Maniappan Raman Kutty's murder in Afghanistan was a heart-rending tragedy that was waiting to happen. There have been past instances of Indian nationals working in Afghanistan having been abducted but they were subsequently released after negotiations.
The Taliban has a history of extending deadlines and ultimatums and continuing with 'negotiations' until they eventually find a way out and release their hostages. A memorable case was the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in the winter of 1999. Yet in Kutty's case, the Taliban was uncharacteristically rigid about its fateful 48-hour deadline.
The Taliban ostensibly took umbrage over an Indian company undertaking road construction work in south-western Afghanistan. But, it is not as if Indian economic presence in Afghanistan has mushroomed all of a sudden -- or that the Taliban just recently came to know about it.
Dalawar district in Nimroz province is vintage Taliban country -- and has been ever since the Talibs crossed the Afghan border from Pakistan in 1994.
A steadily expanding Indian presence has been a feature of Afghanistan's post-Taliban reconstruction landscape during the past four years. The ghastly murder of Kutty cannot be viewed as stemming from any resentment over the Indian presence.
In fact, even the Pakistani criticism regarding Indian presence in the Kandahar and Jalalabad regions close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions had almost ceased during the past year or so.
An odd criticism here or a snide remark there may appear in the Pakistani press now and then regarding the alleged residual influence of the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups within Hamid Karzai's government. But such petty grouses patently lacked conviction, and there had been little to show that Pakistan actually was losing sleep over the spread of Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan -- like anyone else in the region -- knows that India's association with the NA groups is today a matter of historical curiosity. India has moved on. The NA itself has fragmented irredeemably into myriad self-seeking interest groups, taking protean forms.
No regional power is seriously thinking anymore of plunging into Afghanistan's fratricidal strife either. Least of all, India!
At any rate, as long as the American writ prevails in Kabul, no regional power in its senses can afford to deal with Hamid Karzai except with kid gloves. No wonder the Afghanistan President wants the American troops to stay put on the Hindu Kush forever.
In the recent past, the Taliban too had all but lost interest in India. They hardly spoke of 'jehad' in Kashmir, or of the 'suppression' of Muslims in India. Certainly, the Taliban does not accuse India of aiding and abetting the foreign occupation of Afghanistan.
Their focus remains unwaveringly on the American occupation of Afghanistan, the 'noble cause of the Afghan resistance', and on ousting the 'puppet' government led by Karzai, the American 'quisling'.
This may well be the first time ever that the Taliban executed an Indian national. Indeed, it cannot come easy for an Afghan to take the life of an Indian in cold blood.
Thus, Kutty's killing has all the hallmarks of a political murder. The Taliban was most certainly making a point. It was not about road construction or about Indian commercial activity in Afghanistan or about the volatility of the southern Afghan regions. There was a certain sense of urgency about the message that the Taliban wanted to convey to New Delhi.
It cannot but be stressed that there is an abruptness in the Taliban's reversion to its past hostility toward India. What is striking is that they struck within days of the announcement in Delhi that India is conferring the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize on Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban did not prepare the ground in the recent weeks or months for India to suspect that anything had changed in its attitude toward Indian interests. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's extraordinary gesture of an overnight halt in Kabul as recently as October testifies to that. It was a rare honour to Karzai, which even Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld could not show so far.
Delhi is being called upon to seriously analyse what has gone so seriously wrong. It is tempting to put the blame for Kutty's murder on the shenanigans of the Pakistani intelligence. Is the Inter-Services Intelligence sending some complicated message by picking a defenceless Keralite? There are no easy answers.
We must also explore roads seldom taken. Can it be that Indian policies are once again antagonising sections of Afghan opinion, including the Taliban? Can it be that some Afghan groups such as the Taliban resent Delhi's 'over-identification' with the regime headed by Hamid Karzai?
Without doubt, from the Indian point of view, Karzai has proved to be a good friend. By awarding the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, India is honouring him as a world statesman who made profound contributions to the cause of peace and regional security and stability. Delhi is joining Washington and other Western capitals that have similarly honoured Karzai.
Yet for the Taliban, Karzai remains a faction leader in Afghanistan's continuing fratricidal strife. For them, he remains a symbol of foreign occupation.
It is of course unfortunate if Indian policy had arrived at a conclusion that the Taliban saga in Afghanistan was conclusively over. Nothing could be further from the ground reality. The Taliban remains very much a factor on the Afghan chessboard. The Taliban's opinion matters. Its mentors are still calculating tactic and strategy.
The Asia Times reported two days ago regarding renewed efforts by the Americans (in collaboration with the Pakistani intelligence) to accommodate the Taliban leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar in the power structure in Kabul.
It is an open secret that a significant section of the members of the newly elected parliament in Afghanistan comprise erstwhile Taliban cadres who still take instructions from Mullah Omar.
The Afghan equations are full of contradictions. It may appear that any Indian support of Karzai will please the Americans. It does. But, that doesn't mean the US will be inclined to share any of India's antipathy toward the Taliban.
No matter what Delhi feels toward the Taliban as the forces of darkness in the region, Washington (and Karzai) will have their own agenda of somehow putting together a working relationship with them.
The US will undoubtedly be enthusiastic about India's contributions to Afghan reconstruction. But, the US will discourage India from raising its profile in Afghanistan beyond a threshold that may cause alarm in Islamabad.
Certain activities will always remain out of bounds for New Delhi -- such as military cooperation, except of an innocuous kind, with Kabul. It took some time for the US to approve the idea of India opening consulates in southern Afghanistan.
For Karzai too, India's friendship is most welcome. But, as the Indian press party that accompanied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Kabul reported back, Karzai was politically correct but shrewd enough not to be excessively friendly.
He was careful not to create apprehensions in Islamabad that he had something special going with Delhi.
Karzai knows that at the end of the day, Pakistan is his most important neighbouring country. By a long shot.
Needless to say, Afghanistan-Pakistan relations are full of complexity. There was an outpouring of latent tensions as recently as two weeks ago, when Pakistani commentators voiced apprehensions that Afghanistan's entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation would strengthen India's hand.
But, would it, really? One cannot be entirely certain.Somewhere along the line during the past year, it appears, Indian diplomacy toward Afghanistan incrementally shifted gears -- complacent in an assumption that the Karzai regime had matured enough to be engaged as a strategic partner. Raman Kutty's murder comes as a wake-up call.