The Ministry of External Affairs may have inadvertently caused some of the confusion over a hoax call to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari that escalated tensions between India and Pakistan during the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
Pretending to be India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the caller conveyed threats of an imminent military response to the attacks.
Pakistani officials said then that the call forced the Pakistan Air Force to go on high alert and scramble its fighter jets. Rattled, Pakistan began a frantic diplomatic effort in western capitals to restrain India.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice telephoned Mr. Mukherjee in the middle of the night to find out why he had made the call, only to be told by the Minister that he had not made any phone call to the Pakistan President.
But still nervous about the possibility of war breaking out between the two countries, Dr. Rice cut short a visit to Europe to fly to South Asia on December 3, visiting both capitals in an effort to calm the tensions.
Exactly a year later, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper revealed that the culprit behind the hoax call was none other than Omar Saeed Shaikh – the militant released by India in 1999 in exchange for the passengers on the Indian Airlines flight IC-814, that was hijacked to Kandahar. He is reported to have made the call from a mobile phone sitting in his Karachi prison cell, where he is being held for the 2002 killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
A U.S. Embassy cable from New Delhi, sent on December 4, 2008 (181351: confidential) – which was accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks – revealed that Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary (Americas) Gaitri Kumar had told the Americans on December 1 that Mr. Mukherjee had made a phone call to Mr. Zardari.
Ambassador David Mulford said in the cable that later, on December 1, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan had informed him that no such call was made and he would have known if it had been otherwise.
In order to clear the confusion, Ms. Kumar met the American Political Counselor again on December 3 and offered a version that squared with Mr. Narayanan's. She said the Minister had last spoken directly with Mr. Zardari in an informal setting during his May 2008 visit to Islamabad, before he was elected President, and that he had never spoken to him on the phone.
Since then, Mr. Mukherjee had only spoken to his counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the envoy reported Ms. Kumar as telling the Embassy official. On the evening of November 28, Mr. Mukherjee phoned Mr. Qureshi. He did not convey any threats, and Mr. Qureshi confirmed this at a press conference in Islamabad.
Though Ms. Kumar gave the Americans no explanation for the discrepancy between this report and the one she gave on December 1, Ambassador Mulford wrote that he “suspects she incorrectly inferred that a Mukherjee-Zardari call took place from the fact that Mukherjee's office had, as a precaution, prepared points for him to use if Zardari were to phone Prime Minister Singh when he was unavailable, leaving Mukherjee to receive the call.”
The American Ambassador cabled that despite the conflicting versions from the Government of India, he had concluded that Mr. Mukherjee “did not in fact” phone Mr. Zardari.
Considering the Indian government was aware of a previous incident of a hoax call after the Mumbai attacks, it is surprising the mix-up occurred at all. In a cable sent on November 30, 2008 (180629: confidential), the Ambassador reported a November 29 conversation with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, during which Mr. Menon clarified that the Indian government had no knowledge of another hoax call that was made to the U.S. State Department.
Media reports at the time suggested that the caller had wanted to speak to Dr. Rice, but was not put through.
Cabling his conversation with the Foreign Secretary, Ambassador Mulford wrote that “Menon stated categorically that the Indian Government had no knowledge of the origin of the hoax calls placed to the Department's Operations Center. Menon added, ‘The last thing we want is people misleading our Pakistani counterparts and General Kayani regarding India's intentions'.”
The Foreign Secretary asked whether the U.S. “had traced the phone numbers and requested that we share any phone numbers originating from India with the Indian authorities for investigation.”
The Foreign Secretary also denied reports that India was mobilising its Army.
The Ambassador wrote that “Menon wanted the U.S. to be clear that India was not deliberately raising tensions, stating that ‘no one is mobilising' and ‘we are sitting mum'.”
(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)