The saga of Syed Zabiuddin, alias Abu Jundal, evokes memories of many battles that Indian ambassadors in the six GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries waged, mostly unsuccessfully before 9/11, against Pakistan’s use of those countries for its anti-India terror network. Besides recruitment and financing, these countries often became the refuge for underworld and terror operators. In 1996, Anees, brother of gangster Dawood Ibrahim, was detained in Bahrain but transferred to Dubai on a collusive complaint from a Dawood associate. As a GCC member, a Dubai resident’s claim took precedence over the more substantive Indian charge of Anees’s involvement in the 1991 Bombay blasts. A few days later, complaint withdrawn, Anees fled Dubai for Pakistan.
When the hijacked the Indian Airlines plane headed for uae in 1999, the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi managed to get the women and children off the plane, but would not go further to impede its progress to Kandahar despite having commandos standing by. In an India-Pakistan standoff, the Gulf countries would not take sides.
All this began changing after 9/11. When the American Center in Calcutta was attacked at the beginning of 2002, accused Aftab Ansari, who fled to Dubai, was handed back in weeks. A trickle of deportations began from Dubai, but mostly of criminals without Pakistani links. The US counter-terrorism thrust, the growing warmth in India-US relations, increasing interest of GCC countries in Indian trade, tourism and investment and the growing Indian profile as a global player gave India more traction. However, it was still a hit-or-miss approach, though known criminals could no longer assume safety in the GCC region.
The Mumbai 26/11 operation rejigged these coordinates. US citizens and Jews were specifically attacked. Again, by 2008-end a departing President Bush had brought the fight back to Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. The US system was beginning to realise that Pakistan was both a part of the problem as well as the solution. More significantly, after President Musharraf attacked the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007, the neat boundaries between ISI-controlled Punjab-based groups aimed at targeting India and the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their associates in the west of Pakistan, meant for the Afghanistan game, began to melt. Pakistan had lost control over its monster.
Pakistan has historically hedged against India using its relations with US, China and Saudi Arabia. The relations with US, fraying since 2008, literally collapsed in 2011, with first the Davis affair in Lahore, then Osama bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad and finally the border fracas in which Pakistan lost 24 soldiers. The standoff persists. Meanwhile, despite some hitches, India-US relations have flourished.
Saudi Arabia is today caught between rising expectations for socio-political reform, a domestic budget that needs oil to remain above $70 and an assertive Iran with its nuclear obduracy. King Abdullah, a known pragmatist, has been stymied by his half-brothers from the Sudeiri step-mother, two of whom have died in the last eight months, both as crown princes. As of June 16, the king has in Prince Salman, the new crown prince, a less obstructive associate. Significantly, the head of intelligence is Prince Muqrim, the youngest of all brothers, though born to a Yemeni mother. He is the king’s ally and will perhaps one day be his successor. By handing over Abu Jundal to India, the Saudis are signalling to Pakistan that it must get a grip on radical Islam at home. At the same time, they are inviting India to a new and more strategic relationship. This is a major turning point.
Home minister P. Chidambram pronounced publicly that Abu Jundal has indicated the involvement of Pakistani state actors in 26/11 attack. The prime minister, from very early after that attack, tried, at first unsuccessfully, to revive the dialogue with Pakistan without countervailing punishment by Pakistan of the principal perpetrators in Pakistan. The composite dialogue was renamed “talks”. The hope was that the ghost of 26/11 would depart. Abu Jundal arrived holding its finger. The lone survivor, Kasab in Mumbai, the detainee who was in the control room in Karachi and David Headley, now in a US jail, complement each other. If Pakistan still does not hear its conscience, then the Indian people may well ask: ‘What use is a dialogue with the morally deaf and legally blind?’
(The writer is a former ambassador to the UAE and Iran.)