The rising tempo against al-Qaeda in Pakistan at the behest of United States forces is having an impact in India. In the recent past, the US/Pakistan intelligence agencies have met with some success in the crackdown that has reportedly been meticulously planned over the last six months. Following this month's arrest of al-Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the Libyan national who allegedly masterminded assassination attempts on Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in 2003, reports from Pakistan suggest US and Pakistani forces have extracted information from him on other al-Qaeda members, as well as Osama bin Laden. Several US papers have reported the killing of al-Qaeda figure Haithan al-Yemeni by a missile from a Central Intelligence Agency-operated unmanned aerial drone along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, though official confirmation still remains hazy.
But even as US/Pakistani forces appear to be making some headway in the "war on terror", Indian Kashmir, a cauldron of terrorist activities, has begun to simmer. A string of bomb attacks have rocked Kashmir in the past few weeks, the worst being an attack last week on school children in the heart of Srinagar that left two dead and more than 20 children among 50 injured. Then, on Friday, a bomb wrapped as a gift exploded in a home in south Srinagar killing three family members. Last month, passengers of the India-Pakistan peace bus connecting Indian and Pakistan Kashmir experienced a close call when terrorists struck tourist quarters in the heart of Srinagar, where they were staying, despite heavy security. The police in New Delhi, meanwhile, arrested suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists that were allegedly planning a series of bomb attacks in the capital.
There are two lines of thought that follow the attacks in India: one is that the terrorists on the run in the rest of Pakistan are desperate to make a mark elsewhere, with Indian Kashmir providing a convenient field of operation. Second, the attacks are actually being masterminded by the Pakistan army, at the behest of the top powers, while keeping an extensive public relations exercise in place through the peace process with India. This keeps the hard sell to the extremists within Pakistan in place that all is being done to protect Muslim rights in Kashmir, while making the business of improved India-Pakistan relations sinister.
Some observers see a connection between the attacks in India: whenever the incumbent Pakistani establishment is accused of kowtowing to the US in Pakistan, a situation made worse by the infamous "dog" cartoon (see below), terror attacks in the name of "freedom struggle" rear their ugly head in India. Some call it an age-old strategy - assuaging seething fundamentalist feelings due to US operations on the western borders by orchestrating deadly attacks in India on the eastern front.
Events in the recent past have only fueled anti-US sentiment. A survey carried out by Online, a Pakistani-based news agency, revealed hurt national pride following the depiction of Pakistan as the US's pet dog in The Washington Times after the killing of Abu Faraj. Though the paper has since apologized, people cutting across class divides have demanded that the government quit supporting the US in its "war against terrorism".
As part of the typical balancing act, Musharraf has patted himself on the back for taking on al-Qaeda, while on the same note saying that a solution in Kashmir is still far off. "We have broken [al-Qaeda's] back. They cease to exist as a cohesive, homogenous body under good command and control, vertical and horizontal," he said. But in the same interview, Musharraf was quoted: "Soft borders are not a solution to the Kashmir dispute, but could be a step towards confidence building between Pakistan and India."
Indeed, Indian security forces have been warning of attacks during summer months, when the snow melts and infiltration from across the border is at its highest. Security officials have been saying that a soft border with Pakistan in Kashmir has to be a careful and calibrated exercise, after the opening of borders due to the India-Pakistan bus service in Kashmir. They caution that any success in checking terror activities in Indian Kashmir is due to strict vigil by security forces as well as the implementation by India of the fencing along the Line of Control that separates Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. This has resulted in a marked decline in the levels of infiltration of armed militants. Infiltration levels are usually down during the winter months (November-February) due to heavy snowfall but pick up after April once the snow melts. Officials fear the period of lull is over.
According to a senior official of the Indian intelligence bureau, "While there is no gainsaying the fact that the India-Pakistan peace process must proceed with the bus service [that connects Srinagar and Muzzaffarabad], a major step forward, the government has to take care to ensure that the intelligence structure in Kashmir is strengthened once the physical barriers to entry are reduced."
Writing in the Indian Express, Arun Shourie, former government minister and journalist, said: "Sectarian terrorists in Pakistan are thriving in an atmosphere of religious intolerance for which its military government is largely to blame. Musharraf has repeatedly pledged that he would eradicate religious extremism and sectarianism and transform Pakistan into a moderate Muslim state. In the interests of retaining power, he has done the opposite ... Instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the government has co-opted the religious right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition ..."
But, as usual, for every argument that Musharraf should be castigated there are others that say he should be given a long rope and has indeed had a "change of heart", as expressed by him during his recent visit to India. Noted commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, also writing in the Indian Express, said: "Support for Pakistan inside Kashmir is at its lowest. The Americans will cut Pakistan a lot of slack, but their fundamental perceptions about terrorism have changed. The extent of militant Islam in Pakistan is always difficult to gauge, but there are reasons to think that its influence is exaggerated. As a recent World Bank paper by Jishnu Das shows with credible data, madrassas still account for less than 1% of school enrollment in Pakistan. This is not to deny that Pakistan has the capacity for serious cross-border mischief, but it is far from being a society that will go lock, stock and barrel over to the mullahs. If anything, greater Islamization will produce more serious threats within Pakistan and intensify their own internal conflicts. And civil society trends seem to be shifting as well."
However, in the mayhem created by the terror attacks, there is a cause for cheer. It is the first time in years that credible and young political voices in the form of Omar Abdullah (National Conference), Mehbooba Mufti (Peoples Democratic Party) and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq (moderate faction of the Hurriyat party) have emerged. These leaders, despite belonging to rival political parties, speak in one voice about the betterment of the Kashmiri people, who have now begun to trust them.
The people of Kashmir tired of violence have also risen in one voice against the attack on children. Last Friday, hundreds of school children marched through Srinagar, chanting slogans and holding placards saying "we are flowers of a garden, allow us to bloom" to protest against the bomb attack. Several similar spontaneous rallies have taken place across Kashmir, New Delhi and the rest of the country.
There has been some criticism of the Manmohan Singh government in New Delhi, caught in the mire of handling coalition politics. Like past dispensations, the approach of the Manmohan government toward Kashmir has been episodic, with periods of disinterest and lull in tackling the problems of the people who have to be roped into the path of progress to definitively shun terrorism. Everybody agrees that the solution in Kashmir relates to tourism - a money spinner for the region - and development, which can only come with peace. The issues have to be addressed on a continuous basis.