26/11 Ended a Chapter in India-Pak Ties. Ten Years On, Communication is Still Broken.

The events of November 2008 continue to hang over India’s relations with Pakistan till today.

New Delhi: On a Wednesday evening at Hyderabad House’s Rajputana suite, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Makhdoom Qureshi was lobbying before the Indian media for India-Pakistan cricket matches. “We want to play! Give us a positive pitch. I have come to roll for the positive pitch,” he asserted.

About 1,400 km away and less than an hour later, ten Pakistanis came ashore in Mumbai’s Colaba area. By November 29, they had killed 166 people, including 26 foreigners, in synchronised attacks across South Mumbai. Only one, Ajmal Kasab, was caught alive. The rest of the attackers were shot dead, but “the planners of 26/11,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement on Monday, “still roam the streets of Pakistan with impunity.”

Despite the current moribund status of the 26/11 trial, the initial atypical reaction from Islamabad, with its acknowledgement of Pakistani nationals being involved in the attack, had raised hopes that the tragedy turned a chapter in bilateral relations.

Also read: India Learned Valuable Lessons from 26/11. But So Have Terrorists Across the Border.

After the attacks began, then Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari described them as a “detestable act”. Indian and Western intelligence agencies were already eavesdropping on the real-time conversations between the 26/11 militants and their handlers in a control room in Karachi.

Qureshi was still in Delhi on Thursday, when India stepped up the finger-pointing at Pakistan. In a televised address on November 27, Manmohan Singh’s reference to “external linkages” and “neighbours” left no doubt about the source of the attack.

Security forces inside Nariman House on 26/11. Credit: Reuters

A day later, then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee was more explicit. “According to preliminary information, some elements in Pakistan are responsible for Mumbai terror attacks,” he said.

At the time, UK diplomats were already telling their American counterparts in Pakistan that they had confirmed reports of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s involvement in the attacks.

That Friday morning, Yusuf Raza Gilani called up Manmohan Singh to offer condolences. The latter asked him to send ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha to New Delhi for the “exchange of information”. To the surprise of most observers, within a few hours, the Pakistan prime minister’s office issued a statement that the ISI director-general would visit India “at the earliest”.

The offer to send the ISI chief was soon back-pedalled. Pakistani diplomats told their Western counterparts that the Indian media’s misrepresentation of the visit was the reason for this. But it is likely that the Pakistan government had not consulted Rawalpindi before making the announcement, former ambassador T.C.A. Raghavan, who was MEA joint secretary (Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran) during the 26/11 attack, wrote in his 2017 book.

India’s first post-26/11 diplomatic demarche to Pakistan was on November 29, which Qureshi received immediately after returning from Delhi. To India’s assertion that attacks had been planned and launched in Pakistan, Islamabad’s reply on December 1 was to condemn the attacks, give an assurance that the perpetrators would be brought to justice and promise a meeting of the two intelligence chiefs in due course.

File photo of Maulana Masood Azhar in Islamabad, August 26, 2001. Credit: Reuters/Files

A second demarche was send on December 1 night, which requested the extradition of Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim. New Delhi asked Islamabad to ‘shut down’ Hafiz Saeed, Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief.

On December 9, India called on the UN Security Council to proscribe Jamaat-ud-Dawa. An unhappy US claimed that this would “complicate” efforts to bring a “more ambitious” list of designations through UNSC 1267 sanctions committee.

As per a State Department cable, India dismissed those concerns, hoping that this will pressure Pakistan to act and also show the domestic audience that the government was “getting things done”.

Two days later, the UNSC sanctions committee put JuD on the Consolidated List of persons and entities connected with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Under intense international scrutiny, there was acknowledgement from Pakistani officials about the use of Pakistani soil. “This admission, while by no means voluntary, was still novel and for some in India a change from the blanket denials of the past,” Raghavan wrote.

The Indian government’s policy was to make a conscious distinction between civilians and the military, and deliberately not blame the Pakistan government.

Also read: Total Recall: Ten Things That Went Wrong During the 26/11 Attacks

In Islamabad, Zardari encouraged similar belief. He told an American official that the Mumbai attacks could perhaps throw up the “rare opportunity” of civilian control over the ISI and “strike at my enemies”, according to Steve Coll on his 2018 book Directorate S.

It was, of course, a naïve idea.

Keeping up a constant drumbeat of possible war, Pakistani generals sent troops on the eastern border and used the opening to consolidate their internal position.

As alarmed Western diplomats asked New Delhi to restrain rhetoric, then Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told the US envoy, “Please be sure to remind all those who accuse us of stirring things up of all the dogs  that have not barked in the night, the whole series of things that could have happened.”

Despite the detention of Lakhavi and Azhar, sceptical Indian officials were already telling their Western counterparts that the arrests were in line with similar ‘catch and release’ after 2001 Indian parliament attacks.

Taj Mahal Palace hotel under siege during the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. Credit: REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe.

In the first week of 2009, Indian foreign secretary Menon handed over a dossier to Pakistani high commissioner with evidence highlighting the nationality of the Mumbai attackers and their support in Pakistan, but not implicating the Pakistan government directly.

