NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has put its border forces in “a high state of vigil” and suspended train and bus links after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto raised the spectre of chaos in Pakistan spilling over to its nuclear-armed neighbour.
Experts said India might not suffer much short-term impact, but they said Bhutto’s murder in a gun and bomb attack could be another nail in the coffin for permanent peace in the region if militant violence holds greater sway over Pakistan.
Relations between the neighbours, which have been to war three times and nearly fought another conflict as late as 2002, are always fraught despite a fragile peace process in the past few years.
“There has been a general advisory to all the border forces to maintain a high state of vigil. You can guess why,” a Home Ministry spokesman told Reuters on Friday.
“There are no specific threats as yet. They have been put on alert, there have been various speculations, jihadis, the spillover effect.”
Citing “security considerations”, India suspended the main cross-border train and bus services until further notice, the home ministry said on Friday, including the Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express, which was the target of a bomb attack in February.
India often puts its forces on alert in response to crises in Pakistan, which also has nuclear weapons. It did so in November when President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency.
Washington and many Western allies view Pakistan as a bulwark in the so-called “war on terror” declared after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Pakistan is seen as key to a victory by Western allies over Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
But for India, the worry is that instability in Pakistan could spill over the border and lead to increased militant attacks in Indian-ruled Kashmir or bomb blasts in Indian cities.
Police in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian Kashmir, fired tear gas on Friday at hundreds of stone-throwing Kashmiris protesting over Bhutto’s murder, witnesses said. Protesters chanted “Long Live Pakistan” and “Long Live Bhutto”.
India has suffered several bombings this year in its cities, which security officials often blame on Pakistan-based groups.
“The manner of her going is a reminder of the common dangers that our region faces from cowardly acts of terrorism,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said soon after Bhutto’s death.
Indian shares see-sawed on Friday after news from Pakistan sparked uncertainty among investors.
Analysts said Pakistan was now more focused inwards than on India. But that might not last long.
“In the short term, we will see a contesting for power by the jihadis against the Pakistan government. Their focus won’t be on India,” said Ajai Sahni of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.
“In the medium term jihadis could be able to carve out more space in Pakistan, and India could face more attacks.”
While much of the international community criticised Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule in November, India’s reaction was muted, reflecting its desire to avoid upsetting its rival.
Infiltration by militants from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir has fallen in the past three years after international pressure on Pakistan to rein in guerrilla groups. Regular exchanges of fire across the line separating India and Pakistan in Kashmir have stopped since a ceasefire was agreed in late 2003.
The peace process has been stagnant this year but dialogue has helped to reduce tension and keep a truce, and led to a fall in violence in Kashmir, the main dispute between the rivals.
For India the issue is whether it can now rely on any Pakistani leader.
India has focused its efforts on improving diplomatic ties with Musharraf’s military government and analysts say it will continue to deal with him as long as he remains in power.
Yet if Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 bloodless coup, is weakened, the risks and complications for India could rise.
“India has dealt with strong military dictators and vacillating civilian leaders in Pakistan,” wrote C. Raja Mohan, a Singapore-based Indian strategic affairs expert, in the Indian Express.
“It has never faced a rudderless Pakistan. India finds itself for the first time without a credible interlocutor in Pakistan.”