Saturday, July 24, 2010

Pillai was right to tell all about ISI (July 18, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those who were at the venue of the failed Agra summit eight years ago may recall the enormous hype surrounding the event and the sense of anti-climax that followed the inability of the participants to come up with even a goody-goody joint statement. They will also recollect the inevitable blame game which began the moment it became clear that President Musharraf would have to return to Islamabad without anything tangible to show for his undoubted flamboyance.

From the Pakistan side, the responsibility for transforming the media jamboree was pinned on two Indian ministers. First, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj was blamed for an innocuous sound-bite to the media where she omitted Jammu and Kashmir from the list of subjects that were being addressed. Secondly, the blame for thwarting a draft agreement which the Pakistani side was supremely confident would get through was attached to an "invisible hand", a guarded reference to the then Home Minister L.K. Advani, allegedly the leading 'hawk' in the Cabinet.

The Indians too had their fall guy, except that the identity of the 'bad guy' ran along expected lines. The party pooper, according to ubiquitous 'sources' was none other than Musharraf. The General was blamed for souring the atmosphere of the talks with his robust answer to a question on Kashmir at a breakfast interaction with the media which was telecast live on Pakistani channels. Subsequently, he was blamed for attempting quick-fix solutions to problems that had defied resolution for decades.

The meeting of Foreign Ministers which ended last Friday afternoon was about as inconclusive as the Agra summit, but minus the same amount of pre-meeting hype. There was an expectation that the so-called 'spirit of Thimpu' would linger and be bolstered by another stiff booster dose in Islamabad. Predictably, much of the optimism was fuelled by the fast-growing 'conflict resolution' industry which has convinced itself and their gullible promoters that their rosy assessment of the future corresponds with market reality. But high hopes were also nurtured by a Prime Minister who has made the restoration of Indo-Pak bonhomie his personal theme song for the UPA-2. It doesn't matter that many of Manmohan Singh's Cabinet colleagues don't believe that the theme song 'aman ki asha' will make to the top of the Indian charts. Being a peacenik in the age of low intensity warfare is trendy.

For this gush-gush, love-thy-neighbour brigade, there was one villain of the unhappy Islamabad summit involving S.M. Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi. His name was G.K. Pillai, a man who wasn't even in Islamabad to contest his equation with Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed of LeT notoriety. Two days before Krishna took off for Islamabad, Pillai, who also happens to be the Union Home Secretary, called the media and divulged crucial details of George Coleman Headley's interaction with India and US interrogators.

The transcripts, predictably, were explosive and suggested that the 26/11 attack on Mumbai was a carefully planned, joint ISI-LeT operation. Headley identified the chilling voices of the 'handlers' who had barked out execution orders of the hostages and even gave the names of other ISI operatives who had worked behind the scenes to spill innocent blood.

The public disclosure of what was known by top Home Ministry officials set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The common-sense question that was asked by people was straight-forward: what do we discuss with a neighbouring country that is hell bent on exporting terror? It may be a simple question and not adequately profound to merit the attention of the conflict-resolution wallahs, but it was this question that made it impossible for Krishna to not be persistent in asking Pakistan: what are you doing about those who have been implicated?

Arguably, Krishna could have discussed what Pakistan hoped would be the agenda had Pillai not revealed too much to the media. To that extent, Pillai is indeed the man who made things awkward for Pakistan. He was indeed the party-pooper in Islamabad.

However, the suggestion that Pillai need not have revealed the Headley interrogation just prior to the Islamabad meeting rests on a very dangerous premise. It presupposes that India, as the big brother, must bend over backwards to accommodate the sensibilities of the younger sibling. In other words, the normalcy-at-any-cost approach must be based on self-censorship and overlooking the past.

Pakistan had calculated that the issue of terrorism had been firewalled as a Home Ministry issue and delinked from the composite dialogue which would focus on Kashmir (where Pakistan feels it is on a moral high after the recent stone-throwing upsurge) and Siachen. Pillai's intervention upset Pakistani calculations and it is not surprising that he is sought to be made the fall guy by the liberal media. Without saying so, the blame-Pillai brigade has tacitly admitted that the Indian people don't need to know the full details of the extent of Pakistani involvement in the carnage because that would derail the 'peace processes. They also confirmed that even Pakistan's well-wishers don't expect Pakistan to take any action against the murderous conspirators. What they omit to appreciate is the self-evident truth that any understanding based on concealment and duplicity is certain to be very fragile.

The Islamabad talks ended in acrimony and bitterness, not because Pillai jumped the gun or Qureshi was tactless. Like in Agra, there was an enormous gap in the positions of both countries. For the moment they seem unbridgeable but that situation isn't going to be permanent. Both sides need to engage frequently, at different levels, but without concealing their own fears and suspicions of each other. It is unrealistic to believe that such a deep-rooted acrimony can be lessened and a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship established without building trust. Unfortunately, very little of this exists and last week's faltering in Islamabad was yet another reality check.

Sunday Pioneer, July 18, 2010

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