The India-Pakistan relationship has been blighted by animosity, prejudice, lack of trust and war – both overt and covert. In recent years, the anger of the Indian people at Pakistan’s conduct and electoral politics on the issue have given rise to an increasingly ill-informed discourse in sections of our media and political space.
Against the above backdrop, the posthumously published book of Satinder Kumar Lambah, who passed away in June last year, titled In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations Under Six Prime Ministers comes as a breath of fresh air. It is a valuable account of diplomatic history, in-depth analysis and policy recommendations, which could have come only from the pen of someone like Lambah, who spent more than half of his public service of nearly five decades dealing with matters relating to Pakistan.
Chapter 1 of the book contains some deep insights into the evolution of a military state in Pakistan, the dominant role of the army and ISI and Pakistan’s ‘India-centric’ and ‘Kashmir-oriented’ strategic culture. The plight of civilian leaders in Pakistan is clear from an account of the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto signalling to a senior Indian interlocutor in Karachi in 1988 that the meeting room was likely to be bugged and sensitive issues would be communicated by handwritten exchanges on a notepad. The book is replete with other interesting anecdotes. In contrast, the author mentions the prominent role of prime ministers in India in shaping the Pakistan policy and underlines the importance of top-down decisions in view of the absence of clear-cut answers and the tendency of bureaucratic and political processes to favour safe options and the status quo.
In the remaining chapters, the author takes the reader through a fascinating diplomatic journey during 1980-2014 with six prime ministers, introducing important personalities and landmark events on the way, such as Mrs Indira Gandhi’s announcement in the Lok Sabha on December 16, 1971 of the emergence of Dhaka as the free capital of a free country and the tumultuous welcome she received in Dhaka in March 1972. It was also a journey of discovery for him and his wife, whose families hailed from Peshawar and Lahore respectively.
The author describes December 6, 1992, when he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, as one of the most difficult days in his professional career in view of the strong and violent reaction in Pakistan to the destruction of Babri Masjid. He and his colleagues faced criticism regarding the condition of Muslims and the treatment of minorities in India, with jibes at Indian secularism. They countered it by highlighting the role of Muslims in secular India and the outstanding contribution of minorities in comparison with conditions in Pakistan. He regrets that “decades later, the situation in India too is undergoing a change.”
The author describes Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the “Persistent Statesman with a Vision of Peace” and quotes him as telling the Pakistani ambassador in 1977 on becoming the external affairs minister that there would be no change in policy towards Pakistan as the existing foreign policy ‘was based on more or less a national consensus’. Later, Vajpayee played a leading role in 1994 in the successful efforts of the Narasimha Rao government to thwart Pakistan’s attempt to get a resolution, alleging human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, passed by the UN Commission on Human Rights. These instances are worth recalling in the backdrop of foreign policy issues, particularly the policy towards Pakistan, becoming a matter of political slugfest in recent years.
The book has an interesting and revealing account of the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in December 2001, in which the author led the Indian delegation.
The chapter titled “A New Sustained Approach and a Near Solution” covers the back channel discussions on Kashmir between the Musharraf-Manmohan Singh governments, in which the author was the Indian interlocutor from 2005 to 2014. It brings to light some hitherto unknown aspects of the process and why it could not be taken to its logical conclusion. Besides consultations within the government, former PM Vajpayee, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha L.K. Advani, former NSA Brajesh Mishra and some important J&K leaders were also kept informed.
The back channel agreement not having been made public, the text of the author’s speech on a possible solution to the Kashmir issue, made in Srinagar in May 2014 and contained in the book, is the best indicator of its content. It refers, inter alia, to no redrawing of borders, disavowal by Pakistan of terrorism as a state policy, respect for ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) and LoC to be like a border between any two normal states.
The author states that he briefed PM Modi on the back channel after he assumed office. The file on the subject was reviewed by the incoming government and he was even told that no major change was required. In April 2017, a senior PMO official told him that Prime Minister Modi wanted him to go to Pakistan to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, but the visit did not take place.
The author refers to but does not address criticism of the back channel in India. He was perhaps unable to do so due to the non-availability of the back channel agreement in public. He, however, believed that it could be taken forward with or without modifications and rightly stated that great powers should not wait passively for events to unfold, but should seek to shape their environment in pursuit of their national interest.
The author offers some valuable suggestions for a way forward: memories should not become perpetual shackles on shaping our future; while responding appropriately to Pakistan’s covert operations, the process of engagement need not be frozen; not engaging with a strongly antagonistic neighbour with a growing nuclear arsenal and worsening stability is not a wise choice; expectations have to be kept at a realistic level and policies structured to manage the relationship.
The book’s narrative makes it clear that though the author worked relentlessly for peace, he was a realist. He was a hard-nosed diplomat, but not uncompromising when he saw an opportunity to promote India’s interest; above all, he was true to his calling as a diplomat and never lost faith in the value of diplomacy and engagement even in the most difficult circumstances.
A gripping book, it will be of as much interest to general readers as to professionals and scholars in the domain of foreign affairs.
Sharat Sabharwal is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.