When atrocity breeds affinity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am

It has become all too familiar, sadly, to hear news of terror attacks in India targeting civilians. The latest atrocity hit the country on Sunday - the bombing of the 'Friendship Express' train service between India and Pakistan, killing at least 68. However, this attack may have stimulated something quite unfamiliar: agreement and co-operation between two old adversaries. In the past, such incidents brought mutual accusations and recriminations, but times have changed.

The attack near Panipat, some 80km from New Delhi, caused massive fires that accounted for the majority of casualties. Suspicion of blame has naturally fallen on the usual suspects - Pakistani Islamist extremists groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Significantly, Pakistani authorities are making no efforts to contradict those assumptions.

A large proportion of the dead were Pakistani Muslims, which can only cause the alienation of those the terror factions are seeking to recruit: the rest of Pakistan's Muslim population. As happened after attacks in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005 - perpetrated by al-Qaeda in Iraq - the religion of the victims may result in a major public backlash against the perpetrators among the very people they consider their natural support base.

As a consequence, some observers are even speculating that the train might not have been the intended target, and that the devices, destined for elsewhere, may have detonated prematurely. But there's no evidence to support such a proposition. The death of so many Muslims, and Pakistani ones at that, thus has to be considered the result of a major tactical error.

The attack also failed in an area that, in the past, would have succeeded easily. Rather than further dividing the nuclear neighbours, it has done something that decades of diplomatic and political engagement has consistently failed to attain - bringing India and Pakistan together.

Radical Islamist terrorism has become a major concern for both governments, and a powerful motivator behind a growing Indo-Pakistani detente. The latest blast occurred the day before Pakistan's foreign minister was due to meet Indian leaders in New Delhi. The Indian and Pakistani reactions to the atrocity spoke volumes about the new mood.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his 'anguish and grief', while Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf took the highly unusual step of giving his reaction as if it were a joint Indo-Pakistani statement. 'Such wanton acts of terrorism will only serve to further strengthen our resolve to attain the mutually desired objective of sustainable peace,' he said. This sentiment was repeated by his foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, when he toured the bomb site before going on to New Delhi for the talks.

Such 'mutual desire' promises to grow apace with each attack. July's Mumbai bombings, which India accused Pakistani state agencies of helping plan and execute, had the effect of stopping Indo-Pakistani peace talks, yet the latest atrocity has already succeeded in bringing about the opposite.

Speaking to journalists at the burned-out remains of the train, Mr Kasuri said: 'The governments of India and Pakistan should not allow the perpetrators of this incident to achieve their objectives.' The talks, he said, would address some of the most significant issues between the two states - including Kashmir and troop levels on the Siachen glacier; and the two nations would sign an agreement on reducing the risk of nuclear accidents.

The irony of the train bombing is thus that it may speed the way to a formalised friendship between the historic adversaries. Tensions remain, and there will be further grounds for division in the future. Yet the two states clearly have a key social and security issue on which to co-operate, and to use as a basis for strengthening bilateral relations.

The terrorists may have to re-evaluate their tactics.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle-East specialist, lectures at New York University in London