Siddharth Varadarajan

Why did the authors of Mumbai not try to disrupt the voting?

Officials do not believe ISI’s motives were Kashmir-centric

Using militancy to disrupt polling might not have paid off

Srinagar: If the principal reason for a high voter turnout during the recent Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir was the absence of militant violence, to what extent was Pakistan responsible for ensuring that extremist groups operating from its territory did not disrupt the polls? The question is important because this “non-interference” – for which no less a person than Farooq Abdullah, leader of the victorious National Conference, publicly thanked Islamabad on Sunday – seems to be at variance with New Delhi’s understanding of what Pakistani policy vis-À-vis India is in the wake of last month’s dramatic terrorist attack on Mumbai.

Though the Indian government has been careful to blame only “elements from Pakistan” for the Mumbai incidents, senior officials have spoken freely off the record about their belief that the November 26-28 terrorist operation could not have been launched without the knowledge of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the top military leadership in Rawalpindi. To be sure, Indian officials do not believe the ISI’s motives were Kashmir-centric. Instead, their view is that the Pakistani military establishment wanted to trigger a military and diplomatic crisis that would allow it to honourably disengage from the American-led war on the Taliban and burnish its fraying credentials as the defenders of national honour. And, in the long term, many Indian officials believe, the Pakistani army would like to unsettle the prospects for peace with India so as to fend off internal political demands for a reorientation of the military towards a more ‘normal’ relationship with civilian authority.

But if these motives propelled the ISI to either mount or at best turn a blind eye to the Mumbai plot, why did the same agency – which essentially manages Rawalpindi’s links with militant groups active in Jammu and Kashmir – not seek to disrupt the Assembly elections? Dr. Abdullah summed up the prevailing assessment here when he told reporters, “I think Pakistan did put pressure on [the militants] that they should not do anything to affect the elections.” What makes this policy of “non-interference” even more counter-intuitive is that it came at a time when U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and his South Asian advisers have given ample indication of their desire to play a “mediatory” role between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue. A low turnout, which is what a spurt in militant violence would have accomplished, might well have placed the Indian government on the back foot. It would have also allowed the separatist political leadership in the Valley to claim a victory and more credibly establish their continuing relevance. Why would the ISI, which was prepared to authorise so audacious a terrorist outrage as Mumbai as a means of reminding the world that South Asia remains “a nuclear flashpoint,” pass up the opportunity to heighten international interest in the “core issue” bedevilling bilateral relations with India?

One answer may be that militant groups and their handlers in Pakistan suspected the international community would not have been particularly bothered by a low voter turnout. If the world’s tolerance for militant violence has fallen dramatically post 9/11, recent shifts in the global balance of power have also made the world more understanding of India’s position in Kashmir. The killing of more than 50 unarmed Kashmiri protesters by security forces during the land transfer agitation in the Valley this summer, for example, generated little or no criticism around the world. Under the circumstances, then, using militancy to disrupt the polling might not have yielded much of a payoff.

In this context, it is noteworthy that no attempt was made by either the terrorists who attacked Mumbai or the authors of the e-mail claiming responsibility (the so-called ‘Mujahideen Hyderabad Dakkan’) to highlight the Kashmir issue. It is almost as if the planners had realised the futility of trying to secure a tactical advantage within the narrow battleground of Kashmir and had decided to move towards a strategy of broadening the terrain of potential conflict. The world may well have lost interest in the “Kashmir issue” as far as the grievances of a section of its people are concerned but it is still alive to the danger of a war between India and Pakistan, whatever the trigger. And the Mumbai attacks were tailor-made to create the impression of imminent war. Thanks to a deft disinformation campaign by the Pakistani military, some less-than-careful and even loose remarks by Ministers and officials on the Indian side and a media that has discussed war scenarios ad nauseam for the past three weeks, the world is getting increasingly panicky about the danger of war. No amount of militant violence in Kashmir during the elections could have produced the same result.

Many observers in Kashmir believe, however, that the conundrum has another answer. That the absence of violence was the result of Pakistan’s active cooperation with an Indian request made several months earlier, and that the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by Pakistan-based terrorists without the involvement of the ISI.

According to this narrative, the motive of Mumbai was to disrupt an emerging back-channel understanding between the two countries and increase tension to the point where some of the military pressure being brought to bear on the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border might be relieved.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that Pakistan’s decision to lay off the Assembly elections for its own reasons has been an unexpected bonus for the Indian government. It has created a more favourable terrain for New Delhi to pursue a solution to the Kashmir problem, both in its domestic manifestation and in terms of its bilateral context. Provided, of course, the two countries are able successfully to ride out the present crisis by acting decisively against the terrorists responsible for Mumbai.

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