NEW DELHI - There is little room for maneuver. Between denunciations of Pakistan’s “terror sanctuaries” and the need for dialogue with Islamabad, India is painstakingly trying to strike the right tone in its tormented relationship with its western neighbor.
The rival countries have already fought four wars (1947, 1965, 1971-72, 1999), and a significant part of the Indian diplomatic apparatus is focused on avoiding that Pakistan’s current internal instability spirals into confrontation with India. Two-and-a-half years after Pakistani jihadists stormed Mumbai in a coordinated attack that left 166 dead, bilateral relations continue to be bumpy, with a constant swerving between rhetorical fever and shared desires for peace.
The Indian dilemma is perfectly illustrated by a recent sequence of events. Home Affairs Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram dealt a hard blow on the occasion of the May 27 visit to New Delhi of U.S. head of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. Chidambaram took the opportunity of this unprecedented visit, aimed at showcasing the deepening cooperation between the US and India on internal security matters, to condemn the threat coming from Pakistan, which he described as the “global epicenter of terrorism,” adding that the "vast infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan has long flourished as an instrument of state policy."
The Minister was referring to a flurry of jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Haqqani network, which have historically enjoyed support from army secret service Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), when targeting Indian interests in Kashmir or Afghanistan.
And yet despite these public flourishes, officials from both countries maintain a dialogue. Mr. Chidambaram’s lashing out preceded by a few days a bilateral meeting in New Delhi of the Secretary Generals of the respective Defense Ministries. Resuming talks after a three-year hiatus, the two senior officials discussed perspectives on settling the Siachen Glacier dispute, a Kashmir territory in the Himalaya mountains claimed by both countries. This meeting is one of a growing series of contacts in preparation of a July meeting of Foreign Ministers. Both sides display their willingness to restart the “peace process” that was interrupted by the Mumbai attacks. India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is personally committed to resuming the dialogue.
What Bin Laden raid reveals
There are however numerous pitfalls. Explosive news events keep complicating the diplomatic task. The main challenge for India lies in the revelation of the degree of complicity between ISI and jihadist groups in Pakistan. The U.S. discovery of Osama Bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, a suburb of Islamabad, has generated significant questioning about how much support the former Al Qaeda leader might have enjoyed before his death. Meanwhile, the Chicago trial of David Hadley (real name Daoud Gilani), a Pakistani-American jihadist who performed reconnaissance missions in Mumbai ahead of the 2008 attack, casts a crude light on his links with senior ISI staff. Mr. Headley asserts he was getting orders from a certain “Major Iqbal.”
Could this type of revelations derail the peace process? The Headley trial “will not negatively impact the dialogue with Pakistan,” says Ali Ahmed, an analyst with the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA), “because we were already aware of what Mr. Headley is now revealing, just more broadly.”
India’s Prime Minister already stated that the dialogue would go on “to convince Pakistan that terror as an instrument of state policy is not acceptable.” To some extent, the Bin Laden case and the Headley trial might benefit India’s cause, as the international community wakes up to the Pakistani Army’s shady dealings. India today is far less isolated than in the past in its accusations of Pakistan’s complicity with terrorists. “What matters is acting in coordination with the international community,” says Ali Ahmed.
Yet the effect of these revelations remains ambiguous. It is helping India with the outside world, but it can also make it harder domestically. “The Headley trial got major coverage from the Indian media,” says Wilson John, a Researcher with the Observer Research Foundation. “The government is now under public pressure to react accordingly. The Prime Minister cannot go too deep and too fast with the dialogue." India’s Pakistan dilemma remains in full effect.