Is the peace process now terror-proof?

The grisly fire that engulfed two coaches of the ill-fated Samjhauta Express on February 18 near Panipat, which resulted in the death of almost 70 passengers , mostly Pakistani citizens, and the suicide attack on a civil court in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province on the preceding day, provide the bloody backdrop to the Indo-Pak foreign minister level talks now under way in Delhi.

The fact that India and Pakistan have reiterated their commitment at the highest level to stay the course despite Panipat, as far as the composite dialogue of January 2004 is concerned, would suggest that the Indo-Pak dialogue is gradually becoming 'terrorist blast-proof'. This is a positive augury in these anguished times but it should not detract from the complexity of the challenges ahead.

By unintended coincidence, these tragic incidents provide the urgency for South Asian leaders and civil society to introspect over what is easily the most serious security challenge confronting them, and the current Indo-Pak deliberations will hopefully provide the template for the Saarc summit of early April. The abiding Indian concern about terrorism and the support it receives from within state structures and the more radicalised elements of civil society in Pakistan, is at the heart of the January 2004 agreement arrived at between India and Pakistan.

The Panipat incident has serious implications for India, since it proves the virulent efficacy with which terrorist groups are able to strike well outside the geographic footprint of the troubled J&K region. Forensic and police investigations when completed will give us a better idea about the identity of the perpetrators but there can be no doubt about the unmistakable signature of the elusive terrorist group behind the incident. Passenger trains have in recent years become the preferred target of terrorist attacks, and this has been irrefutably established in the Madrid-London-Mumbai and now Panipat linkage. The case for more stringent security procedures at railway stations was more than evident after the Mumbai blasts of July and the fact that the security of the high-profile Samjhauta Express could be breached in Delhi points once again to the lacunae in India's ability to evolve an effective counter-terrorism intelligence strategy.

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