Books | After Balakot

How India Pakistan relations lurch from crisis to crisis. An extract

booksAjay Bisaria

At around midnight I got a call in Delhi from Pakistani high commissioner Sohail Mahmood, now in Islamabad, who said that PM Imran Khan was keen to talk to Prime Minister Modi. I checked upstairs and responded that our prime minister was not available at this hour but in case Imran Khan had any urgent message to convey he could, of course, convey it to me. I got no call back that night.

The US and UK envoys in Delhi got back overnight to India’s foreign secretary to claim that Pakistan was now ready to de-escalate the situation, to act on India’s dossier, and to seriously address the issue of terrorism. Pakistan’s PM would himself make these announcements and the pilot would be returned to India the next day. India’s coercive diplomacy had been effective, India’s expectations of Pakistan and of the world had been clear, backed by a credible resolve to escalate the crisis. Prime Minister Modi would later say in a campaign speech that, ‘Fortunately, Pakistan announced that the pilot would be sent back to India. Else, it would have been qatal ki raat, a night of bloodshed.’

The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo later made a dramatic claim in his memoirs that ‘the Indian minister’ had told him that Pakistan might escalate the conflict into a nuclear one. He wrote he was awakened to speak with his Indian counterpart who ‘believed the Pakistanis had begun to prepare their nuclear weapons for a strike.’ He said the Indian side informed him that New Delhi ‘was contemplating its own escalation.’ After the call, Pompeo and NSA John Bolton contacted the Pakistani side. ‘I reached the actual leader of Pakistan, General [Qamar] Bajwa, with whom I had engaged many times. I told him what the Indians had told me. He said it wasn’t true…he [Bajwa] believed the Indians were preparing their nuclear weapons for deployment. It took us a few hours—and remarkably good work by our teams on the ground in New Delhi and Islamabad—to convince each side that the other was not preparing for nuclear war. But Pompeo seemed to have overstated the case, both of fears of escalation of the conflict and of the US role in defusing it.

In Pakistan, the Indian threat of action was taken seriously. Foreign Minister Qureshi spoke at a closed-door session of parliament to explain Pakistan’s decision to release the Indian pilot. A Pakistani MP later revealed in parliament: ‘In the case of Abhinandan, I remember Shah Mahmood Qureshi was in that meeting which the prime minister [Imran Khan] refused to attend and the chief of army staff joined us—his [Qureshi’s] legs were shaking and there was sweat on his brow.

Imran Khan’s promised ‘peace speech’ started hesitatingly. The address in Pakistan’s parliament was telecast live in India on the afternoon of 28 February. Khan apparently spoke extempore, as Foreign Secretary Gokhale and I sat in front of a TV in his chamber, making notes. Khan referred to the ‘tragedy of Pulwama’ and said that Pakistan was ready to investigate this incident. He did assure the world that the soil of Pakistan would not be used by terrorists to launch an attack against any other country. The promise checked a box, but it was a familiar refrain that had been sung, also under pressure, by Musharraf in 2002. Khan also said that Pakistan was ready for dialogue. Pakistan, he complained, had received the Pulwama dossier only after India had taken action in Balakot. Instead, India should have given the dossier first and waited for Pakistan to take action before attacking.

Pakistan had shown restraint, Khan insisted. When India’s planes attacked Pakistan at 3.30 a.m., the Pakistan leadership waited to assess the damage and then decided to attack India, which they did successfully, without causing any damage. Khan said he had tried to call Modi on the night of 27 February in the interest of peace, ‘not out of weakness’. Foreign Minister Qureshi had also tried to call his counterpart to discuss the issue. Khan ended with a flourish. Pakistan, he said, did not want to share the fate of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, who capitulated before the British, but its hero was Tipu Sultan, who defied them till the death. His message to the Indian PM was that India should not force Pakistan into war. Pakistan would then be forced to respond to Indian missiles and the situation could escalate to dangerous levels.

As Imran Khan sat down in parliament, Gokhale and I looked at each other in disappointment. Pakistan’s prime minister had said nothing about the pilot, or about specific action against Jaish terrorists. Before we could start making calls to confer on this speech, we got the breaking news that Khan had said that he would return Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot, as a peace gesture. Khan had in fact resumed his speech after sitting down when he was prompted to deliver a part of his speech that he had forgotten—that the pilot would be released as a ‘peace gesture’. I later learnt from a source in Islamabad that the army brass had been exasperated that day because Khan had forgotten his lines and spoken extempore on this crucial issue. He had to be nudged by Qureshi into making the key announcement.

Ajay Bisaria
Aleph Book Company, Pg 504, Rs 999


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