India-Pak: Change the narrative

As a Pakistani it is difficult for me to talk about the ghastly attacks on Mumbai three years ago and the response of its vibrant citizens. This is not simply due to the nationality of Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist captured after the 26/11 Mumbai

terror attacks. What happened in Mumbai was a sad reminder of how easy it has become for a handful of militants to wreak havoc, to hold an entire city hostage and undermine humanity. At the outset, let me state it very clearly: a vast majority of Pakistanis felt the pain and condemned the Mumbai attacks; targeting innocent civilians is heinous and unacceptable.
The Mumbai attacks changed the atmosphere created by President Asif Ali Zardari’s unprecedented offers of peace and cooperation. A few weeks before the carnage in Mumbai, Mr Zardari made historic remarks in a conclave organised by an Indian newspaper, which represented a consensus within Pakistan’s political class: “I do not feel threatened by India and India should not feel threatened from us… today we have a Parliament which is already pre-agreed upon a friendly relationship with India. In spite of our disputes, we have a great future together.”
Mr Zardari also declared that Pakistan will not be the first country to use its nuclear weapons, thus altering a carefully constructed Pakistani nuclear doctrine of first-use.
A few days later, when the terror attacks in Mumbai happened, most Pakistanis were shocked and bewildered. They had little clue what was happening until media reports trickled in that some of the attackers were of Pakistani origin. The civilian government tried to arrest the situation but the media fuelled a paranoia and resorted to war mantra. Very soon, TV shows, dedicated to preparing for a nuclear confrontation, began airing and the situation was not helped by crank calls made to Pakistan’s presidency threatening attacks.
For Pakistan’s constituency of peace, this was the worst of times. Hopes of meaningful engagement with India were dashed to the ground. A consensus Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, a powerful presidency and a political consensus on making peace with India was scuttled within 72 hours after the attacks. The attacks achieved the exact objective with which they were enacted. The identity of Ajmal Kasab ensured that Indian public opinion was to do something about Pakistan. Thus the war talk entered Indian homes and bazaars.
But Pakistanis wondered what was happening? They are victims of similar militant groups which have destroyed peace and killed thousands of civilians and security personnel. In a perverse way, the enemy was common but the “nationalism” of the two states made it fragmented. Many Pakistanis saw terrorist attacks as a “reaction” to America’s war on terror in the neighbourhood; and the Indians saw terror on their soil as a continuation of proxy war by Pakistan.
The logjam was broken due to the hectic efforts of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s civilian leadership, which has started to show a positive trend culminating in Pakistan granting the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India for promoting trade. These three years have included various rounds of talks, failed summits, distrust and immense political will to bring things closer to normalisation. There is a long journey ahead.
However, the Mumbai trials in Pakistan, India and the US have had different trajectories. If David Coleman Headley has made startling revelations, the militant groups, especially the Jamat ud Dawa, continue to deny their role in Mumbai attacks. It is critical for the Pakistani state to identify and punish the perpetrators according to law. This is important for Pakistan, too. Justice for the victims in Mumbai will also benefit Pakistan in the long run.

Indian government and civil society will have to engage with the situation in Pakistan and not remain indifferent to the challenges which the fragile civilian government and the Army face in tackling insurgencies. It is not valid to say that all militancy and jihadism in Pakistan is state sanctioned. The Islamist militants are on an all-out war against Pakistan and have taken the fight against the state of Pakistan to a new level by terrorising the civilian population. Pakistan Army’s general headquarters has been attacked, thousands of Armymen, police and paramilitary troops have been killed. The worst fear is that some of the smaller groups are autonomous and entering into alliances with Al Qaeda.
One often hears from the Indian side that the Pakistani state is the rootcause of its plight. This is only a skin-deep assessment. Pakistan is located in a zone that has been the epicentre of the Great Game, which continues to date. To counter the Soviet invasion and aggression, Pakistan helped the US to prepare the mujahideen. After the Soviet Union retreated, there was dilemma about what to do with the militias; and now, since the US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan is struggling to deal with the militant networks built over decades. But this is a difficult process and needs more time, resources and regional support. The role of world powers, especially the US, cannot be underestimated in viewing what Pakistan has gone through.
Pakistan is not the same country as it was during the 1980s or 1990s. It has a vibrant electronic media and a huge young population which wants to move on. Despite the conspiracy theories articulated, people question and challenge narratives about India. And there are more and more young people asking this question: why these militants? Whose interest are they serving? Not the people’s. Even former cricket-turned-politician Imran Khan, the rising star of the youth, has stated that he will not allow any militant group to exist in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s elected government remains committed to peace. India needs to engage with Pakistan and its civilian institutions. History cannot be undone. But we can change the future.

The author is a Pakistani commentator and columnist. His writings are archived at

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