For two countries that have disagreed so bitterly on basic definitions in the past, a joint "institutional mechanism" to combat terrorism must seem the height of wishful thinking, of vaulting political ambition seeking in vain to reach beyond limits imposed by mechanisms of governance and enforcement. But such has been the promise of the Havana joint statement between India and Pakistan, issued after an encounter between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of September's Non-Aligned Movement summit.
There could be different opinions about how far this statement departs from the long list of surprise outcomes to high-level encounters between the two countries. Early speculation centred around the possibility that, as in recent such dramatic turnarounds in relations between India and Pakistan, there had been an unseen hand guiding the course of events. Clearly, since the jealous competition between the two countries for the affections the U.S. ended in stalemate, it has become evident that a superpower tilt will not be a decisive factor in resolving neighbourhood issues. That would leave accommodation on mutually agreed terms as the only possible recourse. Though Manmohan Singh has been anxious to dispel the impression, it is likely that, as with the Indian Prime Minister's border crossing to Lahore in February 1999 and the Pakistani President's odyssey to Agra in July 2001, the two countries were pushed towards their current engagement by a gentle nudge from the U.S.
On India's part, the Havana statement represents a recognition that the diplomatic strategy of the stiff demarche served on Pakistan every time there is a terrorist atrocity on Indian soil, is beginning to look increasingly unconvincing. By characterising Pakistan too as a country that has been at the receiving end of terrorism, India has seemingly gone a long way towards an approach to the issue that it has so far disdained: of seeking the underlying causes of terrorism and recognising that forces of moderation on both sides have equal stakes in reining in extremism.
A first requirement of a credible "joint institutional mechanism" would be at least a semblance of mutual agreement on what constitutes terrorism. The challenge here is enormous, since no other border has bristled with quite the same antagonism over the distinction between "terrorism" and "freedom struggle". And this is not merely a phenomenon confined to the Kashmir issue, long derided within India as Pakistan's singular and solitary obsession in international forums. Viewed from the other end , Pakistan has been deeply irked in recent months by what it views as India's undue interest in the Balochistan insurgency and its overwrought concern over the brutal strike that killed the traditional feudal overlord of a part of that province, Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti. Pakistan has been convinced that the problem in Balochistan has acquired its current dimensions only after India opened four consulates in Afghanistan. This level of diplomatic representation, it has argued, has little to do with neighbourly intimacy and everything to do with India's strategic interests in the wider region of south and central Asia.
Even if an agreement on principle can be forced through an exertion of political will at the highest level, it would require to filter through the security and intelligence apparatuses on both sides of the border to be of any substantive value. Beyond the sharing of information between intelligence services that have been bitter opponents in the past, and indeed, derive a great deal of their institutional legitimacy from the depredations – both real and imagined – of the other side, this would also require the coordination of operations between security agencies that share an equally tortured relationship. Finally, it would require cooperation between India and Pakistan in the legal and judicial realm.
The record here on both sides has been undistinguished. Pakistan has routinely declared several of the militant formations that operate in its territory unlawful and placed their leaders under legal restraints. But in most cases a mere change of nomenclature has sufficed in keeping these outfits on the right side of the law.
Though Pakistan's omissions are often highlighted and adversely commented upon in the Indian media, there is no denying that on any objective reading, the record back home has been dismal. Significant figures within the ranks of the Kashmir militancy have been held without charge in Indian prisons for years. Major anti-terrorist operations by the security forces, such as the supposed encounter in which the guilty of the Chittisinghpora massacre of March 2000 were eliminated, were rapidly proven to have been random acts of reprisal against innocent civilians. And highly publicised preemptive actions, such as the elimination of all the intending authors of a June 1 terrorist plot against the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, have been surrounded by more than a whiff of suspicion.
It cannot again do very much good for public confidence in the security and intelligence agencies' commitment to the task, that the only prosecution launched under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), now lapsed, concluded with distinctly ambivalent results. Indeed, of the four persons who were arrested after the December 13, 2001 attack on New Delhi's Parliament premises and swiftly convicted, the charge of involvement has stuck only against one. And he was a surrendered militant, obliged by the terms of his capitulation, to keep regular contact with the anti-insurgency wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
More than anything else, a joint institutional mechanism that deals with terrorism would require on both sides of the border, that security and intelligence agencies be subject to certain strict norms of public accountability. This is a process that has to be politically driven. And it is really questionable how far political establishments on both sides, that ostensibly derive their legitimacy from the people, but finally depend far too much on covert agendas to sustain themselves in power, can respond to this challenge.