The tragedy and promise of Samjhauta

The tragedy and promise of Samjhauta


As soon as the peace momentum between India and Pakistan picks up, expect a dastardly militant attack. The killing of innocents has come to reflect both

Image: Reuters

the strength and the vulnerability of the peace process: it shows that extremist groups feel so insecure about their political space that they are willing to engineer terrorist attacks, with an eye towards creating misunderstanding and derailing bilateral engagement. Unfortunately, they have often succeeded in their aim, most significantly after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.

In the past few years, we have argued in these pages that the people and governments of India and Pakistan are on the same side, battling against radical violent outfits opposed to reason and moderation. It has not been a popular position, with many pointing to the deep-rooted conflict between the two countries. Some Indians claim that this school of thought ignores the reality of 'crossborder terrorism' supported by Islamabad, while many Pakistanis talk about the Indian reluctance to move on Kashmir as indicative of New Delhi's underlying motives.

On 18 February, militant groups took to a characteristically brutal way of clarifying the political equation – as well as where they stood – for both policymakers and the public at large. The blasts on the Delhi-Attari-Lahore Samjhauta Express, which took place immediately before midnight, killed 68 people, most of them Pakistanis. The symbolism of the attack could not have been starker. Here were passengers, most from Muslim families divided by Partition, returning home on a rail link that epitomises both people-to-people contact and basic inter-state cooperation. It was the first time that Pakistani civilians had died in a terrorist attack on Indian soil. The blasts on the Samjhauta Express were clearly aimed at devastating the process of India-Pakistan rapprochement.

The attack came at a time when both establishments had made progress on Kashmir, and were the process of preparing their domestic constituencies for compromises that have long been unthinkable. But if the aim was to disrupt this bilateral engagement, it did not succeed. In a marked departure from the past, New Delhi and Islamabad resisted indulging in any blame game, instead cooperating with each other to help victims and arrange crossborder travel for relatives. The Pakistani foreign minister, Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri, kept a scheduled visit to New Delhi a few days after the blasts, and the two countries even inked a deal on nuclear-risk reduction. If anything, the Samjhauta attack appears to have brought New Delhi and Islamabad closer together – seeming to convince India that not all terrorist attacks are instigated and supported by the Pakistani government, while giving Pakistan a chance to understand what India has gone through for years.

Fundamentalist anxiety
It is not yet clear who was behind the attacks. Indian intelligence agencies are being unusually circumspect – and responsible, one might add – by not immediately indulging in the crossborder blame game. Meanwhile, sections in the Pakistani media are pinning the blame on Hindu fundamentalists, who are not happy with the bilateral talks. While there is no doubt that Hindu fanatics are capable of unimaginable atrocities, their modus operandi has usually been in the form of pogroms and targeting of minorities in riots. It is more likely that the blast is the handiwork of militant groups with vested interests in perpetuating the conflict, who are worried about the impending compromise on Kashmir.

While some reports suggested that there was a demand from the Pakistani side for a joint probe, the fact that the attack happened in India obviously gives New Delhi the right to investigate the incident. In the immediate context, the broad contours of the process ahead have been agreed on by both sides. Pakistan will cooperate with Indian agencies if requested. Indian investigators will share whatever information they have been able to gather on the blasts with their Pakistani counterparts, at a meeting of a recently formed anti-terror joint mechanism scheduled for 6 March.

But the blasts have implications that go beyond the short-term investigation process. It is inevitable that in last-ditch attempts to retain some political relevance, militant groups will continue to engineer such attacks. The Samjhauta blasts reveal the common challenges both sides face, as well as provide an opportunity for them to cooperate more closely on three fronts – intelligence sharing, enhancing people-to-people contact (but with more security and support in place), and moving towards a broader political settlement on Kashmir and other issues. At the same time, both establishments need to convince all domestic groups, in a broad-based consultative manner, that they are not selling-out but moving towards a win-win solution.

Strengthening the peace process, and taking it to its logical conclusion, is the best way to marginalise and defeat extremist groups that thrive on the fragility of bilateral ties. But the Indian and Pakistani authorities must surely brace for more attacks, and prepare the public for the need nevertheless to keep the rapprochement process alive. Only then can we salvage something from the horrific tragedy of Samjhauta.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian