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The day after the blasts: The mood in Pakistan

By Sheela Bhatt in Mumbai
February 20, 2007 10:50 IST
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A day after blasts on the New Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express killed 67 people, the general mood in Pakistan is one of suspicion.

The Pakistan government's estimate is that more than 50 of those dead are Pakistani nationals. It says that of the 753 passengers on train, around 553 were Pakistanis.

Although the common man in Lahore and elsewhere is asking sharp questions about the security provided to the train, the government and media preferred to wait for a thorough investigation from the Indian side. Nonetheless, there were hidden but strong sentiments on the loss of more than 50 lives on Indian soil.

In a television programme, journalist Kamran Khan mentioned the name of Bajarang Dal, the hard line Hindutva outfit. Khan reminded the viewers about the incident of burning of train at Godhra in Gujarat that occurred five Februaries back.

Speaking to over phone from Islamabad, noted Pakistan journalist Hamid Mir observes, "This attack has happened in the train where the highest security is available. Many survivors have asked how it is possible to breach the security without the involvement of the Indian security personnel?"

He added that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reputation is such that nobody is blaming the Indian government for anything, yet.

One aspect that the survivors noted was similar in both Pakistan and India was the poor response of the emergency services. They say the "system" in both countries is quite similar and painfully slow in responding to such emergencies.

Such sentiments made it a tough day for the diplomats on either side. The Pakistan government had asked Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah to maintain restraint while commenting on the blasts, Mir said.

The Indian high commissioner's office in Islamabad, to its credit, made special arrangement by opening a counter near the Wagah border in Lahore. The Indian staff made sure that the victims' kin got visas without losing time. On the Indian side, buses were plying them to hospitals in Panipat and Ambala.

The blasts also came close on the heels of the inauguration of the Thar Express that connects the Sindh region of Pakistan and Rajasthan. This train will help Sindhis in Karachi to visit Ajmer Sharief much more easily than before when they had to travel three days for a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharief. The poor had to spend a lot, traveling from Karachi to Delhi via Lahore and then from Delhi to Ajmer.

Mir said: "The starting of Thar Express and the scheduled SAARC events are quite important for both countries. We were led to believe that during the SAARC summit, [Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat] Aziz and Dr Singh can make some important announcement taking peace process forward.

"Now, this attack has shifted everybody's attention back to the peace process that was not in the headlines for many months."

Drawing attention to events happening on the other side of the Pakistan border, Mir also said that there is an urgent need for both countries to cooperate in Afghanistan.

"A kind of proxy war is on now in Afghanistan. The risk for Indians and Pakistanis who are working there is very high. The India-Pakistan peace process is not in the right direction because they are not talking amicably about Afghanistan, where situation is fast deteriorating," he said.

"The United States is also involved here and it will help Pakistan and India to have an consensus over Afghanistan. India's has a 600-strong paramilitary force presence along with 6000 engineers and workers, while Pakistan has more than 20,000 people earning a living there. It is important to resolve the tension before it shifts to uncontrollable proportions in Afghanistan," Mir added.

The only good news for the two countries after the blasts is that Aziz and Foreign Minister Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri have not cancelled their trip to India, adds Mir.

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Sheela Bhatt in Mumbai