Public anger makes India-Pakistan compromise hard

Christian Science MonitorDecember 4, 2008 

NEW DELHI — Akash Maheshwari has no doubts about what will happen in the standoff between India and Pakistan. The Indian businessman says his country will present its evidence that Pakistani-trained militants carried out last week's attacks in Mumbai — and Pakistan will do nothing.

Years of diplomacy have not stopped the violence, he says, adding: "If we don't take military action, then the government is a fool."

In Pakistan, however, no one has seen this evidence, the name of the surviving terrorist sounds odd and no one in his reported hometown has ever heard of him.

"India blamed Pakistan too quickly," says Yahya Khan, a truck driver in Karachi. If India wants to go to war, he says, "We are ready."

In Pakistan and India, old suspicions have reemerged after the Mumbai attacks, and there are signs that public anger on each side of the border is shaping diplomacy. The political posturing threatens to polarize the situation further, imperiling four years of steady progress between the two nations.

"It seemed as though the stage was being set for substantive advances," says Najmuddin Shaikh, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan. "Nothing could have been less welcome at this time."

Just in recent months, the two countries had agreed to open trade between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and to begin work on loosening visa restrictions. The thaw had led President-elect Barack Obama to suggest that perhaps even the issue of Kashmir could finally be resolved.

The United States took the lead in diplomatic triage this week, primarily to avert a military escalation, but also to salvage this momentum that has grown since a 2004 ceasefire. It dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to New Delhi and Islamabad, where she demanded that Pakistan be cooperative and warned India not to retaliate hastily or risk "unintended consequences."

But since the attacks, middle ground has been hard to find, as each government is mindful of a populace angered by the others' actions.

This began last Thursday, when— with the attack still continuing — Indian Prime Minister Majmohan Singh blamed "elements" from Pakistan and promised retribution. With elections ongoing, and the ruling Congress Party being attacked for being soft on terrorism, Singh’s accusations struck some in Pakistan as playing politics.

It "was a little premature," says Mr. Shaikh. "People in Pakistan would otherwise have been more understanding of his position."

Now, the opposition in the Indian Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is pressing further. Wednesday, the BJP spokesman said India should go to the United Nations Security Council to seek authority for strikes "to destroy the edifice of terrorism in Pakistan," according to the Hindustan Times.

Along the colonnaded facades of New Delhi's British-era market, Connaught Place, on a warm afternoon, the suggestion finds many supporters. Some find inspiration for greater aggression in America's example.

"After 9/11, America acted quickly to finish Afghanistan," says Mohammed Ismail, a tout for a nearby crafts store, noting the initial success of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan.

Mumbai was India’s 9/11, he says, but "in India, we do not do such action."

"If I were the prime minister, I would finish it, fully and finally," he adds.

The heart of the dispute is the allegation that the militants were trained in and arrived from Pakistan. Indians and their media outlets have accepted this as fact — a position with which American officials increasingly agree. Pakistanis see it as paranoia.

This has led to the two nations talking at cross-purposes, unable to agree on how to move forward. India this week asked Pakistan to extradite 20 "fugitives." When Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari appeared to deny the request during an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" Wednesday, Indians saw it as a betrayal of his promise in recent days to cooperate fully with investigations.

"Zardari has backed out of most of his promises" to be cooperative, says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

But Pakistanis read India's request differently. They see it as a sign that India does not know who was responsible for the Mumbai attacks. The 20 "fugitives" were not new names related to Mumbai, but people that India has asked for since 1993, says Shaikh, the former foreign secretary.

"They are playing a bluff game right now," says Karachi businessman Zafar Minhaj.

"Once the specific demands are on the table, then the Pakistani government will come under pressure," he adds. "Right now, what can they react to: to what was there in the past or the current situation?"

As it is, the atmosphere in Pakistan has made it difficult for Mr. Zardari to appear too eager to help India.

"Because this government has trouble knowing what to do, I doubt that they’ll be able to convince the other political parties to take a united and consensual path to responding to India’s specific requests,” says Mr. Minhaj, the Karachi businessman.

A case in point was Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s offer to send the head of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency to India.

"It seemed as if the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief was being summoned like a criminal in an investigation," says Shafqat Mahmood, a former senator and now a political commentator in Lahore.

The offer was promptly rescinded. To Indian businessman Mr. Maheshwari, it was evidence that nothing in Pakistan has changed: "I have no faith that they will respond to our evidence."

His words point to the United States’ challenge as peacemaker: establishing trust.

Yet Karachi truck driver Khan says there is still space for understanding. "Our government is correct in helping the Indians because it is a way of helping ourselves to find out who are these people who are causing trouble in both Pakistan and India," he says.

(Sappenfield, a Christian Science Monitor staff writer, reported from New Delhi. Yusuf, a Monitor correspondent, reported from Karachi, Pakistan.)

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