NEW DEHLI: The Indian External Affairs Ministry may have inadvertently caused some of the confusion over a hoax call to President Asif Ali Zardari that escalated tensions between India and Pakistan during the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.
Pretending to be India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the caller conveyed threats of an imminent military response to the attacks.
A US Embassy cable from New Delhi, sent on December 4, 2008 – which was accessed by The Hindu newspaper through WikiLeaks – revealed that Gaitri Kumar, a senior official at the Indian External Affairs Ministry had initially told the Americans on December 1 that Mukherjee had made a phone call to President Zardari.
Pakistani officials said that the call forced the Pakistan Air Force to go on high alert and scramble its fighter jets. Rattled, Islamabad began a frantic diplomatic effort in western capitals to restrain India.
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice telephoned Mukherjee in the middle of the night to find out why he had made the call, only to be told by the minister that he had not made any phone call to President Zardari. But still nervous about the possibility of war breaking out between the two countries, Rice cut short a visit to Europe to fly to South Asia on December 3, visiting both capitals in an effort to calm the tensions.
Exactly a year later, the culprit behind the hoax call was revealed to be Omar Saeed Shaikh – the militant released by India in 1999 in exchange for the passengers on the Indian Airlines flight IC-814, that was hijacked to Kandahar. He is reported to have made the call from a mobile phone sitting in his Karachi prison cell, where he is being held for the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
In order to clear the confusion, Kumar met the American diplomats again on December 3 and offered a different version. She said that Mukherjee had only spoken to his counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. On the evening of November 28, Mukherjee phoned Qureshi, but did not convey any threats, and Qureshi confirmed this at a press conference in Islamabad.
Though Kumar gave the Americans no explanation for the discrepancy between this report and the one she gave on December 1, Ambassador Mulford wrote that he “suspects she incorrectly inferred that a Mukherjee-Zardari call took place from the fact that Mukherjee’s office had, as a precaution, prepared points for him to use if President Zardari were to phone Prime Minister Singh when he was unavailable, leaving Mukherjee to receive the call.”
The American Ambassador cabled that despite the conflicting versions from the Government of India, he had concluded that Mukherjee “did not in fact” phone President Zardari. “The last thing we want is people misleading our Pakistani counterparts and General Kayani regarding India’s intentions,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2011.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