Nov 26-28, 2008 – three days that took India-Pakistan ties from a high note of hope to a crashing low. One year on, after seven dossiers given by India linking Pakistani militants to the Mumbai terror strike, reminders about bringing the attackers to justice and two meetings between leaders of the two countries, the dialogue process remains in deep freeze.
Hours before terrorists struck Mumbai on the night of Nov 26 — to begin a 60-hour terror siege that killed 166 people — Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi were posing before photographers in New Delhi and declaring their conviction that the peace process was irreversible.
A little while later, 10 Pakistani terrorists blew away that feel-good picture of bonhomie and subcontinental camaraderie.
The chill set in deep in the weeks that followed with the Pakistani spin machinery accusing India of troops build-up and New Delhi denying the charges.
India launched an unprecedented exercise to mobilise international opinion to pressure Pakistan into acting against the perpetrators of the carnage.
Under global pressure and the US throwing its weight behind India, Pakistan started token crackdowns on terror outfits and banned the Jamaat- ud-Dawa, a front for the Lashker-e-Taiba, the chief suspect behind the Mumbai attacks, and put its founder Hafiz Saeed under house arrest.
On Jan 5, India submitted the first dossier providing to Pakistan extensive evidence and leads establishing the complicity of Pakistani nationals in the Mumbai attacks. In response, Pakistan raised 30 questions. New Delhi also responded, but with little by way of action from the Pakistani side.
Finally, on Feb 12, Islamabad made a dramatic confession, admitting that Pakistani nationals were involved, the first time it has done so in a terror attack in India.
Pakistani security agencies arrested two top Lashkar men, Zarar Shah and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, and rounded up several others. New Delhi thought this was just the tip of the iceberg and pressed for more concrete action to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Nearly seven months after 26/11, a limited thaw began when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of a multilateral summit in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.
With cameras flashing and journalists noting every word, Manmohan Singh told Zardari bluntly that he had a limited mandate to tell him that Pakistani territory couldn’t be allowed to be used for terror attacks against India. The two leaders directed their foreign secretaries to assess action taken by Islamabad in punishing the Mumbai attackers and report to the two leaders before the NAM summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in July.
A month later, Pakistan sprang a surprise with a dossier listing actions taken by it in prosecuting the Mumbai terrorists just a day before Manmohan Singh sat down for talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Manmohan Singh found Pakistani actions credible enough and, in a gesture of much-misunderstood statesmanship, decided to give the Pakistani leadership some space to prosecute the Mumbai terror managers by agreeing to delink Islamabad’s action against terror from the composite dialogue process.
In an apparent move to provide Pakistan’s beleaguered civilian leadership some leeway with the powerful hawkish military establishment, he also agreed to include the first-ever reference to Balochistan in an India-Pakistan joint statement.
The opposition in India quickly pounced on the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement and accused Manmohan Singh of capitulating to Pakistan and surrendering national interests.
Manmohan Singh defended the move, clarifying that there was nothing in the joint statement to suggest that India will resume composite dialogue with Pakistan without visible anti-terror actions.
The controversy, however, did not die, prompting New Delhi to revert to its old position of “no talks till Pakistan acts”.
Manmohan Singh’s gamble, however, has not paid off, with Islamabad, in New Delhi’s opinion, not doing enough on the Mumbai front despite concessions at Sharm el-Sheikh.
The foreign ministers of the two countries met again in New York in September, but the talks ended in a stalemate of sorts, with little prospect of a revival of the dialogue process.
A year on, Pakistan feels it has done enough and cites the beginning of the trial of seven Mumbai suspects to make a renewed pitch for the resumption of dialogue.
In an interview with Inditop on the eve of the anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Shahid Malik insisted Pakistan has taken concrete steps and contended that India should not allow one individual, Saeed, to hijack the entire relationship.
“On Oct 10, we started the trial of the seven accused. That was a big step forward. That should have gone well in India. In addition, 13 persons have been declared proclaimed offenders. We have requested Interpol to trace them,” Malik said.
New Delhi is, however, not convinced. India has voiced its growing exasperation by attacking the “tardy pace of investigations” and has put Pakistan to the “Hafiz Saeed test”, seeing a sign of Islamabad’s insincerity in its reluctance to act against the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai carnage. A Lahore court freed Saeed, citing lack of evidence against him.
Late last month, for three consecutive days, Manmohan Singh again extended the “hand of friendship” to Pakistan by saying there were “no preconditions” for resuming dialogue, but linked such a prospect to Islamabad’s action against terror.
The foreign ministers of the two countries are expected to meet again in the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain Nov 28, but no one is expecting a breakthrough.
Earlier, Gilani was expected to attend the summit but appears to have opted out for domestic reasons.
The pattern of India giving fresh evidence, followed by Pakistan’s demand for more proof, has not ceased with New Delhi handing over the seventh dossier Nov 17. The long night of Nov 26 continues to cast shadows over India-Pakistan relations, and there is no sign of daybreak, a year after bilateral ties hurtled into a free fall.