But a few hours later, at the iftar hosted by secretary, information, Syed Anwar Mehmood, journalists and bureaucrats had already begun to take a harder and closer look at the attack. Mehmood himself said: "It is surprising that a most protected and secured place like the Parliament building was attacked. Only those people who were well aware of the area could undertake such an attack."
But such diplomatese isn’t what military officers or jehadi leaders employ to analyse the strike. Most accuse the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of having engineered the attack to defame Pakistan and consequently give the US an opportunity to turn the heat on the mujahideen in Kashmir "who are waging a legitimate struggle against Indian occupation".
It’s precisely for this reason that Prof Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, chief of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the militant organisation most people in India immediately identified with the attack, says: "This is a crude attempt to find an excuse for launching an offensive against the jehadis." And he is quick to counter those who might feel he unduly subscribes to the conspiracy theory, saying: "If an American president can be assassinated on US soil to further CIA designs, and a US ambassador can be killed to get rid of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, this attack could well have been engineered to blame the mujahideen".
Prof Hafiz says neither his organisation nor any other Pakistan-based jehadi outfit was involved in the attack. Simultaneously, he thinks New Delhi is quite capable of cynicism and ruthlessness. Says he: "It is India which is indulging in terrorism in Occupied Kashmir. Those who could kill hundreds of innocent people there could also resort to degraded activities like the attack on their own Parliament, just to further their nefarious designs. India wants the US State Department to label the Lashkar and other such jehadi organisations as terrorists despite the fact that it has no proof." Claiming that his group never targets civilians, the Lashkar chief then vehemently declares that last week’s attack "was masterminded by the RAW to exploit the international mood against terrorism in favour of New Delhi, by killing some police officials."
Echoing Hafiz’s argument is the Hizbul Mujahideen supreme commander, Syed Salahuddin. Says he: "India has staged several such dramas in the past to malign the freedom movement in Kashmir." Expressing surprise at the manner in which the five gunmen entered the Parliament complex, Salahuddin asks: "Is it just a coincidence that no minister, not even a parliamentarian, was killed or injured? Those killed were poor people for whom the Indian government anyway has no regard." Such a ruse, he says, could dissuade Islamabad from patronising Kashmiri mujahideen but it won’t bring an end to the jehad in Kashmir.
But foreign office circles refute Hafiz’s conspiracy theory involving the US and India, arguing that Washington wouldn’t resort to such underhand tactics against its own allies. "One must not forget that the US action in Afghanistan is and was guided by its own interests rather than the situation that prevails in Kashmir," counters a senior foreign office official, talking to Outlook. Yet, interestingly, the popular opinion here endorses the jehadi perception.
The political establishment, though, is divided over apportioning the blame for the attack. Some leaders in the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League don’t rule out the involvement of Pakistan-based jehadi organisations, but are not willing to come on record. The reason: the damaging propaganda the government had launched against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for issuing statements during her recent visit to India, portraying her as an Indian agent working against Pakistan’s interests.
Yet some reminded Outlook about Hafiz’s boast last week that his organisation was about to give a major surprise to India. They feel jehadis would have no compunction about embarrassing Gen Musharraf, angry as they are about his U-turn on Afghanistan. They also point out that in the new international situation post-September 11, when the emerging tendency is to not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, most militant organisations would be wary of going public about their heinous acts. "Had this not been the case," says one moderate political leader, "groups like the Lashkar would have claimed responsibility for the attack on Parliament." He and others bolster their case by pointing out that the Maulana Masood Azhar-led Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) had initially claimed responsibility for the October attack on the j&k Assembly, but the Pakistani intelligence agencies forced him to retract the statement.
The military establishment’s response will ultimately depend on India’s investigation. In case New Delhi accuses a Pakistan-based organisation, then Islamabad could openly echo the views of jehadi organisations—and portray the Parliament incident as nothing more than India’s ploy to defame Pakistan. Analysts cite the fact that the attack came at a time when the US was pressurising the Musharraf regime for an immediate closure of the 130 alleged training camps which some 20 militant outfits, most connected to Kashmir, are running countrywide.
Military sources here fear Vajpayee is teetering on the brink of initiating a wide-scale military action against Pakistan, especially after his declaration that India is in a situation of zero military tolerance. The sources say Indian assault units have been moved to Kashmir to reinforce its defensive holding corps. India’s 21 Strike Force, comprising mainly of the 33rd armoured division, has advanced towards Akhnoor in the Jammu region, where the Indian forward command post is located. The division was reinforced by two armoured infantry brigades and mechanised artillery units from main bases in Meerut and Mathura. In addition, the Indians are transferring armoured and infantry brigades to transform 16 Corps at Nagruta in Jammu, 15 Corps at Badami Bagh, Srinagar, and 14 Corps at Nimmu and Leh from defensive to attack forces. Sources say these movements amount in practical terms to a full Indian war alert in Kashmir.
In response, the Musharraf government too has put its armed forces on high alert and immediately called for a meeting of top military leaders to hold what was called "a sensitive strategic conference". One false move from either side, and the entire region could be sucked into a bloody, destructive conflict.
Amir mir in Lahore With Mariana Baabar in Islamabad