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India concerned by Pakistan's truce with militants

India fears militants will be emboldened by the pact to allow Sharia law in Pakistan's Swat region. Some fear a Hindu backlash against India's Muslim minority, or even the latter's radicalization.

February 20, 2009|Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — A decision by Pakistani authorities to allow imposition of Islamic law in a region a short distance from Islamabad is increasing India's fears that religious militancy is growing in its neighbor and traditional rival.

India's main Hindu nationalist group, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said Wednesday that national security was at risk because of well-entrenched militants operating in Pakistan's Swat Valley, within a five-hour drive of Amritsar, an Indian city of 1.5 million people.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee joined other international leaders in condemning Pakistan's cease-fire deal Monday with the militants, characterizing it as a danger to "humanity and civilization."

"Taliban at India's Door," blared a sensational headline on the Times Now 24-hour, one of India's hyperactive TV news channels.

Accusations and mutual distrust have marked the India-Pakistan relationship for most of the six decades since the end of British colonial rule.

India's concern is that the latest deal further weakens a Pakistani civilian government not fully in control of its own territory and increases the risk that Pakistan will serve as a staging ground for terrorist attacks, such as occurred in Mumbai in late November. Islamabad acknowledged recently that the attack, which killed more than 160 people, was at least in part planned in Pakistan.

Some in India fear that militancy in Pakistan could influence their own nation's sizable Muslim minority or prompt a reaction from hard-line Hindus as the country prepares for national elections this year. There's also more general concern that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could land in the wrong hands.

"Their control doesn't extend to half the country, where the extremists hold sway," said Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "For India, this is a troubling development."

Under Monday's accord, Pakistan agreed to let militants in the Swat Valley region impose Sharia, or Islamic law, as part of a cease-fire announced by both sides. The picturesque area is just 100 miles northwest of the Pakistani capital and about the same distance from the Indian border.

Fears of a new outbreak of violence were underscored by the slaying of a Pakistani TV journalist, Musa Khan Khel, whose body was found Wednesday outside Mingora, Swat's main town. He had been shot and his throat was slit.

Analysts in Pakistan say President Asif Ali Zardari inherited enormous problems and needs time to unwind years of military rule. Some also argue that giving extremists in the Swat region more recognition is part of a strategy to create divisions among competing groups that will ultimately weaken the movement.

And they say that, given the enormous stakes, India needs to cooperate with Pakistan more in the fight against militancy instead of complaining.

"If India is so worried about terrorism, then both India and Pakistan should cooperate, which is not the case in the wake of the Mumbai incident," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst based in Lahore.

Sajid Wadood, a spokesman for the Indian Islamic Cultural Center in New Delhi, said Indian Muslims feared that the Swat Valley agreement would cause a backlash by Hindus.

He said concerns that Muslims, who make up about 15% of India's population, will be radicalized are unwarranted; real Muslims, he said, don't force their values on others or use violence to further their aims.

"The Indian Constitution allows us to practice our own religion while preventing people from forcing it on others," he said.

Others are more concerned about Hindu extremists copying Taliban tactics, and about the popularity of their own social attitudes.

In early January, some Hindu extremists attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, accusing them of undercutting traditional Indian values, wearing Western clothes, socializing with men they weren't married to and drinking in public. Several activists were detained on Valentine's Day after they threatened to disrupt celebrations and take unmarried couples to the temple to be forcibly betrothed.

"I'm worried. I hope our Hindu extremists don't take heart and do a copycat," said Dipankar Gupta, a professor of sociology at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But analysts also note the fair-minded way Indians responded to the Mumbai attack.

In contrast to the sectarian violence that often has followed attacks by Muslim extremists, state elections held a few days later did not hinge on Hindu-Muslim divisions. And the government has pursued both Hindus and Muslims who resort to political violence.

"These are all indications there is a new possibility of integration," said Radha Kumar, director of a peace and conflict resolution center at Jamia Millia Islamia, a New Delhi university. "We need to try and use the rule of law in cases like Mumbai."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times' New Delhi Bureau and staff writer Laura King in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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