Bill Clinton, beginning his state visit to India yesterday, got a rude lesson in how far political forces in the subcontinent will go to draw a visiting statesman's attention. The murder the previous night of 36 Sikhs in a village in Kashmir was an atrocity designed for an audience of one.
But the United States President, after saying that "the killing of innocent people is the worst thing" that could be perpetrated, and that the atrocity was "a horrible development", showed that he has not left his political marbles at home by adding sensibly: "We have first to know who did it." There were obvious candidates. India's National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, told reporters that the government had evidence that two Islamic militant groups active in the Kashmir Valley, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, were behind the massacre.
But in Kashmir itself, the leader of Hizbul Mujahideen, Sayed Salahuddin, said the killings were carried out by India in an effort to portray freedom fighters as terrorists during Mr Clinton's visit. "It is a deliberate attempt by the Indian secret agency... to tarnish the 55-year-old [Kashmir] freedom movement as a terrorist movement," he said.
The massacre was a harsh intrusion into the placid, somewhat lightweight business of a visit that sometimes seems more like one of the Queen's or Prince Charles's escapades. Yesterday gave both Clintons, Bill and daughter Chelsea (Hillary is back home on the stump in New York), the opportunity to reveal unexpected depths of scholarship. At Rajghat, the cremation ground by the Yamuna river in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi is commemorated, Mr Clinton correctly identified the sapling he was about to plant as a magnolia. And when her father was handed a stack of books on Gandhi, Chelsea stunned the company by disclosing that she had read one of them - My Experiments with Truth.
The undemanding political business of the President's trip proceeded like clockwork. Mr Clinton and the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, signed a long and resonant "Vision Statement", pledging "at the dawn of a new century... to create a closer and qualitatively new relationship between India and the United States". There were some flattering (to India) uses of the first person plural, as when the statement said: "As leaders in the forefront of the new high-technology economy, we recognise that countries can achieve robust economic growth while protecting the environment and taking action to combat climate change."
On the question of India's nuclear arsenal, there were only mild reminders to act wisely. "We reaffirm our respective voluntary commitments to forgo further nuclear explosive tests," the text read. "We will work together and with others for an early commencement of negotiations on a treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons..."
However, the slaughter in Kashmir overshadowed the day's political ceremonies. The incident occurred when 30 to 40 heavily armed men entered the village of Chatti-Singpora, 75km south of the summer capital, Srinagar, late on Monday night.
The men were said to be dressed in army uniforms, and a man who introduced himself as their commanding officer explained politely that he had to conduct some checks in the village. He and his men were taken to the village's gurudwara, the Sikh temple; according to one account, they also shared some drinks with the villagers.
But then the armed men separated the village's men from the women, took the men to two separate places and shot them dead. Only two survived the atrocity, one dying on the way to hospital and the other admitted to hospital in Srinagar in a critical condition.
The attack was completely unexpected, as the small Sikh minority in the Kashmir Valley - where the overwhelming majority are Muslims - had escaped scot-free until Monday night in the 10-year insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
While the Kashmir Valley's Hindu community, the Kashmiri Pandits, were driven out of the Valley by threats and selective murders 10 years ago - the dwindling numbers of Pandits who remain continue to be shot or otherwise persecuted - Sikhs have lived alongside Muslims until now without fear. In another incident recently, five lorry drivers were murdered in a similar cold-blooded style; all those killed were Hindus, while the Sikh drivers were spared.
Either Monday's attack marks the start of a new attempt by militants to cleanse the Kashmir Valley of its remaining minority or there is another explanation. Indian politicians, including the President, KR Narayanan, and the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, were quick to blame "cross-border terrorism" for the attacks.
But the person who will be most immediately damaged by the attacks is Pakistan's "chief executive", General Pervaiz Musharraf. If Mr Clinton agrees with his Indian hosts as to the identity of the perpetrators of the massacre, he is bound to come down hard on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism during his five-hour stopover in Islamabad on Saturday. This is an outcome greatly desired by Delhi, which is why the grotesque idea that India, home of Sikhdom, was actually behind the killings, cannot be entirely ruled out.
In Islamabad, meanwhile, the Pakistani foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, condemned the attack on Chatti-Singpora and demanded an inquiry. "We would like very much that a thorough inquiry is conducted into the incident," the foreign minister told reporters. "So that it is not exploited for the purposes of propaganda to deflect attention from the Indian repression in Kashmir."