March Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

The amity between India and Pakistan on display immediately after the bombing of the cross-border Samjhauta Express was unusual yet heartening for peaceniks. The two neighbouring countries vowed to stay committed to the peace process despite attempts to derail it, and both sides agreed to cooperate with the investigation into the bombing.

Just days after the attacks, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed an accord aiming to reduce the risks of accidents linked to their nuclear arsenals. The agreement signalled a departure from the past, when the two bitter rivals often indulged in mutual fingerpointing and acrimony.

But there were instances when the two countries strayed from this new diplomatic maturity. Accusations have been emanating from both sides regarding issues relating to ticketing and security. There have also been unofficial mumblings regarding the involvement of extremists on either side. New Delhi Police tracked a suspicious phone call made to Azad Kashmir just after the bombs exploded, which it thinks may be the crucial link in the investigations. Indian officials may not have declared their suspicions of the involvement of Kashmiri separatists explicitly, who it believes are funded and supported by Pakistan, but they have indicated the possibility of their involvement. However, Kashmiri militant groups have strongly denied any role in the terrorist attack and are instead blaming Indian agencies and hard-line Hindu groups. “Our fight is against the Indian government and not against innocent civilians. The claims by Indian police that the Mujahideen are behind the blasts is malicious propaganda aimed at tarnishing the image of the Mujahideen,” a spokesman for the banned militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba, told Reuters. “This brutal act is the handiwork of Indian agencies, Hindu hardliners, including the Shiv Sena,” he said.

The not-so brotherly presumptions inked the Pakistani government. The foreign office spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam, told a private TV channel that India was once again resorting to stereotyping Islamic groups and said that blaming Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed prematurely could harm investigations into the incident.

The deeply entrenched mistrust between the two sides also played up when Rana Shaukat, the prime witness to the alleged perpetrators, who still remain at large, was allegedly barred from returning to Pakistan owing to interrogations by Indian officials. Shaukat, who lost five children in the fire, remained missing along with his wife, Ruksana and one-year-old daughter, Aqsa. The unease of the Pakistani government over their detention increasingly hinted at a possible diplomatic fallout when a Pakistan High Commission representative was reportedly denied access to the injured. India’s external affairs ministry issued orders barring Pakistani officials from meeting the injured without prior clearance from them.

However, Indian officials contended that Rana Shaukat and his surviving family were to be transported under high security through the Wagah border, as requested by them, and not in the Pakistani jet that had been organised to bring back survivors from India.

Overall, though, official reactions have been markedly different from the Mumbai commuter rail bombings in July 2006. Last year, India briefly suspended talks after 186 people were killed in a series of bomb blasts on commuter trains in the country’s financial capital. This time, such freezes were pleasantly absent. “Both governments are now realising that unless they go ahead and keep the talks going, the terrorists will get the upper hand,” says Talat Masood, an analyst and retired Pakistan Army general. “That’s why they will try to keep the talks on track.”

Although early investigations have yielded no breakthroughs into the attacks that killed 68 people, India has said it will share the findings of the ongoing investigation with Pakistan. Federal Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, initially, expressed his concern over the single-handed investigation that India was undertaking. He also contended that Pakistan had not received a complete list of the injured and dead Pakistanis, nor had it been allowed to send a special train to bring the victims back to their country. Tasnim Aslam expressed similar views and said that Pakistan would wait for the findings of the investigation before alleging any group’s involvement in the attack.

The findings from the investigation will be presented at the March 6 meeting that has been planned to develop a joint anti-terror mechanism in Islamabad, Satyabrata Pal, the Indian High Commissioner, told reporters after meeting a delegation from the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Pal said the complete list of passengers onboard the train on the day of the attack could not be provided to Pakistan because authorities were still trying to collect data on travellers who were travelling in unreserved coaches.

On February 23, fours days after the firebombing of the ill-fated train, India declined to shift bodies of the unidentified victims of the Samjhauta Express, owing to the fact that their nationalities were not determined. “We requested the Indian government to shift the bodies to Pakistan for burial, which was declined on the grounds that the nationality of the victims was not determined,” said a foreign office representative.

The next day, however, a mass burial was arranged for 23 unidentified victims in a Muslim cemetery in Haryana amid chants of “Allahu Akbar.” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz requested for a proper separate burial with DNA identification to keep open the possibility of bringing the remains of identified Pakistani nationals to the country. The victims’ graves have been clearly demarcated and permanent marks made on their bodies, so that they may be exhumed upon identification in the future.

Haryana state Chief Minister Bupinder Singh Hooda attended the funeral among other politcians, religious clerics and dignitaries. “This mass outpouring of grief from the people gathered here and their show of sympathy for their Pakistani brothers and sisters…is a slap on the face of these cowardly terrorists who did this dastardly act,” the chief minister said, as reported by the media.

Moving scenes were witnessed not only on the Pakistani side of the border, where mournful relatives received the bodies of their loved ones and joyous families united with the survivors, but also on the Indian side where people displayed regret and sorrow over the incident. Hindus and Muslims combined in prayers for the departed souls, while Indian officials paid their respects to the dead before handing over their bodies to Pakistan. The Samjhauta Express was even witness to extreme shows of courage and selflessness. A brave Indian soldier, Kashmir Singh, smashed a steel door with an emergency hatchet to rescue five or six passengers, till he succumbed to the raging fire and died.

Just as the Kashmir earthquake united India and Pakistan in the rescue and rebuilding effort two years ago, the two countries should use the train attacks as a springboard for continuing negotiations for peace and for improved quality of life for citizens on both sides of the border.

“We need to put more meaning into the peace process. Let’s move on with it,” says Ayaz Amir, a political commentator. “We mustn’t let the terrorists win.”