Cool heads needed in wake of Mumbai attacks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am

Evidence of a Pakistan link to the Mumbai attacks is mounting, inevitably leading to tension between New Delhi and Islamabad. Passions are high, with Indians understandably baying for justice and Pakistani officials, while denying involvement and promising to support the investigation, ready to send troops to the border if necessary. India's politicians, facing local, state and national elections in coming months, already have politicised circumstances. A dangerous situation is fast evolving that requires calm, reasoned and intensive discussion at the highest levels to prevent a crisis.

The nuclear-ready nations do not have a good record of diplomacy. Efforts since 2004 to improve ties have foundered. There have been three wars in the past six decades. Militants said by India to be from the Pakistani Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Taiba stormed India's parliament seven years ago, killing nine people; troops quickly massed on either side of the border. That same organisation is alleged to be involved in the Mumbai outrage.

Investigation of the three days of carnage in the city's foremost district will take much time and the full details may never be known. Only one gunman survived, so corroborating evidence will be difficult. It is clear, though, from the manner in which the two luxury hotels, a Jewish centre, a cinema and railway station were attacked and people shot and taken hostage that this was no rag-tag collection of disenchanted Indian Muslims. Perhaps some were Indian nationals, but their seaborne arrival, weaponry, foreign targets, co-ordination, combat training and language point to external forces.

The assailants' ruthless hunting down of Americans, Britons and Israelis bears the hallmarks of the terrorist group al-Qaeda, the leadership of which is believed to be based in Pakistan's lawless northwest. India has long been on the organisation's list of targets; now that top-level security in western nations, Iraq and Pakistan make its terrorism difficult, turning to the chaos of India's biggest city would seem natural. State elections are under way in Kashmir and two rounds have been held peacefully; Lashkar-e-Taiba could well see striking Mumbai as a way to reignite its separatist struggle. More than 700 people have been killed in religious and ethnic violence across India in the past three years; Indian extremists have hit Mumbai time and again as part of their various struggles. It is conceivable that militant elements could have united to carry out India's version of the terrorism in the US of September 11, 2001.

Regardless of who was behind the attacks, India's intelligence and security agencies have spectacularly failed to protect citizens and foreigners. Home Minister Shivraj Patel has rightly taken 'moral responsibility' and resigned. But that must not be where blame ends - India is firmly part of the globalised world and cannot continue to be so lax about protection. There has to be a thorough investigation and measures taken to ensure that there can never be a repeat.

The pressing matter is for politicians to tone down their rhetoric. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to point to 'elements' in Pakistan as being behind the attack. Pressure is building within his government for the peace process with Pakistan to be suspended. Pakistan has now backed away from an initial offer by President Asif Ali Zardari to send his country's intelligence chief to help the investigation, now offering 'other representatives'.

Leaders from both nations must keep cool heads. Steady dialogue at the highest government levels has to be maintained. At the same time, authorities must do their utmost to ensure harmony at home.