The Big Picture in Mumbai

The terrorist attack in Mumbai should be no reason to pull the rug from under negotiations between India and Pakistan.

India, a country with over one billion people, hundreds of millions of aspiring entrepreneurs entering the jobs market and a national economy growing at an astounding rate, has long been the superstar of South Asia. No other country in the region, be it Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Nepal, comes close to the economic and political success that India has achieved over the past decade. And no other player in the region carries as much geopolitical weight — India has invested heavily inside war weary Afghanistan and tapped into emerging markets on the African continent.

However, there has always been one persistent problem that India has been unable to shake, both because of its increasing stature in the world and its zero-sum relations with its neighbors. That Achilles heel is terrorism and it struck again last week inside India’s historical and economic capital, Mumbai.

Just as people were heading home from work, three bombs exploded within minutes of each other in Mumbai’s upper class jewelry sector, a venue where thousands of people stream into every day. The attack, which killed 21 people and injured over one hundred, was clearly designed to claim the lives of many more — Indian investigators have reported that the bombs were set on a timer and located in places that would not have been given a second look by police (an umbrella is not necessarily the first object you would suspect of carrying a homemade explosive).

The message of the strike was also clear — India is still a vulnerable target to semi-coordinated attacks, despite the billions of dollars that the Indian government has poured into its intelligence services and the years of preparation that New Delhi has nourished since the last major attack on an Indian city in November 2008.

Given the attacks’ location, speculation immediately fell on two jihadist groups. One, the Pakistani-based Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT), is the most obvious suspect due to its support stream from Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The fact that the LeT was originally organized in 1990 as an anti-Indian jihadist group to fight the occupation of Kashmir only adds to the claims voiced by many Indians that the group is again shedding innocent blood on their soil.

The other group, the Indian Mujahideen, is a smaller organization that is Indian born and bred, and they too have conducted terrorist strikes on Indian targets. 2008, the same year that LeT massacred one hundred and sixty people in Mumbai, was an especially successful year for the mujahideen, most of whom have been pressured into hiding by Indian security personnel.

What really matters in the immediate term, however, is not who the perpetuators are. For the families of the loved ones who perished, this statement comes across as cold and jaded. But it is nevertheless an important one to repeat, for the terrorists could create far more damage over the next few weeks if Indian investigators and counterterrorism officials jump to the wrong conclusion or if the Indian government makes a mistake in the heat of the moment.

During the last major terrorist spectacle in 2008, Indian and Pakistani government officials were in the midst of resolving some of their outstanding grievances over a number of issues, the most significant being Kashmir and how the two governments could build a relationship that would at least keep the area somewhat peaceful. A deal was as close as it had ever been, until the 2008 terrorist attacks cut short the negotiations and poisoned any chance of an agreement getting through. A single act of terror not only cut short the lives of one hundred and sixty innocent civilians but laid to rest the best opportunity that India and Pakistan had to move past their differences.

This month, Pakistan and India will meet again, this time at the Foreign Ministry level. Those discussions will be the first of its kind in the last two years. Kashmir will of course be on the agenda, as will regional and bilateral security, terrorism, trade and a whole list of issues that affect the interests of both countries. Ensuring that those talks proceed, even as Indians are currently feeling pain, is the one thing that will help both countries move past this latest crisis. It will also demonstrate to the terrorists, whoever they are, that their cowardice will not ruin another gamble at peace in the region.

Revenge is a close second only to sadness after a terrorist incident occurs. A week after the Mumbai blasts, Indians are feeling a penchant for revenge, with some naturally wondering if Pakistan is where that revenge should be directed. But revenge also clouds judgment and rational thinking, spurring a chain of events that may be easy to explain today but difficult to justify in the future.

India and Pakistan should learn from the past and refuse to use the latest act of terrorism as an excuse to blow off negotiations before they even started.