The first reference by Osama bin Laden to India was made at his press conference at Khost in Afghanistan on May 26, 1998, at which he announced the formation of the International Islamic Front For Jihad Against the US and Israel. In response to a question from a journalist (only Pakistani journalists were invited), he said that he would have loved to join the jihad in Kashmir, but the Pakistani authorities would not permit him.
Thereafter, he has not referred to India in any of his statements or interviews. However, there have been references to his attitude to India in statements made by Pakistan-based mercenary elements and their organizations operating in Kashmir and other parts of India and in pamphlets and posters purported to have been issued by him, which keep periodically circulating in Peshawar in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. It would be difficult to vouch for their authenticity.
Significantly, neither Osama nor the Taliban of Afghanistan, which protects him, has ever made any comments which could be interpreted as anti-Hindu or as indicating their support for the designs of the Pakistan-based mercenary organisations to extend their jihad from Kashmir to other parts of India in order to "liberate" the Muslims of India from the control of the Hindus.
There have been many verified statements of Osama saying it was the sacred duty of the Muslims to kill the Americans, the British and the Israelis, but there has been no such call for killing the Indians or the Hindus.
The past anti-India comments of Osama and the Taliban were restricted to supporting the right of the Kashmiris to self-determination .The Taliban has been very critical of the alleged Indian assistance to the pre-1992 Afghan Government of Najibullah and to the troops of the Northern Alliance led by Mr.Ahmed Shah Masood.
It has repeatedly denied Indian allegations that its volunteers were active in Kashmir. It admits the presence of a large number of Afghan mercenaries in Kashmir, but contends that these are the followers of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar, of the Hizb-e-Islami, who is now reported to be living in Iran.
According to the Taliban, Heckmatyar's followers have been operating in Kashmir along with the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), the militant wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and they masquerade as members of the Taliban in order to have it discredited in the eyes of the world as a terrorist organisation.
The Taliban says that while it would have liked to assist the Kashmiri people, it would not be in a position to do so till it establishes control over the whole of Afghanistan.
The HM underwent a split last year, with an anti-Heckmatyar, pro-Taliban and pro-Osama group forming a separate organisation called Al Badr. This group was very active in assisting the Pakistani troops during the recent Kargil conflict and is estimated to have suffered the largest number of casualties among the Mujahideen groups.
The available information on the Al Badr is still scanty and one cannot say with certainty whether Taliban members are active in the organisation.
The past statements of Osama and the Taliban were remarkably free of any anti-India and anti-Hindu venom of the type one finds in the statements of the Pakistan-based mercenary organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad and its militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Toiba .The Taliban is more strident in its criticism of Iran than of India.
The Taliban leaders, while strongly defending their Islamisation drive and their attitude to women and the Shias, have been taking pains to dispel the impression that the Taliban has been exporting armed Islamic fanaticism to India, China, the Central Asian Republics (CARs), Chechnya and Dagestan.
According to Taliban circles, Pakistan-based mercenary organisations such as the HUM, the Markaz and the Lashkar, which have been behind much of the violence in the Southern Philippines, India, Xinjiang in China, the CARs, Chechnya and Dagestan, are allies of the Taliban and Osama in the fight against the Northern Alliance of Mr.Masood, but this does not mean that the Taliban has been supporting their jihad in those countries.
In its most comprehensive statement to-date on this subject (September 20,1998), the Taliban stated as follows: " Afghanistan and India had friendly relations in the past. We don't have any diplomatic ties now, but we won't mind resuming relations with India as, at least, we won't have to contend with an enemy India. By backing the puppet communist regime in Afghanistan, India lost all sympathies of the majority of the Afghan people and it appears rather difficult to forget all that. We obviously support the jihad in Kashmir and sympathise with the Kashmiri people. It is also true that some Afghans are fighting against Indian troops in Kashmir. The Taliban has not sent them…We have no intention of exporting our jihad or revolution to any country."
In the context of this past attitude of the Taliban to keep open the possibility of a rapprochement with India, it is not surprising that it has hastened to deny the report disseminated in September by the "Jang", the anti-India Urdu daily of Pakistan, that Osama has declared a jihad against India.
After the Kargil conflict, the Pakistani authorities have launched a mischievous Psywar campaign that to secure the support of the administration of the US President, Mr.Bill Clinton, during the conflict, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government of India had offered its services to the US as its surrogate in the USA's campaign against Islamic revolutionary forces and that the US has been given facilities in the Kargil area from which it can mount a clandestine operation against Osama.
There have also been suggestions from the Pakistan-based mercenary organisations that in addition to the US, Israel and the UK (the UK was targeted by Osama after it joined the US in bombing Iraq in December), Osama should also target India which, according to them, has started collaborating with the US in its anti-Muslim policies.
Thus, there is an ill-disguised attempt by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and the mercenary groups supported by them to have India projected as a willing surrogate of the US which should be brought on Osama's hit list. Hence, despite the denial by the Taliban of any declaration of a jihad against India by Osama as alleged by the Pakistani media, a more effective monitoring of the activities of the already-identified and other likely sympathisers of Osama in India would be necessary.
Of the Pakistan-based organisations which are members of Osama's International Islamic Front for Jihad against the US and Israel, the HUM and the Lashkar are very active in Kashmir. The Lashkar also has a presence in other parts of India as far down South as Hyderabad. These organisations also have links with extremist organisations in Banglasdesh.The pro-Osama Al Badr is not a member of the Front, but is active in Kashmir.
Any threat from the pro-Osama elements in India could be not only against Indian interests and targets, but also against those of the US, Israel and the UK. Osama's men have in the past shown a marked preference for massive explosions outside infrastructure targets, such as Embassy buildings, military training establishments etc. Osama has also publicly announced in January ("Time", January 11) his interest in the procurement of weapons of mass destruction for possible use in his terrorist operations. These aspects have to be kept in view while planning counter-measures.
At the same time, India should test out the sincerity of the Taliban's interest in a non-adversarial relationship with India by maintaining a line of communication with the Taliban leadership through their office in New York. Its professions of innocence should be tested out and not dismissed out of hand.
The USA too, while taking strong action against the Taliban's support to Osama and its violation of human rights, has at the same time maintained a dialogue with the Taliban leadership through their New York office and during the visits of US officials to Islamabad.
We should not put all our eggs in the Burhanuddin Rabbani-Masood basket. It would be unwise to assume that the Taliban leadership is a Pakistani puppet and hence beyond redemption. After all, many Pakhtuns---of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan--- had been the traditional supporters of India and one should not rule out the possibility of there being many elements in the Taliban leadership which feel suffocated by the present too close an embrace with Pakistan.
India has had a long history of fruitful mutual counter-terrorism(CT) co-operation with the US in the form of exchange of information, expertise, visits of CT experts etc. The foundation for this was laid by Rajiv Gandhi during his visit to Washington in June,1985. The pre-1998 Governments of India had rightly kept this co-operation secret.
In an unwise departure from this policy, the present Government has been publicising such co-operation as was seen during the recent visit of some officials of the CT Division of the US State Department to New Delhi. This could act as a red rag to the bull and prove counter-productive. (29-9-99).
B.RAMAN(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.