By Swapan Dasgupta
During the 2008 US presidential election there was a belief in New Delhi that a Barack Obama presidency would trigger the re-calibration of Indo-American relations. Translated into English, it implied concern that the new guy wouldn’t accord the same priority to Indian concerns as President George W Bush did. At that time we were assured by star-struck Indian reporters in Washington, DC, that this was poppycock and a function of the deranged Islamophobia of the Dick Cheney Fan Club. Obama, we were informed, saw Hanuman as his lucky mascot. The more sober interlocutors informed us that the Cold War was over, that India was no longer a hyphenated link with Pakistan and that the relationship was on auto-pilot.
It’s now 14 months since Obama assumed office and the special relationship forged by Bush shows distinct signs of wear and tear. I may be guilty of only a minor exaggeration in suggesting that the middle class euphoria that propelled the India-US nuclear accord (and played a role in the UPA’s undeserved re-election last May) has dissipated, if not disappeared. It has been replaced by a growing surge of anti-Americanism, not very dissimilar to the one being witnessed in Israel, another country where a strategic partnership was allegedly etched in stone.
As opposed to the civilisational anti-Americanism that binds the Marxist to the mullah, this wariness of Uncle Sam is entirely political and centred on the belief that the US doesn’t give a toss for Indian sensitivities. Worse, it has got entangled with the feeling that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is more concerned with obliging the US than doing what is right for India.
This new surge of anti-Americanism may not be adequately reflected in the mainstream media where editors and diplomatic correspondents are curiously circumspect in questioning US motives, but it is real and predates the kerfuffle over the alleged cover-up in the David Coleman Headley case.
The doubts over the Obama Administration’s bona fides are strongest in India’s ‘strategic community’, the charmed circle of diplomats, spooks, security experts and interested politicians. The Headley case has suggested a grey zone of complicity between US Intelligence and its asset who may have turned into a double agent. It is, after all, scarcely conceivable that Headley could have undergone five spells of training in a Lashkar-e-Tayyeba camp, from late-2005 to October 2009, without being on the radar of US counter-terrorism. Circumstantial evidence points to Headley undertaking his jihadi activities with the knowledge, and possibly consent, of US authorities. Till much after the Mumbai attacks, Headley wasn’t regarded as a rogue agent.
In 1940, Winston Churchill had advance warning that the Luftwaffe was planning a massive raid on Coventry. He wilfully shied away from ordering the RAF to repel the bombers because he didn't want to let on to the Germans that the British had cracked one of their most secure codes. Likewise, there is a theory that the US didn’t share its prior knowledge of the 26/11 attack because it wanted its asset to gain the full trust of the LeT leadership and be privy to information of future conspiracies.
If true, the implication is quite chilling. It suggests that a section of US Intelligence chose to sit on specific information of the Mumbai attacks because the target was India and its principal objective is to safeguard America and its citizens. In other words, Indian lives are always at a discount compared to American lives — a charming message in the context of the sharply discounted liability ceiling in the proposed Nuclear Liability Bill. Of course, six US citizens also died in the Mumbai attacks and, maybe, this proved to be Headley’s undoing.
There are many questions that Indian investigators have for Headley when the US prison authorities grant access to him — curiously, they have already given the Danish police access to him. However, there are an equal number of questions that India must ask the US authorities. The most important of these is a blunt query: Did you wilfully allow the massacre of 160 innocents in pursuance of a game that lacks a winning strategy?
The US can, of course, retort that it did warn India of maritime attacks. Indeed it did and this is a lapse that will haunt India’s counter-terrorism establishment. Yet, there is a difference between general warnings and ‘actionable intelligence’. Did the US deny India ‘actionable intelligence’ which it had? If so, the implications are grave.
In July 2008, the US had ‘actionable intelligence’ about the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul which killed 58 people. Rather than provide it to the Indian agencies in real time, it chose to route it through the Afghan authorities. The delay was callous.
If the US strategy lies in identifying the masterminds of terror and identifying the complete network, we can perhaps explain the deaths in Mumbai — just as Churchill could explain the destruction of Coventry to himself. Headley’s testimony is categorical on one count: The epicentre of terrorism is located in Pakistan. Headley has also removed all ambiguity over the LeT’s involvement.
What does the US propose to do with this information? So far it plans to outsource Afghanistan to Pakistan.
What Headley has so far left unsaid are two things. First, the identities of LeT terrorists, who are referred to as A, B, C and D. And, second, whether he provided his US handlers a full account of his jihadi activities at each stage.
If India had full access to Headley and the right to both extradite and waterboard him, he may have sung out of fear. In the light of his plea bargain and the knowledge that the extent of his punishment depends on following US orders, the chances of the horrible truth emerging in the natural course is zero. Unless, we too demonstrate that the lives of Indians matters to India.