We Told You So

India is cackling over news of Osama getting whacked in Pakistan.

NEW DELHI — As Americans began celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden late on Sunday evening, India was waking on Monday to tantalizing proof that its long-standing rival Pakistan was either incapable of policing its own territory or actively safeguarding the world’s most wanted terrorist.

After years of finger-pointing, indignant accusations, and saber-rattling toward its nuclear-armed neighbor and arch-rival, India had the ultimate smoking gun: irrefutable evidence of bin Laden’s sanctuary in Pakistan. The entire country’s schadenfreude was irrepressible.

“We take note with grave concern,” said India’s Union Minister of Home Affairs P. Chidambaram in a statement, “that the fire fight in which Osama Bin Laden was killed took place in Abbottabad deep inside Pakistan. This fact underlines our concern that terrorists belonging to different organizations find sanctuary in Pakistan.”

In their rush to make use of the historic news as ammunition, India’s home and foreign ministries completely neglected to congratulate the Barack Obama administration on a job well done in their statements.

Indian news channels, meanwhile, scrambled to determine the facts of the operation, with varying levels of accuracy. But their main message, based on whatever could be gleaned from the sluggish dispatches coming out of Washington and Islamabad, was that India’s neighbor had finally been exposed as an untrustworthy country.

“Pak’s double game exposed,” the Times Now news channel blared. “Pak unmasked” was the coverage slug used by Headlines Today. “Does Pakistan really expect the world to believe … that he was living so close to Islamabad without their knowledge?” barked an anchor on the NDTV channel. TV anchors did not fail to remind viewers that bin Laden’s hideout was about 300 miles away from the Indian border, and less than 650 miles from New Delhi.

India has long accused Pakistan of failing to deal with terrorist activity within its borders, coddling militants, and fueling instability in Southeast Asia. Indian criticism of Pakistan’s half-hearted approach to local terrorist networks reached a fever pitch following the 2008 militant attacks on India’s commercial capital of Mumbai. The three-day rampage, which led to the death of 166 civilians, was squarely blamed on Pakistani terror groups, in conjunction with elements of the shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, Pakistan’s top military intelligence agency. In the aftermath, the fragile peace process between the two nuclear-armed rivals was instantly shattered. Since then, New Delhi has missed no opportunity to demand that Islamabad hand over those accused in recent investigations and to call for Pakistan to stop providing a safe haven for militants.

“Once again I call upon Pakistan to dismantle the terror machine operating with impunity in territories under its control and to bring all the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to speedy justice,” said External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna on the two-year anniversary of the attacks last year.

Chidambaram reiterated this demand on Monday as footage of Osama’s hideaway rolled across TV screens.

Just weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted talks with his Pakistani counterpart during a Cricket World Cup match between the two countries, hailed by both sides as a welcome thawing and a kick-start to a stalled dialogue. Now, however, that momentary thaw is being decried as a concession to a criminal state.

“Osama bin Laden was living a luxurious life right under the nose of the Pakistani army,” boomed Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Times Now. “Can we continue to pursue candyfloss-type cricket diplomacy with a nation that has harboured, protected, the world’s most dangerous terrorist?”

“If there was a move to remove the trust with Pakistan, now would be the most difficult time to trust what is clearly a terrorist state,” Goswami continued. “While India was engaging with cricket diplomacy, Pakistan was harboring a terrorist.”

India, which has lately tried to build stronger diplomatic and economic ties with the United States after decades “non-alignment,” has for years urged American presidents to get tough on Pakistan, which receives billions of U.S. dollars every year in aid and military support. Since the Mumbai attacks, Delhi has stepped up the pressure on Washington to assist in the rendition of Pakistani nationals that it says planned, financed, and directed the operation.

But Washington has appeared unmoved in the face of India’s insistence, with diplomats urging India to “tone down” its rhetoric on Pakistani involvement in terror attacks in India, according to a February 2009 U.S. cable accessed by WikiLeaks. Now, India has the right to say, “I told you so,” even if its suspicions may have been based on little hard evidence.

Several analysts I spoke with said they expected that the news of bin Laden’s five-star villa in Pakistan would have little long-term effect on the Indo-Pak dialogue process, given that New Delhi already had suspicions that Islamabad was turning a blind eye to militants within its borders. The cold, hard proof may do little to change perceptions; and if India was willing to come to the table before, it may still be now.

And in fact, India’s public schadenfreude may mask a more general pragmatism when it comes to dealing with its troublesome neighbor. India’s lawmakers and military leaders know that it is only with continued assistance from Islamabad that other threats to the region, such as the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and, of course, al Qaeda, can be stamped out. In this sense, the discovery of Osama’s compound may be less fuel for the international rivalry between the two countries than it is a brief moment of highly theatrical conflict, to be followed by renewed seriousness in defeating the continued threat of Islamist terrorism in the region. If nothing else, bin Laden’s death should offer a good reminder of how much India and Pakistan still need each other.

Henry Foy is a journalist based in India.