After the politically damaging controversy triggered by the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint declaration in July, it was perhaps too much to expect any real movement forward when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met in New York last week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s instincts may be to keep finding ways of engagement with Islamabad but he also knows the only way this can happen is for Pakistan to demonstrate it has started seriously addressing Indian concerns. In the run up to New York, the Pakistani side made some attempt to improve the optics. Yet another dossier was handed over and two criminal cases were filed against the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, Hafiz Saeed, though the refusal or failure of the police to arrest him or even place him under “protective custody” robbed the move of any real significance as far as New Delhi was concerned. By all accounts, the Indian delegation in New York received a comprehensive briefing from the Pakistanis on the progress made in the Mumbai terror attack case. In turn, they told their Pakistani interlocutors that India needs to wait and see how the cases that have been filed against key Lashkar operatives like Zaki-ur Rahman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah play out once their trials formally begin next week.
Given the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship, the trust deficit, and the need to prepare the ground for confidence-building over the long-haul, India is entirely justified in reserving judgment until the trial actually commences and makes visible headway. As and when a certain comfort level is achieved, the threads of dialogue are likely to be picked up. But the problem of Lashkar’s terrorism is not simply legal. Sooner or later, Pakistan has to realise that these kinds of terrorist groups have to be confronted politically. Islamabad’s insistence on “evidence” and other legal niceties is all very well but those are not the tools it is using to deal with the threat the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda are posing to it. The Inter Services Intelligence directorate may think it can manage the LeT and kindred groups for all time to come and that they will never pose an existential threat to Pakistan in the way the TTP does. Such a belief is seriously misplaced. The threat posed by such terrorist groups may be uneven but its impact on the future of Pakistan is uniformly destructive. There are already indications that the extremist menace has firmly taken root in southern Punjab. If left unattended, there is no telling where bomb blasts and sectarian massacres will take place next. Unfortunately, the ISI has not yet taken a decision to make the course correction that Pakistan so desperately needs. Until then, India should work out a viable strategy of engagement while taking all the internal measures needed to protect itself from terrorists based across the border.