Satinder Lambah’s Accounts Are an Eye-Opener for Pakistani Hawks Who Drum up Anti-India Chauvinism

The diplomat played a pivotal role in drafting a settlement that would have rendered the LoC just a line on the map.

Late Satinder Kumar Lambah’s memoirs about India-Pakistan relations under six prime ministers of India are quite revealing in terms of chronically detailed reminiscences of three decades spent directly or indirectly handling India’s policy towards what he perceives to be a problematic offshoot of Partition on the ‘inviable’ basis of religion. 

It is full of consistent derogation of an adversary he sees as not worthy of engagement on an equal footing and what he alleges to be consistent and deceitful conduct of Pakistan. Yet he portrays his diplomatic manoeuvrings “in pursuit of peace” from the standpoint of a ‘big brother’.  

A diplomat par excellence that he undoubtedly was, he never deviated from his line of duty to South Block, which continued to match and counter-match its equally stubborn counterpart in Pakistan’s Foreign Office. 

In a revealing off-the-cuff remark at a reception hosted by the South Asian Free Media Foundation (SAFMA) in Lahore, the then foreign minister of India, Natwar Singh – while eulogising the babus of Pakistan Foreign Office’s capacity to have kept alive the Kashmir dispute on the international stage – said that the diplomats from both the foreign offices are so equally competent that they can serve in one or the other’s foreign office equally well. Quite cynically, the Lahoris applauded the absurdity of keeping the zero-sum game of diplomatic logjam driven by animosity-by-rotation.

It is no surprise then that in his memoirs, one couldn’t find a single fault with any of his governments that he served so faithfully, except Prime Minister I. K. Gujral and his doctrine of non-reciprocity with neighbours whom he believed were “soft on Pakistan”. His view even on an unnecessarily lingering issue such as Siachen is so stubborn that he remarked that “the subsequent discussions between Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were bereft of strategic content, with the focus narrowed to just a Siachen settlement on mutual force withdrawal from recorded actual ground positions (AGPLs) and establishment of a jointly demilitarized zone (DMZ).” Nor did he mention any Pakistani move without mischief or appreciate any of the peace overtures from across the border with the honourable exception of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Also read: A Book on the Negotiations That Got Kashmir Closest to a Solution

However, he is enamoured with the, somewhat behind the scenes, bold initiatives taken by successive military rulers starting from F. M. Ayub Khan and General Ziaul Haq to General Pervaiz Musharraf. Along with him, there seems to be a consensus among former Indian high commissioners to Islamabad that India must engage with the Pakistan Army. All those warrior generals who perpetually played an anti-India card and initiated adventurous wars were quite eager to mend fences with New Delhi while scuttling the efforts of various prime ministers to find a détente with India. Pressed hard by the military establishment whose national security paradigm revolved around and thrived on “India’s eternal threat to Pakistan’s national security”, the civilian leaders were not powerful enough to assert their will on an issue that had a direct bearing on the sustainability of a fragile democracy. It must be mentioned that the India-Pakistan conflict reinforced the military’s authoritarianism in Pakistan while undermining civilian authority and democratic institutions. It also promoted religious exclusivism and extremism in both countries.

File photo of the fence separating India and Pakistan. Photo: Abhishek Baxi/Flickr CC-BY-NC 2.0

Lambah neither takes a considerate view of the civilian leadership’s dilemma, nor does he entertain any significance to a very vibrant civil society of Pakistan that is consistently fighting martial rule and war-mongers. For misguided Pakistani patriots, his memoirs should be quite frustrating as they reveal how successive military dictators used  the “eternal enemy” card and tried to reach a No War/Peace and Cooperation treaty with India at the same time. It’s an eye-opener for the Pakistani hawks who have continued to drum up anti-India chauvinism at the behest of their masters.

Being a displaced child of a bloody partition and a migrant from a “migrant state”, he selectively picks up references to prove not only his point against the creation of Pakistan on an “unviable” basis of religion but also ignores the minority question that remains unaddressed in all three countries of the subcontinent with the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan and Hindu majoritarian nationalism in India.

According to Political Conflict in Pakistan author Mohammad Waseem: “[In 1947] Pakistan got out of India. But India did not get out of Pakistan. That has made all the difference. The genesis of the first major conflict in Pakistan can be traced to the mandatory requirement for Pakistan to de-Indianize itself… It became an unconscious and instinctive commitment to living with the new ‘other’, mainly across, but also within, the border…(subsequently) the rise of religion as a marker and shaper of the national identity first in Pakistan and a generation or two later in India”. 

Was Partition then a ‘closure’ or a ‘rupture’ asks political scientist Ranabit Samaddar. He adds that Jawaharlal Nehru thought, “Partition offered a way out and we took it”. Meanwhile, professor Sanjay Chaturvedi questions ‘whether the Partition is a solution to the conflict or a breeding ground of the conflict itself.’  

Partition in India was seen as “the great divide” of Indian civilization, which distinguished historians like Romila Thapar’s questions on a monolithic nation or an Aryan ‘race’. Despite a bloody Partition that the Congress party leadership finalised by rejecting a loose federalist scheme propounded by the Cabinet Mission Plan, the ‘menace’ of the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ continues to haunt all three (former) parts of the subcontinent to this day with the rise of respective majoritarian communalism. 

Regarding Pakistan’s evolution toward a ‘military state’, which was premised on a self-serving ‘eternal-enemy threat’ from India, various independent scholars describe it in terms of an “over-developed” steel-structure of Pakistan.  It was no less reinforced by India’s rejectionist view about the creation and survival of Pakistan and its persistent insistence on the Nehruvian version of the Monroe Doctrine in its sphere of influence in South Asia. If India felt threatened by Pakistan’s alliance with the US, Pakistan suffered dismemberment and sought countervailing strategic alignments.     

