Indo-Pak Talks Survive Mumbai Attack

July 28, 2011

External Affairs Minister Shri S.M. Krishna met the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar at New Delhi on July 27, 2011 (Indian Ministry of External Affairs).

Yesterday, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India met as part of a series of talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbors five months after they officially resumed bilateral dialogue. Relations between the two countries appear to be well on the mend following the devastating 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed by the Pakistan-based terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The two sides discussed “confidence-building measures, including cross-border trade and visa protocols.”

Yet the talks could just as easily have been scuppered before they began by the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai. On July 13, a series of deadly bomb blasts ripped through India’s financial capital, killing 23 people and wounding over 130. Unlike in the case of many previous attacks, however, there were no verbal barbs hurled across the border, no wild speculation from official sources regarding Pakistani involvement and no cancellation or delay of talks. Given the history of Indian reactions to terrorist attacks on its soil, this “non-reaction” is, by itself, noteworthy.

Indian authorities and official functionaries have exhibited uncharacteristic restraint so far in declaring who they believe to have been behind the recent bomb attacks in Mumbai. Whereas in the past, authorities have been quick to point the finger at groups based in Pakistan, such as LeT, or Indian organizations with links to Pakistani terror groups, such as the Indian Mujahideen (IM), top officials in India have stated that they do not want to speculate on who might be responsible until investigations of the attacks are complete and more is known.

Part of this hesitancy may be due to the fact that they are simply unsure of who is responsible. Monsoon rains on the night of the attack have complicated efforts to gather forensic evidence at the bomb sites. Then again, even though the pattern of the attack closely resembles that of previous attacks by IM, speculation to the fact remains muted.

This is likely for two reasons. First, in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, any indicators that Pakistan or groups inside Pakistan had some role to play in a future attack would put tremendous pressure on the Indian government to take some sort of action. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and India’s ruling Congress party were able to stave off such pressure in 2008 by a hair’s breadth. They are highly unlikely to be able to do so a second time, especially if they are seen to be soft on a threat to which they themselves draw attention. Avoiding the pressure to take risky or uncomfortable action will only benefit the government.

Second, hurling accusations or insinuations westwards will almost certainly tank the talks which New Delhi and Islamabad have put huge stock in revitalizing. The bilateral dialogue has taken over two and a half years to revive and neither side appears to want to have it held hostage by this latest incident of violence. Relations between the arch-rivals have improved palpably in recent months. Pakistan swiftly condemned the latest attack in Mumbai, and its security services have reduced support to groups operating inside Indian-held Kashmir since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In addition, Pakistan has offered to send a team to India to help investigate the 2008 attacks, and to assist with the inquiry into the latest Mumbai bombings. Both sides have engaged in small confidence building measures, cricket diplomacy and incremental liberalizations of trade. This latest round of discourse will likely not bring forth any breakthrough in relations, but it is the first meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers since the dialogue ceased in 2008, and that is, by itself, significant.

The current amity may, of course, evaporate very rapidly if evidence emerges of some larger plot behind the Mumbai bombings with roots inside Pakistan. At that point, all bets are off. Until then, however, it seems likely that India will continue to downplay any concerns it may have over potential Pakistani links to the attacks in the interests of keeping the line to Islamabad open. Making sure that the connection stays open will be the lynchpin in preventing another perilous standoff between the two nuclear nemeses.