation against “official agencies in Pakistan,” something India had refrained from doing for the past six weeks.
Asked for an explanation, Indian officials deny there is any inconsistency in the two approaches. “We have given them the evidence they have been asking for,” a senior official told The Hindu on Tuesday. “And it is clear that the Prime Minister obviously wishes to send a strong signal to Islamabad about the gravity with which he views the situation.”
Ever since Indian investigators first began harbouring suspicions that the trail from Mumbai led straight to Pakistan and perhaps even some sections of that country’s military establishment, the Manmohan Singh government has been walking a fine line between three goals. The first was to exploit the opportunity to discredit the Inter-Services Intelligence before the world; second, to utilise the space which Pakistan’s messy transition to civilian rule had created to help push for a break with the military’s policy of using jihadi terror as a tool of power projection inside and outside the country; and third, to convey to major world powers that India’s tolerance level had been breached so that they too would mount pressure on Pakistan to help bring the perpetrators to justice.
As Indian officials grappled with these three, sometimes contradictory, imperatives, they quickly settled on “elements from Pakistan” as a convenient peg on which to hang their public accusations. The construction was suggestive enough for Islamabad to know exactly what New Delhi was talking about. But it was also vague enough to provide for a distinction between the multiple power centres that exist across the border, not to speak of the plethora of “non-state actors” which operate with impunity from Pakistani territory. Most of all, the phrase revealed an awareness of the danger that these multiple Pakistans — of the army and the ISI, the civilian government, the Opposition and civil society, Beitullah Mehsud and the jihadi and terrorist tanzims — could easily be driven to unite under a grand anti-Indian umbrella if New Delhi’s pronouncements were not carefully calibrated.
But officials concede that the same careful use of language was not repeated on other fronts of the war of words that slowly enveloped India and Pakistan in the aftermath of Mumbai. As a bellicose feeding frenzy consumed the media in both countries, the Pakistani military managed to stoke fears of an imminent conflict that Indian leaders unwittingly fuelled by endlessly repeating phrases about “all options remaining open.” Moreover, the Indian leadership, including External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, allowed confusion to reign over the question of “evidence” and extradition. Sometimes, they indicated that details from the Mumbai investigation had already been shared with Pakistan and demanded “action” such as the arrest and extradition of the perpetrators. At other times, they conceded that the Mumbai evidence had not yet been shared but added that evidence had been shared in the past to no avail. Old lists of India’s most wanted were also dredged up for no apparent purpose.
This confusion had two consequences, both of them negative. First, it effectively downgraded the unique nature of Mumbai and the evidence that was becoming available thanks to the arrest of Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab’ by comparing it to cases where the world might not share India’s certitude about Pakistani fingerprints. And second, it blurred the distinction between evidence of a judicial nature that a trial might require and evidence of the involvement of named and unnamed Pakistan-based individuals which essentially made it incumbent on Pakistan to conduct further investigation on its side.
For the past six weeks, Islamabad kept saying it could not comply with Indian demands for “action” without evidence. And when the dossier was handed over, it exploited the confusion that had been created by announcing that the evidence given was legally flawed. Part of the problem is Pakistan continuing to remain in a state of denial over facts as basic as Ajmal’s citizenship; but at least some share of the blame lies with New Delhi’s own handling. Extradition — especially to a country with which political relations are fraught — is something that can only follow the presentation of legal evidence. By publicly and repeatedly demanding this line of action when the evidence it had gathered was more by way of investigative leads, India helped the Pakistani establishment to sidestep the one action that the dossier actually calls for: rigorous follow-up investigation.
At a press conference held shortly after India handed over its material to the Pakistani High Commissioner, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon made this point. India’s hope, he said, was “that Pakistan will investigate this material, follow the evidence wherever it may lead, and share the results with us and extend to us legal assistance so that we can bring the perpetrators to Indian justice.” But this demand, fully warranted by the impressive array of material assembled by the Mumbai investigation, got drowned in the demands for extradition.
In a foretaste of what the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, Mr. Menon pushed the envelope on Pakistan’s official complicity but still stayed within the four walls of the earlier script. “It is hard to believe that something of this scale could occur without anybody anywhere in the establishment knowing that this was happening. And that actually beggars the imagination. Wherever the evidence leads we will follow it. But we are at this stage, as I said, in an ongoing investigation. We are not going to say yes or no, this is where the line ends. We cannot, because we still have to continue with this investigation, and most of it now has to be done in Pakistan.”
Rejecting the notion that the Prime Minister’s remarks on Tuesday went against the grain of what his government’s approach has been so far, Indian officials say there is an in-built tension between framing demands around a legal discourse when the action Pakistan needs to take against terrorist elements operating from its soil is — in the final purely political. We are in a gray zone, a senior official told The Hindu. “There is a definite line of investigation which [Pakistan] needs to follow but we are not sure [it] will.” And even if it does, he added, India could never be sure that it would be taken to its logical conclusion. “So we have to keep applying pressure.” The official said it was worth remembering that elements of the ISI had even been involved in the attempted assassination of General Pervez Musharraf in 2004-05. The pickup truck used by the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists in their attempt on his life had been purchased by the ISI out of ‘Kashmir jihad’ funds, he said. “Obviously they held an investigation and I think some of them were even shot. But even then, things were not pushed beyond a point.”
Indian officials believe Mumbai has placed Pakistan at a spot where the “entire Byzantine apparatus” set up by the ISI can be broken once and for all. “India would like to see this happen,” said an official. “And most people in Pakistan would too. But no one knows whether this is going to happen or not.”