Satinder Lambah’s memoir ‘In Pursuit of Peace’ was launched earlier this year in New Delhi.

The high point of diplomacy between India and Pakistan was during General Ziaul Haq’s  military reign as he negotiated with  Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on a Friendship Treaty/No War Pact. The treaty could not be finalised because of Gandhi’s insistence on “emphasising bilateralism in Article IV and second non-grant of bases in Article V (2)”. Without justifying Pakistan’s joining of US military blocks, however, a medium-sized country living next to a huge but ‘hostile’ neighbor found ‘safety’ in alliances opposed to the Soviet Union that India had also joined and now US-led QUAD against China. 

But he will not take the pain of mentioning the offer of military bases to the US in the aftermath of 9/11 by Home Minister L. K. Advani during his most favoured premiership of A. B. Vajpayee. Faced with a bigger neighbour and potential or ‘perceived’ Indian threat and its larger military power, the Pakistani leaders from Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to all the successive military dictators sought to counter the military imbalance in favour of India by joining US-led military blocks. Lambah is right in saying that the Cold War between the two superpowers further pushed the subcontinent into opposite camps.

With the change in international alignments since 1951, India’s policy towards Pakistan and Kashmir changed qualitatively. We also see a sea change in Indian National Congress’s position on Kashmir, despite recourse to the UN and the passage of Article 370 that continued to be diluted and finally scrapped according to A.G. Noorani’s book on Article 370. 

Ambassador Lambah is partially right about how Pakistan didn’t insist much on UN resolutions in the early 1950s, but he doesn’t have any democratic reason to defend the Indian Republic’s annexationist position on the right to self-determination of the divided and subjugated Kashmiris living on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). India became a status quo power and Pakistan took an irredentist position on Kashmir as both consider it a territorial dispute and not an issue of a disenfranchised people. While declaring Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India and asking Pakistan to vacate “PoK”, India has been engaging Pakistan in prolonged talks based on various kinds of give and take beyond its stated official positions on the back of the Kashmiri people. So did Pakistan.

In his book, Lambah informs us of a lot, with choreographed details of behind the scenes diplomacy and numerous backchannels. But what he conveniently missed is a mission undertaken by a real man of peace R. K. Mishra over the Ministry of External Affairs’ head (MOEA) as a personal emissary of Prime Minister Vajpayee to Prime Minister Sharif that culminated in the Lahore Declaration, despite Pakistan’s subsequent infiltration into Kargil by General Musharraf at the back of his prime minister. 

According to I. K. Mishra, even the PAF maps of the Kashmir region were directly provided to Vajpayee who wanted to keep his initiative secret from his bureaucratic establishment. It was an out-of-box initiative in the spirit of Vajpayee’s dictum: “Insaanyiat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat”. And the Chenab formula was to be the framework of the final settlement within one year. Before him, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had coined the idea of absolute autonomy with “the sky as its limit”.

Retreating from the Kargil Heights with the help of Sharif and support from PM Vajpayee, General Musharraf after staging a coup against his benefactor had his metamorphosis and took a chance to make peace with India. Vajpayee was upset with the coup in Pakistan. Yet, he asked R. K. Mishra to start a fresh back-channel diplomacy with President Musharraf. But the General avoided engaging with Mishra–who told me that he had to wait to get a visa from the Pakistan High Commission in Singapore– to perhaps take a very seasoned Indian politician by surprise, which resulted in the fiasco of the Agra Summit.

And when Vajpayee restarted the process, he made Musharraf agree to end “cross-border terrorism” during the SAARC Summit in Islamabad. Later, when Dr Manmohan Singh became the prime minister, he in consultation with Vajpayee picked up the reconciliation process from where it had been left.  

Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photo: PTI/File

Both Lambah and Tariq Aziz played a pivotal role in almost agreeing on a settlement based on General Musharraf’s 4-point formula. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, according to his advisor Sanjaya Baru. was even ready to name the accord as the ‘Musharraf Formula’. Indeed, this was an exceptional breakthrough that would have rendered the LoC just a line on the map with Kashmiris allowed maximum autonomy, a joint mechanism between the two sides of Jammu & Kashmir, and the military forces’ exit from the urban areas. One wonders why both countries don’t go back to the Musharraf-Manmohan accord.

What is worth mentioning is that the Congress prime ministers like Nehru, Indra Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have moved through the MOEA while Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministers bypassed it  to reach out directly to their interlocutors in Pakistan.

Vajpayee essentially relied on R. K. Mishra and Brajesh Mishra. Lambah was quite upset when before he could proceed to Islamabad as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special envoy, Indian businessman Sajjan Jindal met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as Modi’s trusted emissary in Muree on 28 April 2017. 

What surprised everybody was the unscheduled visit of Prime Minister Modi to Lahore to meet Prime Minister Sharif at his Jati Umra farmhouse. Modi’s boldness was disrupted by the terrorists against whom Sharif had registered cases and both prime ministers allowed joint investigation of the attack on the Pathankot air-base. But it was scuttled by the forces inimical to peace.

A beleaguered history of bilateral diplomacy between India and Pakistan is full of ups and downs – from wars to peace and long spells of no-peace/no-war intervals. The fundamental question is that they must get over the hangover of an exotic partition and shed all shades of enmity while continuing to live as peaceful neighbours and finding solutions to their conflicts. Peace is not an option; it’s a neighbourhood compulsion of the states of the common heritage of our subcontinent.

Imtiaz Alam is a freelance journalist and Secretary General of SAFMA.