|'Conspiracies' cloud India's
By Sreeram Chaulia
After 79 days of beating around the bush, the government of
Pakistan finally accepted earlier this month that "some part
of the conspiracy" for last November's terrorist attack in
Mumbai was planned on its soil. While Western pressure may
have forced the belated admission that India's claims of
Pakistani involvement in the attacks were true, it is worth
probing why a denial was resorted to in the first place.
Just after the attack, Pakistan claimed there was "no
credible evidence" to support the involvement of its
nationals or its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
As the weeks wore on after arguably the deadliest act of
urban terrorism the world has ever seen, proof piled up
which implicated not only Pakistan's "non-state actors", but
also their state minders. Still, the cries of "no evidence"
grew louder in Islamabad.
The reasoning behind this strategy was to show the world
that India had unfairly accused Pakistan of complicity in
terrorism to tarnish its international reputation, and that
New Delhi instinctively makes a scapegoat out of Islamabad
for its "domestic problems".
To further this, state agencies planted stories in the
Pakistani media claiming that the lone gunman captured alive
from the sites of the attack - Ajmal Amir (Kasab) - was
"kidnapped" in Nepal in 2006 and handed over to India to be
pulled out like a rabbit from the hat for a Mumbai-like
occasion. Nepal immediately denied this bizarre theory and
the claim was not bought internationally.
Several countries agreed after a careful assessment that the
attackers were indeed trained jihadis sent from Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's security apparatus was flooding
domestic newspapers and airwaves with claims that India had
no credible evidence of its involvement, and that its
accusations of Pakistani involvement were a demonstration of
New Delhi's hostility and aggressive intent.
The more India was painted as an unreasonable and reflexive
foe that instinctively searches for a Pakistani hand in
every violent terrorist attack, the more a national
consensus built up to back the army and the ISI's rejection
of Indian demands for the handover of the terrorists
harbored by Pakistan. Security professionals in Pakistan's
garrison city of Rawalpindi did not have to even instigate
the demonstrations which broke out in many parts of the
country against India's "hostility" and "baseless
Many observers point out that the real winners of the Mumbai
attack were the Pakistani army and the ISI, which were keen
to find a pretext (Indian hostility) that could halt the
American-backed war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The world knew the truth and saw all the smoking guns, but
it still allowed the Pakistani state's denial and evasion
tactics to grow bolder. One of the biggest sources of relief
for Pakistan as India drummed up diplomatic pressure after
November came in the form of Islamabad's all-weather
strategic ally - China. The Chinese state picked up the
baton when the ISI passed it and fanned the utterly absurd
conspiracy theory that "Hindu fanatics" could be the
perpetrators of the Mumbai horror.
Two days after the attacks, a report published in Renmin
Ribao (People's Daily), the official organ of the Chinese
Communist Party, quoted "analysts" as saying that "radical
elements from Hinduism could have also carried out this
attack, because they have long opposed the US's hegemonistic
policies" as they were "unhappy with domestic and foreign
policies of the Congress-led government".
Li Wei, the director of anti-terrorist studies at China's
Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told
official media that India was accusing Pakistan to "cover
up" its own "flaws and shortcomings".
Like the last-minute obstruction China brought forward at
the Nuclear Suppliers' Group in Vienna when India was about
to secure the waiver for the civilian nuclear deal with the
US, this mimicking of Pakistani conspiracy theories stung
Indians and warned them for the umpteenth time that trusting
Beijing was naive. At a solemn hour when Indians were
counting the dead and trying to seek long-denied justice,
China hid behind the facade of conspiracy theories.
In late December, New Delhi presented a full dossier of
evidence to Pakistan's closest allies - China and Saudi
Arabia - stating the culpability of the separatist terrorist
group Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI supporters in the Mumbai
This exercise did little to change the Chinese line on
Pakistan and it continued to avoid a hardline and ask
Pakistan to hand over terrorists to India. What was achieved
by sharing evidence with China, though, was an exposure of
Beijing's false commitments to cooperating with the rest of
the world to fight the "common scourge" of terrorism.
The strong political motives behind conspiracy theories such
as Pakistan's are not often appreciated by people. Gossip is
harmless when it is just loose social talk to spice up the
banality of daily life, but when it is elevated to the point
of affecting international political communications, there
is more than likely a conspiracy behind the conspiracy
Take, for example, the wild speculation about the "real
attackers" in many parts of the Muslim world after the
September 11, 2001, strikes in New York and Washington. The
most memorable one, which spread like wildfire across
cyberspace and Muslim countries, was that the attacks were
the handiwork of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
This theory also claimed that Jews working in the World
Trade Center (WTC) had been tipped off in advance not to
come in on the fateful morning.
Although the theory was clearly debunked by statistics which
showed that some 15% to 17% of the victims at the WTC that
day were Jewish, the so-called "Muslim street" was still in
the mood to ask for more "concrete proof" that the hijackers
of the planes were actually jihadis.
Even after Osama bin Laden's famous videotape detailing why
and how he masterminded the attacks arrived via the news
agency al-Jazeera in October 2004, the skeptics and denial
specialists kept up the refrain that the tape may not be
authentic or that Bin Laden was taking credit for something
he never did.
The political backdrop of this stubborn refusal to face the
facts was the American-led "war on terror", which caused
great violence and harm in the Middle East and beyond.
Opposition to the "war on terror", its targets and methods
was perfectly justifiable, but intelligence agencies in many
Muslim states used the conspiracy theories to tell
Washington that their hands were tied by public opinion -
that they could not act against jihadis or serve American
demands for cooperation. "Gossip" was thus indirectly turned
into an excuse for government inaction against
Conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks do not always
originate from jihadis and their sympathizers. When the
Oklahoma City bombing occurred in the United States in 1995,
many Americans saw a "foreign hand" in it, notably al-Qaeda,
and it was a bitter pill for them to swallow when Timothy
McVeigh, a white American male, was eventually convicted for
At the domestic social level, conspiracy theories often
relate to stereotypes of race, religion and ethnicity that
predestine individuals to suspect that, say, the detested
Muslim, Christian, Jew or Hindu is the "real" perpetrator.
The politicization of these social biases is achieved
through intelligence agencies, which fine-tune them into
arguments and foreign policy positions at the international
Now that Pakistan has acknowledged "partial" responsibility
for the Mumbai attacks, the question remains whether all the
perpetrators will ever be brought to book. The irony of the
present juncture is that if India does heed the advice of
strategists and opens a covert front against the jihadi
infrastructure in Pakistan, it will reinforce the weight of
the ISI and the army in Rawalpindi and all the "Indiaphobia"
they have propagated in Pakistani society.
But the price of doing nothing is worse for India, because
the image of a perpetually antagonistic India has already
seeped into Pakistani society and the next audacious
cross-border attack may be only a few months or years away.
Recent investigative reports in Asia Times Online (see
Indian army 'backed out' of Pakistan attack, Jan 20)
revealed that India failed to take prompt retaliatory
measures against Pakistan after Mumbai due to military
under-preparedness rather than a lack of political will.
Intelligence analysts have also pointed out that India's
capability to perform covert actions against terrorist
organizations in neighboring countries was downgraded during
the brief 1997 prime ministerial tenure of I K Gujral.
Unless New Delhi reverses these self-defeating policies,
attacks like last November's will keep happening, and they
will again be followed by the now all-too-familiar
ritualistic denials and conspiracy theories from the
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public
Affairs in Syracuse, New York.
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