A Diplomat's Memories of India-Pakistan Back Channel Talks

"By the time there was progress in the back channel, attention in India turned to the 2014 general election, with the UPA battling a resurgent opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which was seeing a surge in the popular vote."

Excerpted with permission from Satinder Kumar Lambah’s In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations Under Six Prime Ministers, published by Penguin.

Three Phases of Negotiations

I had three interlocutors from Pakistan in the back channel between 2005 and 2014. Each coincided with three distinct phases in back-channel negotiations, which corresponded with three different situations in Pakistan’s internal politics that reflected the structure of the government in Islamabad and the state of civil-military relations.

Satinder Kumar Lambah
In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations Under Six Prime Ministers
Penguin, 2023

The first phase took place during the tenure of President Musharraf, who was both President and chief of army till November 2007. He relinquished the charge of army chief and continued as President till August 2008. There was strong momentum until 2007, and almost the entire progress in negotiations was made while he held dual charge. As his internal problems increased, including the standoff with the judiciary, he was both distracted and unable to conclude the agreement.

General Kayani succeeded Pervez Musharraf as the eighth army chief in November 2007, a post he was to remain in till November 2013. The former ISI chief quickly consolidated power within the army structure. By September 2008, Asif Zardari became the President of Pakistan and remained in office till July 2013. The second phase, thus, coincided with Zardari as President and the powerful General Kayani as army chief. This period saw little engagement and no progress in negotiations. It was obviously also marred by the horrific 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai.

The third phase began with Nawaz Sharif winning the May 2013 election and returning to power. Elected with a strong mandate, he wielded considerable power. By July, Zardari had left office and in November, Kayani retired. Nawaz Sharif resumed back-channel negotiations and injected new momentum and urgency into the process. By the time there was progress in the back channel, attention in India turned to the 2014 general election, with the UPA battling a resurgent opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which was seeing a surge in the popular vote.


The Draft Agreement and the Transition

By the end of the second term of the UPA government and of Dr Manmohan Singh’s ten-year term, the draft agreement had been approved and was ready for signature. The draft was not made for a particular individual in office or a particular situation. It was meant to have an enduring value and be relevant for a long-term solution. However, this point was not publicly made because it is well known that any draft on the back channel, until signed, is not a settled agreement and can be modified or rejected.

Shahryar Khan, in fact, suggested a change during our last meeting. I explained that this was my last meeting with him on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was not a candidate for the prime minister post in the next election. He would, therefore, get the response from the representative of the next prime minister of India.

The official file contained all details of discussions together with a note by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that this could only be opened on the instructions of the next prime minister.

Also read: Ahead of Times, Pragmatic in All Roles, Satinder K. Lambah Is Indian Diplomacy’s Ever-Shining Star

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

This book does not cover the period of Prime Minister Modi. However, before he assumed office, he asked me to meet him at Gujarat Bhawan. I met him on 25 May [2014].* He was very gracious and keen to speak to me. Among those waiting outside were the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu, Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh and High Commissioner to Pakistan T.C.A. Raghavan. Apparently, the chief minister was in a hurry to meet the prime minister, as a few notes were sent in to the new prime minister. I asked the prime minister whether I should return later, but he said no and carried on with our meeting.

His main query was regarding the visit of Nawaz Sharif for the swearing-in ceremony. I told him it was a good and positive action taken. I added that as far as I could recall Nawaz Sharif had last visited to attend the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi, and, as a result, he was coming to India after almost two decades. Sometime later, Prime Minister Modi again asked to see me in his office. This time he asked for my assessment on India–Pakistan relations and I briefed him on the back channel.

There appeared to be an intent to continue the back-channel process. The file on the subject had been reviewed. I was even once told that no major change was required. A distinguished diplomat was being considered to be appointed as special envoy by Prime Minister Modi. I was asked to meet him. However, when I checked with the PMO, I was told there had been a change in thought and I would be informed regarding the briefing.

On 20 April 2017, a senior official of the PMO came to see me at my house. He said the prime minister wanted me to go to Pakistan to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I reiterated that such meetings are more valuable if the envoy has the public confidence of the prime minister. However, on the 22nd I was told I would be given details of the points to be discussed and was asked to give my travel documents to enable me to travel to Pakistan. The same day, the senior official and I met Fali Nariman to refresh some points. The following day, I saw a news item that a leading Indian businessman, who was an emissary, had gone to meet PM Nawaz Sharif, in his personal plane. I rang the official, who appeared surprised at this development. I told him that under the circumstances, it would not be proper for two people to represent the prime minister for the same purpose. Clearly, the emissary had not coordinated his visit to Pakistan with the PMO. This was the last conversation I had on this subject.

Satinder Kumar Lambah’s career in the Indian Foreign Service included distinguished tenures as Head of Mission in Hungary, Pakistan, Germany and Russia. He passed away on June 30, 2022.

*Penguin’s published version erroneously mentions the year of this 2014 meeting as 2016.