By Momin Iftikhar
It might have been overshadowed by the Mumbai terrorist strike in Nov 2008 but attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 Dec 2001, on all accounts, remains a watershed in the jerky evolution of Indo-Pak relations, particularly in shaping the course of the Kashmir resistance movement. With the only accused awarded death penalty still awaiting the disposal of his mercy petition, the nine year old incident in which five unidentified gunmen attacked the building of the Indian Parliament, remains a happening thing, yet to be finally wrapped up.
All the five attackers were killed during the attack while four persons were arrested on charges of abetting the attackers as facilitators. These included Mohammad Afzal, a former JKLF militant who had surrendered in 1994, his cousin Shaukat Hussain Guru, Shaukat’s wife Afsan Guru and SA R Gilani, a lecturer of Arabic at the Delhi University. After a year of trial a POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) Court found all four guilty; awarding death sentence to men while Afsan was given five years’ rigorous imprisonment. On appeal the Delhi High Court acquitted Professor SA.R. Gilani and Afsan Guru on 29 Oct 2003 due to absence of incriminating evidence while upholding the death sentence for the remaining two. The case was raised to the Supreme Court, which in its verdict on Aug 3, 2005 lifted the death sentence for Shaukat leaving him with an imprisonment of ten years while confirming the death sentence for Afzal Guru. It is Afzal, the ultimate fall guy of the incident, who awaits the hangman’s noose pending the disposal of his mercy petition by the President of India for the sixth year running.
Coming within hundred days of the September 11 strike, the Parliament attack seemed fortuitous from an Indian foreign policy perspective; tightly following a well scripted narrative. Two aspects had made this charade compelling for India. First, the Taliban rout by US had opened new vistas for exploitation for India in its search for a foothold in Afghanistan. A marked Indian advantage was the coming to power of an anti Taliban Government in Kabul, lifted into saddle by authority of UN-sponsored conference in Bonn, Germany. The new leadership comprised primarily of the Northern Alliance elements- a motley assortment of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara warlords whose desperate survival in face of the Taliban onslaught had only been made possible by a no-holds-barred Indo-Iranian support. Pakistan’s west flank stood exposed and India was bent upon making most of the unexpected opportunity by exploiting Pakistan’s proximity to the Taliban to project it as sponsor of terrorism.
Second; India wanted to use the windfall opportunity to paint the freedom struggle in Kashmir with the broad red brush of terrorism. Pakistan’s emergence as an indispensable US partner in the war on terror in Afghanistan didn’t augur well for the Indian designs. There was a need to not only shift the international anti terrorist spotlight on Pakistan itself but also on the Kashmir specific militant organizations whose claims to represent the internationally sanctioned cause of self determination bestowed upon them the status of freedom fighters – a mantle which chagrined India much.
Once the parliament attack materialized India developed the scenario with the alacrity of a preplanned war game. Within hours it had accused ISI – and Pakistan Government of complicity without the benefit of any supporting evidence. For the first time in thirty years it recalled its ambassador to Pakistan. It also ended rail and bus service between the two countries and banned Pakistani commercial aircraft use of India air space. In a most alarming gesture it started the mobilization of troops within a week of the incident along the entire 1800 miles border between the two countries, confronting Pakistan with the largest ever hostile concentration of forces.
The ratcheting up of the coercive diplomacy yielded tangible results for India. On 26 December the US responded by the addition of LeT and JeM, both Kashmir centric militant organizations, to a State Department list of “designated terrorist organizations” – a momentous step that Washington had apparently been trying to avoid. This US action reinforced India’s long sought position that supporting the Kashmiri armed struggle was illegitimate. As summarized by the New York Times; “Pakistan after 50 years of battling India over Kashmir, must now abandon the armed struggle there and rely hence forth on political means of confronting India.”
To divest the Kashmiri armed struggle of its indigenous moorings the term “cross border terrorism” began to circulate immediately following the attack and became inseparable component of any Indian diplomatic interaction related to Kashmir Issue. It is worth recalling that till then Indians had not referred to decade long uprising in Kashmir as terrorism. The Lahore Declaration signed by Indian Premier Vajpaee bears ample testimony to this fact. But following 9/11 the world changed and the line separating freedom struggle from terrorism had vanished, providing India with a great opportunity to project itself as a victim of terrorism instead of being an unabashed oppressor of Kashmiri population.
Immediately following the parliament attack India unleashed a reign of terror to break the back of Kashmiri resistance. To drive home the ‘victim of terror syndrome’, it managed to airlift hundreds of Taliban fighters from Afghanistan jails and used them as clay pigeons to conduct fake encounters in IHK; cashing in on India’s long association with Northern Alliance warlords, now in power in Kabul. The trend become deeply embedded in the Indian army culture whereby fake encounters in Kashmir have become the short cut for the up and coming ambitious Indian army officers intent upon securing a promising career.
India accused Pakistan for it and treated the attack on the Indian parliament as a casus belli; taking the subcontinent to the brink of a war. It would be interesting, though, to note as to what the Indian judicial system found out after four years of deliberations. The Indian Supreme Court, in its verdict of Aug 2005 cast aside charges of a ‘Pakistani Connection'; throwing overboard the story of conspiracy linking ISI, Masood Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Ghazi Baba, Tariq, and the rest. All that the judgment refers to is that five unidentified armed men attacked Indian parliament and died, and that Mohammad Afzal participated in the conspiracy. Sadly, this aspect has gone unnoticed in India by design and the world at large by default.