The world is justifiably outraged over the bloodletting in Mumbai, and Indians are right to demand a reckoning from their government for its failure to protect innocents as well as justice for murderers allegedly linked to an Islamic extremist group based in Pakistan. But neither the Indian nor the Pakistani government should allow an act of terrorism to escalate into greater hostilities between Hindus and Muslims, or into a hot conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has spent decades fighting Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region, reportedly with at least past help from members of the Pakistani military. The group was suspected in the 2001 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi that pushed the two countries to the brink of war, with troops massed on both sides of their shared border. It would be a terrible setback to five years of peace talks over Kashmir and normalization of relations if this were to happen again now. Presumably that was one of the goals of last week's assault.
Indian officials have said a captured Pakistani gunman acknowledged that Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the Mumbai attacks. No evidence has emerged of Pakistani government support for the operation. Now Islamabad must provide intelligence, make arrests or otherwise help India identify the attackers and bring accomplices to justice.
To be sure, India is the aggrieved party here. Yet it also must refrain from escalating hostilities at home and in the region to satisfy victims' families and the country's political hard-liners. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government should be proactive in protecting the minority Muslim population against possible revenge attacks, particularly in this volatile period ahead of May 2009 parliamentary elections. India reportedly is considering severing diplomatic relations or launching a cross-border raid into Pakistan against suspected militant training camps. Either action would be a mistake. Communications must be increased, not cut off. President Bush is right to dispatch Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try to help defuse tensions.
Rice may be on shaky ground arguing against Indian military raids on Pakistan when the United States routinely launches its own attacks on suspected militants camped along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, but press the case she must. Although Pakistan is unhappy about U.S. attacks in the tribal lands, they are not seen as a step toward a full-fledged war against Pakistan. The same could not be said of cross-border attacks by India. The Pakistani government would see them as a precursor to war and would feel compelled to respond.