Date: 1/3/2004



.....................IC-814 to Islamabad

......................Brahma Chellaney

........................December 31

Pakistan is widely seen as the world’s most dangerous place, bristling with jehadi generals and nuclear scientists and the source of a deadly form of IT: international terrorism.

India’s image, in sharp contrast, is linked with information technology, BPO, auto-parts exports and other economic news. But in India, readers and viewers are treated daily to the national obsession with the semi-failed neighbour, with the leadership’s blow-hot-blow-cold policy on Pakistan entering a renewed phase of billing and cooing.

Perhaps the only consolation is that New Delhi’s woolly thinking, bumbling and flip-flops on Pakistan are more than matched by rank incompetence and self-delusion of the Pakistani governing elites, who have an innate ability to seize defeat from the jaws of any semi-victory that the Indian PM might offer in his search for a legacy. On balance, Pakistan has proven better at being a problem for others than a help to itself.

In the new season of peace that New Delhi sees, building a normal relationship with an abnormal, dysfunctional Pakistan has become a policy priority. If India wishes to reap a peace dividend, it could do so on its own through faster economic growth, which would bring the funds to more effectively defend peace against adversarial neighbours ruled by autocrats. A prospering, more secure India with an expanding stature would help demonstrate the failure of any adversary’s strategy. Yet, some seek to arm Pakistan with a veto by speciously assuming that India cannot prosper without resolving Kashmir.

In the current peace itch, it is easy to forget the lessons of past mistakes and allow wishful thinking to supplant realism. Just as the anniversary of the attack on Parliament passed recently without the PM or the leader of the opposition paying their respects at the memorial to those who laid down their lives to save politicians, few are likely to remember the anniversary of India’s abject capitulation at Kandahar.

It was exactly four years ago to this day that an ignominious episode unparalleled in modern world history occurred, with the then Indian foreign minister flying to known terrorist territory to hand-deliver three terrorists from Indian jails. The three, with known al-Qaeda links, have come to haunt global security, spurring questions about New Delhi’s criminal liability in international law. Omar Sheikh, a purported financier of 9/11, murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. The other two, Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar, went on to form the Jaish-e-Muhammad and al-Umar that have murdered and maimed many Indians.

Just the way the terrorists-for-Rubaiya Sayed swap a decade earlier helped supply the domestic fuel to Pakistan’s “politico-military decision”, to quote Benazir Bhutto’s recent words, “to start low-intensity operations”, the Kandahar cave-in before hijackers led to a qualitative escalation in cross-border terrorism, with daring assaults carried out on army camps and national emblems of power.

The New Delhi-identified mastermind of the hijacking is now the host of Vajpayee’s impending Islamabad visit. An equally jarring reminder is that the freed terrorists and hijackers of IC-814 remain in Pakistan, and that the only one among them put on trial and convicted was for a subsequent crime against an American. With public memory in India extraordinarily short and a craze for happy endings, the IC-814 saga is coming full circle, with the prime ministerial plane set to land, Bollywood-style, in the citadel of the hijacking sponsor.

Yet, if not the public today, historians later on would seek answers to some gnawing questions.

** Even if India put itself in such a corner that it had to cave in, why did it grovel? Surely, the hijackers and their masters did not insist that India bring public shame on itself by assigning its foreign minister to chaperon the three terrorists to Kandahar.

** When Jaswant Singh told the CCS he was going to Kandahar, why didn’t his colleagues question his wisdom? Or how could the PM allow a humiliating handover of terrorists? After all, the PM wisely put his foot down later on when Jaswant Singh insisted that India violate UN sanctions and pay the thuggish Taliban the $ 112,000 bill it sent for ‘services’ rendered at Kandahar.

** Had the fiasco at Amritsar airport been averted, the hijacked plane would not have taken off for terrorist territory. Nor would India have had to negotiate on bended knees. Despite promises of a thorough enquiry, why has no one been punished for the lapses?

** No sooner IC-814 landed in Kandahar than Jaswant Singh began briefing newspaper editors about the great opportunity it presented to drive a wedge between the Taliban and Pakistan! Is India now trying to drive a wedge between Pakistan and its ‘freedom fighters’ in Kashmir?

Kandahar represents not only a key link in Vajpayee’s Lahore-Agra-Islamabad circuit via Kargil and Parliament House, but its unanswered questions also parallel those raised by the latest peace zeal. Consider the following:

** What has suddenly prompted New Delhi to reach out to Islamabad, knowing well that the Pakistani military’s iron grip on power and special privileges cannot survive peace with India? Having escaped four assassination bids in two years — two of them in December alone — can an insecure Musharraf seek any deal with India? Or why should India put its chips on an individual who not only spews venom on it but who next time may not be lucky to escape the viper he himself nurtured?

** Is there a back channel at work? If not, how did New Delhi swiftly embrace and implement Islamabad’s proposal — a ceasefire on the border but not on the low-intensity war? If yes, who are the intermediaries and what clout do they bring to help overturn the publicly enunciated principles of India’s Pakistan policy?

** Does the PM realise his overtures at this point lend respectability to — and link India with — a nation that is the subject of international scrutiny over its roguish actions? Such is the pressure it feels that Pakistan, with a long record of nuclear smuggling and illicit collaboration, admitted for the time ever that its scientists may have aided the nuclear ambitions of another nation. When no important western nation was willing to host Musharraf, Vajpayee invited him to Agra and set the process of making him internationally acceptable. Now, could Vajpayee unwittingly help a beleaguered Musharraf buy time against India?

** Finally, should New Delhi be seeking to breathe new life into SAARC — a retarded process that boxes India in politically narrow and economically listless confines — when the need is to recast the country in a larger framework as an emergent power?

The PM’s mind has never been easy to read, even to those close to him. He likes to emphasise nuance and tact, with his caution manifest in the invariable escape hatch he keeps in his statements and moves. Yet this careful, wary personality has a propensity to spring many a surprise. Today, Vajpayee is itching to live down his record on Pakistan. But he would be a reckless optimist — that he is not — to expect that in his remainder term in office he could fundamentally alter the relationship with Pakistan. As a shrewd, calculating leader who has made it as the third longest-serving PM, Vajpayee must know that his personal desire to rectify a record cannot surpass reality. For someone who instead of being once bitten, twice shy, is twice bitten and going back for more, caution rather than surprise should be his guide.