Can India-Pakistan ties withstand Mumbai bombings?
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blamed a group with “external linkages” for coordinated attacks which killed more than 100 people in Mumbai. The language was reminiscent of the darker days of India-Pakistan relations when India always saw a Pakistan hand in militant attacks, blaming groups it said were set up by Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to seek revenge for Pakistan’s defeat by India in the 1971 war.
An attack on India’s parliament in December 2001 triggered a mass mobilisation along the two countries’ borders and brought them close to a fourth war. That attack was blamed by India on the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed - hardline Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda. Both have been associated with the kind of “fedayeen” attacks – in which the attackers, while not necessarily suicide bombers, are willing to fight to the death — seen in Mumbai.
So does the assault on Mumbai spell the death-knell for what had been gradually warming ties between Pakistan and India?
Pakistan has condemned the attack, just as it did when gunmen attacked the Indian parliament in 2001. And the Pakistani context today is quite different from that of 2001. Then a military ruler, former president Pervez Musharraf was in power, whereas Pakistan is now run by a new civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, who has made clear he wants peace with India over Kashmir.
But Singh’s comments, made in a televised address to the nation, were remarkably strong for the usually mild-mannered prime minister:
“It is evident that the group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country,” he said. “We will take the strongest possible measures to ensure that there is no repetition of such terrorist acts. We are determined to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety and security of our citizens.”
The strength of the language may have been fuelled by the scale of the Mumbai attacks, and could refer to either Pakistan or Bangladesh, which has also been accused by India of harbouring militant groups. But it sounded similar in tone to that of Singh’s predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who following the 2001 parliament attack warned Pakistan that India’s patience was wearing thin. And they also contrasted with India’s reaction to bombings which killed at least 63 people in the western city of Jaipur earlier this year, when the Indian government notably refrained from pointing a finger at Pakistan.
So was this a deliberate attempt to undermine India-Pakistan relations? And if so, what will that mean for Pakistan’s fragile civilian democracy? Zardari has staked his reputation on making peace with India to improve trade and help lift Pakistan’s struggling economy.
Much will depend on how Singh, under pressure to show a firm hand ahead of a national election due in India by May 2009, reacts.
(Rueters photo of Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai/Punit Paranjpe)