Features | Politics

The David Headley Problem

The sentencing of David Headley to 35 years in prison has angered many in India. Will it damage growing U.S.- India cooperation in other areas?

By Sridhar Krishnaswami for

There is understandable anger and grief in India over the United States recently sentencing David Coleman Headley to 35 years in prison. Formerly known as Daood Sayed Giulani, the Pakistani American Headley was one of the masterminds behind the November 26, 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai that left 166 persons dead, including six Americans, and injuring hundreds of others.

In the years since Headley’s arrest in the U.S. in 2009, New Delhi has been demanding that Washington extradite him to India to face trial, where he would almost certainly receive the death penalty.  At the same time, the UPA government has also understood that extradition faced many legal and bureaucratic obstacles, making it unlikely to occur.

Thus India's response to Headley's sentence was one of measured frustration, with officials continuing to demand Headley ultimately be brought to India while stopping short of criticizing the sentence Headley received.

"We would have wanted him to be produced in court here and face trial because we suffered the maximum damage from him. We will continue to strive to ensure that people like him are brought here and made to face trial because I believe that if the trial took place here, the punishment would have been even more serious," India’s Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid said.

Home Secretary R.K.Singh was much more forthright in his reaction to the sentence, but he too stopped short of criticizing it.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

"Our view is that all those involved in 26/11 case should receive death penalty. That has been our consistent stand… We want death sentence for Headley and those who were involved in killing of 166 people in Mumbai. We will keep asking for his death sentence,"  Singh said. He added: “We will continue to press for extradition of Headley. The agreement (not to extradite him to India) is between the U.S. and Headley, not with India….Headley was involved not only in Mumbai conspiracy, but he also carried out reconnaissance in other places. Our request for his extradition stands."

These reactions reflect the reality that the UPA government is stuck trying to navigate between the complicated legal logistics of extradition and its domestic political needs. Indeed, critics of the government have been adamant that it has not done enough to bring to justice those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. This has forced government officials to lobby Washington hard and publicly for extradition, all the while knowing that its success in this endeavor was doubtful. For instance, last November Khurshid wrote his U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton, a letter expressing hope that India would receive a favorable decision in the Headley case.

In one of those rare instances of the two major political parties being in agreement on an issue, the BJP has also demanded that Headley be extradited to India. The Opposition noted that the fact that the Mumabi attack killed six Americans—for which Headley was sentenced for in the U.S.— could not erase the fact that many more Indian nationals had perished.

“We want him to be tried like Ajmal Kasab,” party spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy said referring to the only perpretator of the attack that was captured alive. He added, “No Indian can settle for less than [a] death sentence for Headley” and demanded that the UPA government “bring Headley to India without delay as the crime was committed on Indian soil. The sentence handed down to Headley is perhaps for the death of six Americans killed on Indian soil. What about the other people killed across Mumbai in the ghastly act? BJP demands justice for them…"

Besides trying Headley in India, there has also been tension over the perception in India that Washington has been less than forthcoming on giving Indian authorities access to Headley. Officials from India’s National Intelligence Agency, for example, were able to interrogate Headley in Chicago, but only with the Federal Bureau of Investigation present.The information they were able to obtain from him was thought to be partial at best.

Despite these difficult issues, India and the United States continue to share a strong interest in fighting Lashkar-e- Taiba(LeT) in general, and extracting the most information from Headley about the organization in particular. This fact was underscored by outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late last month when she said:

"I think it is unfinished business that we are not in any way walking away from. I'm leaving office, but I can assure you and the Indian people this remains one of our very highest priorities…A lot of useful information was obtained. And I think that this sentence represents both the punishment that he (Headley) richly deserves for his participation but also a recognition of the role that he has played and is expected to continue to play in supporting Indian and American efforts to prevent the kind of horrific attack that occurred in Mumbai."

Still, tensions over how Headley is handled will continue to hang over the bilateral relationship in the coming years. At the same time, India and U.S. officials will work diligently to prevent these tensions from undermining the relationship in other areas, including counterterrorism cooperation against LeT and like-minded groups. For the Indian government this will likely require accepting, at least privately, that Headley will not be extradited. For its part, Washington will have to give greater consideration to how sensitive this issue is for India, and keep Delhi better informed if Headley offers any new information that might be helpful.

Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami is the Head of the School of Media Studies, SRM University, Chennai, India. Previously he was a senior journalist in the Washington Bureaus of The Hindu and The Press Trust of India between 1995 and 2008. Prior to that he served as The Hindu’s Special Correspondent for Southeast Asia, where he was based in Singapore.