Peace and the Burning Train

. 2/21/07

"The way to their promised land was lined with graves."
(The great photographer and chronicler of the Partition of India, Margaret Bourke-White)

The heart-rending scenes of charred bodies and twisted metal in two coaches of the Pakistan-bound Samjhauta Express are gory testimony to yet another major terrorist strike in India. The horrifying twin bomb explosions when the train was near Panipat in Haryana, killing at least 67 people, unite Pakistan and India in deep grief. They are a chilling reminder that terrorism in this day and age has international linkages in more ways than one. The identity of those responsible for the carnage is not yet known but the object and timing of the attack provide strong clues to the motives. Started in 1976 following the Shimla accord, the Samjhauta (`Understanding') Express has symbolised good neighbourliness between India and Pakistan. The train, which has run almost uninterruptedly for more than three decades — suspended only for short periods in the wake of Operation Bluestar, the Babri Masjid demolition, and the terrorist attack on Parliament — has been a lifeline for people-to-people contact between the two countries. Millions of people on either side of the border, most of them poor folk, have used the train to visit relatives and places of pilgrimage.

The attack on the train (technically a special train from which the passengers are transferred at Attari to the India-Pakistan service) has taken place a day before Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri arrives in New Delhi for talks on the ongoing peace process. In a bid to signal their strength, terrorists sometimes choose to time their attacks to coincide with the visit of dignitaries. In 2002, Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone was shot dead in Srinagar a day ahead of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Kashmir. Two years earlier, 35 Sikhs were massacred in Chattisinghpora in Kashmir on the eve of President Bill Clinton's visit to India. It is more than likely that those who perceive the India-Pakistan peace process as a threat to their survival have perpetrated the Samjhauta Express carnage. The attack may revive memories of the Mumbai train blasts last year, but there is an important difference. The Samjhauta Express is a highly protected train and the attack on it raises serious questions about gaps in railway security. How did the incendiary material used to set the coaches ablaze get past the security checks at Old Delhi railway station? The decision to allow the unaffected coaches to resume their journey to Attari on the Indian side of the border must be commended. Terrorists aim at disrupting normal life. The best way to honour the victims of terrorism is to ensure that life goes on in the midst of heart-rending grief. And the best way to defeat terrorist designs is to ensure that the peace process remains on track.

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