Hafiz Saeed: The ugly fly in the soup at Singh-Zardari lunch

New York: It will be absolutely astounding if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh doesn’t breathe a word about Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist group founder Hafiz Saeed, who is wanted for fomenting the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when he meets President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday.

Home Minister P Chidambaram has welcomed the $10 million US bounty on Saeed’s head and said it might galvanise Pakistan to take action against Saeed, who excels in hate-mongering against India. When Chidambaram was pointedly asked at a news conference if India would raise the Saeed issue with Zardari, he beat around the bush.

Will Hafiz Saeed leave a bad taste at the diplomatic lunch? Image courtesy: IBN live

“I don’t know what the prime minister will say to Zardari,” Chidambaram told reporters. “He (Zardari) is coming on a private visit and it might not be the best occasion to raise this issue. But we will raise it at every other available platform.”

Most people would be justified in thinking that “every other available platform” pales in comparison to this terrific opportunity on Sunday in New Delhi to really talk about Saeed with Pakistan’s head of state.

Chidambaram may pussyfoot around the issue, but even Pakistan’s Dawn news portal has a better fix on the merry hell that will erupt if Singh keeps quiet on Hafiz Saeed. “Any pointed effort to avoid a discussion on the issue, however, would inevitably make the Indian prime minister vulnerable before the Bharatiya Janata Party-led rightwing hawks in parliament,” predicted the Pakistani news portal.

Zardari is slated to visit Ajmer in Rajasthan to offer prayers at a popular Sufi shrine. Singh will host a lunch for the visiting Pakistani president in New Delhi on Sunday during his day-long visit. This is the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state since 2005.

India's hopes of bringing to book Saeed got a boost on Monday when the Obama administration put Saeed on its most wanted list, announcing a $10 million bounty leading to his arrest and prosecution. The announcement was made by visiting US undersecretary of Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Pakistan suspects the US action came after intense lobbying from India.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a senior fellow at the Seban Center at the Brookings Institute, pointed out that Saeed is a “darling of the Pakistani army” and by putting a $10 million price on his head, Obama has rattled “an already shaky US-Pakistan relationship.”

“Saeed, a very public figure in Pakistan and admired by its military, advocates a truly extreme vision: the restoration of the Mughal empire and the destruction of India,” Riedel wrote in The Daily Beast.

The longtime CIA officer, said the LeT was created in 1987 by three Islamic scholars: Saeed and fellow Pakistani Zafar Iqbal, then residents at the Engineering University in Lahore, and Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian, then at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. Riedel said Saeed took the lead role and is rightly considered the founder and leader of LeT, although he has publicly distanced himself from it in recent years as he has taken on the leadership of Jamaat ud Dawa, a humanitarian organization that is in fact a cover for LeT’s militant activities.

India almost went to war with Pakistan when LeT militants attacked parliament in December 2001. Pakistan detained Saeed a week after the parliament attack and he was held until March 2002. He was again arrested in May that year and placed under house arrest until October. Pakistan has made a joke out of arresting Saeed. Every time Pakistan faces huge international pressure, it puts Saeed under house arrest and then releases him after the pressure wears off.

US authorities placed a bounty on Monday of up to $10 million on Saeed, but Reuters reported that on Wednesday Saeed was openly wandering across Pakistan's army garrison town of Rawalpindi, hanging out with some of the most anti-American characters in the country.

"This is a laughable, absurd announcement. Here I am in front of everyone, not hiding in a cave," Saeed told a news conference at a hotel, 40 minutes from the US Embassy in Islamabad and just across from the headquarters of Pakistan's army.

Some Indians would say that if Singh doesn’t want to talk to Zardari about inconvenient truths like Saeed or Pakistan-backed terrorism then perhaps the Prime Minister shouldn’t even waste a tax payer-funded lavish lunch on Zardari.

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