From the trenches: India, Pakistan relations through the prism of diplomacy

Former diplomats trace the green shoots that gave rise to hopes for peace between the neighbours and explain the challenges and hurdles to managing a complex relationship with a history of hostility; they also rue missed opportunities that Pakistani and Indian leaders have failed to seize

Updated - January 25, 2024 07:23 pm IST

Published - January 25, 2024 08:30 am IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“The only ‘normal’ ones, are those you don’t know very well,” famed Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler said about people, but it’s a thought that holds true for India-Pakistan relations as well. The two countries, that know one another only too well, were separated in a painful birth, and while they have tried to build “normal” relations with each other for decades since, every attempt has failed.

Since 2014, a chain of events have seen them give up even the semblance of bilateral discourse: they have ended all direct trade, travel by rail, bus and air, denied visas to each other’s artists, musicians, and writers, stopping all but religious pilgrimage exchanges, as well as shunned the composite bilateral dialogue between officials. Since 2019, they have dispensed with High Commissioners and all political contact altogether. At a time when both sides are in danger of losing all institutional memory of engaging with each other, the last High Commissioner to Pakistan Ajay Bisaria’s historical study-cum-memoir, Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship between India and Pakistan (Aleph), steps into the breach.

Expulsion and after

Mr. Bisaria, who was posted to Islamabad in 2017, and expelled after the Modi government’s Article 370 move in August 2019 which angered the Imran Khan government in Pakistan, writes in the prologue that the attempt was to tell the story of India–Pakistan diplomacy “from the point of view of its practitioners, those who exited early and those who stayed long in the trenches”. He divides the history of the relationship into decades rather than events, with Section 1 focusing on the decade from 1947-1957 and so on until Section 8, focusing more closely on his own tenure and what has followed, from 2017-2023.

It is in this last section as well as a previous chapter dealing with 1997-2007, when Ajay Bisaria was Private Secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004), which includes the 1999 Air India hijacking, where the book really differs from others who have written about their tenures in Pakistan such as High Commissioner from 2013-2015, T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door (HarperCollins) and H.C. Sharat Sabharwal’s India’s Pakistan Conundrum: Managing a Complex Relationship (Routledge).

Both predecessors have written fine books that are powerful expositions on understanding Pakistan, but they focused on theory, missing such a detailed account of their own tenures. It is the reader’s good fortune that another former High Commissioner from the 1990s, Satinder Lambah, who was the special envoy for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ran the back-channel talks with Pakistan for nearly a decade, also wrote his memoirs in quite the same personalised vein as Mr. Bisaria, in a book published only after he passed away in 2021, In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations under Six Prime Ministers (Penguin).

In his book Bisaria, who will be at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 in Chennai this weekend to talk about his book, reveals that when the NDA lost the elections in 2004, he stayed on to help with continuity and organised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s calls with foreign leaders including Pakistan President General Musharraf. It was in that phone call that Dr. Singh first recited the couplet that so well describes the missed opportunities that Pakistani and Indian leaders have failed to seize. ‘Kuch aise bhi manzar hain tareek ki nazron mein/lamhe ne khata ki, sadiyon ne saza payee (History records those points where mistakes of a few moments meant a punishment for ages).

The Pulwama attack

Mr. Bisaria’s description of the period from February-August 2019, from the Pulwama attack, India’s response airstrikes at Balakot and the Pakistani counter-response, the brief détente between the two countries after the release of Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman, describes the preamble to total disconnect between the two countries after the government reorganised Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and modified Article 370. His play-by-play of all that happened, including what each of the officials and leaders on both sides said at the time, as well as the involvement of the U.S., U.K., UAE, Saudi Arabia, documents third-party mediation in an India-Pakistan crisis.

Mr. Bisaria documents how ties gradually plummeted from the moment before he left for the Pakistan assignment, when Prime Minister Modi told him to take a “message of peace” and to expect peace in return, to the moment during the Balakot crisis, when Mr. Modi refused to take a call from Mr. Khan, saying later that he would have unleashed a “Qatl ki raat” on Pakistan if the captain captured in Pakistani territory had not been returned home safely. He likens Mr. Modi’s plight to that of Mr. Vajpayee and Dr. Singh, when despite several outreaches and even a visit to Lahore, terror attacks from Pakistan put paid to all plans for “peace”.

Mr. Bisaria describes Pakistani action, under pressure from the West, India and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) strictures to crack down on terrorism, as well as the tussle between Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and PM Khan. In a section titled the “Bajwa CT (Counter-Terror) Doctrine”, Mr. Bisaria recounts a series of meetings behind the scenes that confirm Indian National Security and MEA officials led by the Indian High Commission were talking directly to the Pakistani military between March and July 2019. Mr. Bisaria himself engaged with one of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s closest aides Naeem ul Haq (who passed away subsequently). However, the Article 370 move put paid to whatever green shoots there may have been in the Pakistani effort to focus on its domestic issues rather than fomenting trouble for India. “With Pakistan’s counter-terror campaign paused,” Mr. Bisaria recounts, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba were “back in business” post-August. With his expulsion, talks, if any, have been left to those carried out by the channel between Sardar Patel Bhawan (NSC HQ in Delhi) and Rawalpindi.

Reflections on ties

Despite his tense tenure, Mr. Bisaria, who retired after a stint as India’s High Commissioner to Canada (2019-2022), is reflective about the friendships he made in Pakistan. Very few Indian diplomats who have served in Pakistan actually “preserve their neutrality”, he writes. “You could become a peacenik, you could become a hawk, but you’re seldom left in the middle”. Quoting a former Pakistani Foreign Secretary who spoke of the India-Pakistan “Track-II” circuit of experts on both sides that meet to discuss the relationship, he adds, “Several former hawks, freed of their talking points, became doves fluttering for peace.”

No matter how realistic they seem, diplomats that don’t believe in engagement simply talk themselves out of their own jobs…and it is those diplomats who believe that the future can be different from India and Pakistan’s failure-ridden past that persevere. In the words from a poem PM Vajpayee composed and read out during the Lahore Bus trip, that Mr. Bisaria recounts with a flourish — “Jo hum par guzri bacchon ke sang na hone dengein, jang na hone dengein (We won’t allow our children to go through what we have, We won’t allow war).”

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