This was the limited version of the evidence that India shared with 15 other ambassadors of countries whose nationals had died in the attack. But Menon told the foreign envoys that the evidence was sufficient “to determine whether Islamabad was serious about cooperating”.

There had already been differences in opinion between India and the US on the extent of information that should be shared with Pakistan. When New Delhi presented dossiers whose content were leaked to the media, Washington went ahead and submitted their ‘tearline’ information.

India also made it clear that Pakistan’s repeated demands for a joint investigation into the Mumbai attacks was not viable.

In Islamabad, Pakistan’s foreign minister Qureshi agreed with a visiting senior US diplomat that the Indian dossier was a “positive step” and “starting point for more serious exchange and engagement between the neighbours”.

Read: What the Maharashtra Government Promised to Do Based on 26/11 Inquiry

On January 7, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Mahmud Ali Durrani confirmed that Kasab was Pakistani. Within hours, he was sacked by Gilani for “irresponsible behaviour”, though Pakistan’s foreign office and information minister also confirmed Kasab’s nationality. The internal rifts over the Mumbai terror attacks were widening.

Menon claimed, in his book Choices – The Making of India’s Foreign Policy, that the “real success” of the Indian government in the aftermath of 26/11 was in “isolating Pakistan and in making counter-terrorism cooperation effective”.

“India began to get unprecedented cooperation from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, and China too, began to respond to requests for information on these groups,” he wrote.

When Pakistani foreign secretary Salman Bashir briefed Islamabad’s diplomatic corps about the investigations by a Federal Investigation Agency-led (FIA) task force in February 2009, his plea was “not to allow India to isolate Pakistan”.

Meanwhile, FBI officials “were pleasantly surprised” that their leads had been followed by the FIA task force and a “convincing chargesheet” was being developed for the court. The Americans had supplied Pakistan with GPS coordinates, data on the boat engines, IP addresses and interviews with Kasab and a Bangladeshi detainee, Mubashir Shahid.

A commando in action during 26/11. Credit: Shome Basu

According to a Wikileaks cable, the Pakistanis even quietly turned over physical evidence to the Americans for FBI analysis, to prove the conspiracy case. The FIA had found an aluminium box with pink packaging material in one of the LeT’s training camps in Sindh, which was apparently similar to that found in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, FIA had asked for more clarifications on 30 questions. The Indian reply led to more follow-up questions.

According to US officials, the prosecution case was “strong, but uneven” with the case against the lower-level suspects stronger than the top three.

On August 21, India handed over the sixth in its series of dossier. Indian NSA M.K. Narayanan told Western diplomats that it was “Grade-1” evidence linking Jamaat-ud-Dawa to Mumbai attacks. Pakistan asserted that it was just a “rehash” of existing evidence.

Also read: Full Text: What the High Level Inquiry Committee on the 26/11 Attacks Had to Say

A final chargesheet was filed, but there was no mention of Saeed.

Over the years, the trial of the seven LeT members in the anti-terror court has floundered, with a prosecutor being killed and judges being changed nine times in the last nine years. Pakistan has claimed that the trial is stalled due to the lack of recorded evidence from Indian witnesses.

The Indian side had pointed out that the conspiracy case could only be proved by Pakistani investigators themselves, as the plan was hatched on Pakistani soil.

The Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting between Gilani and Manmohan Singh was aimed at resuming the dialogue process after 26/11, but Indian political outrage over the reference to Balochistan postponed it.

Deep wounds

But even when the talks resumed, it was clear that 26/11 had marked the end of a chapter in India-Pakistan relations. The composite dialogue process was now “resumed”, clearly marking out the scar from the Mumbai terror attack.

India routinely inserts mention of justice for 26/11 perpetrators in joint statements with world powers, but it is largely lip service with no substantive pressure.

On occasions when international scrutiny is more focussed, like before the FATF meeting, Pakistan puts Hafiz Saeed into nominal custody. Soon after, the court orders for their release.

Menon notes that over the years, “sanctions and limits” placed on Pakistan after 26/11 have “withered away”. “And it is business as usual,” he wrote.

The three days of November 2008 continue to hang over India’s relations with Pakistan till today. The Kafkaesque trial of seven Lashkar militants has become the symbol of the unresolved nature of Pakistani establishment’s relationship with these organisations.

Also read: Photo Essay: Maximum Terror, and How a Fallible City Stood Strong

The Mumbai attacks also provides another leitmotif of Pakistan’s civilian and military divide – and the latter’s absolute hold on foreign policy and national security.

This was the strand that former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif agitated when he acknowledged Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11 and subsequent dragging on the trial. Sharif and the journalist were soon dragged to court on charges of treason.

The reversal in Pakistan’s position on 26/11 over the last decade was even more starkly demonstrated last week in Islamabad.

In January 2009, Pakistan foreign office had said that Kasab was an Pakistani national. Nine years later, another spokesperson seemed to imply that 26/11 was a false-flag operation.

To a question of an Indian media report of a north Indian district issued a domicile certificate in name of Kasab, who was hanged in 2012, the foreign office spokesperson stated, “Happenings such as these lend further credence to the concerns already raised by several quarters in this context”.