Books | I think we were too soft on Pakistan in the 1980s when it supported terrorism in Punjab. A tougher military response could have prevented some of the terrorism we faced in Kashmir

Ambassador Ajay Bisaria, author of Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship Between India and Pakistan


Ajay BisariaGiven the political and public roller-coaster of India-Pakistan ties, how critical is the role of diplomats? Do personal equations of diplomats help in the management of ties?

Several factors go into determining the roller-coaster trajectory of bilateral India-Pakistan ties. I have argued in my book that while leadership, geopolitics, and structural factors have mattered, the role of diplomats on the margins did affect the course of Indo-Pak events, given that they had significant agency and influence. This influence of diplomatic actors can become particularly pronounced at some critical points in history. For instance, Indian high commissioner Rajeshwar Dayal in the 1950s got Nehru to hold his nose and deal with a Pakistani dictator, Ayub Khan.

For Pakistan, its high commissioner in Delhi, Jehangir Qazi, made another dictator, Musharraf, palatable to Advani at the turn of the century and got him an invitation to Agra. Satinder Lambah’s backchannel (2005-2008) could have produced a path-breaking document on Kashmir if Musharraf had not burnt out. Diplomacy and diplomats do matter.

In my book, I also point out that diplomat P.N. Haksar’s counsel to Indira Gandhi at critical junctures was what made her a taller leader, particularly in 1971. That was perhaps the finest hour for India’s diplomacy (as also for its military and political capability, as some scholars, including the late diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, have pointed out). I have highlighted the role of three key diplomats that year: Haksar (guiding Indira Gandhi in Delhi), Brajesh Mishra, (in Beijing, interpreting Mao’s smile) and D.P. Dhar (in Moscow, bringing the Indo-Soviet treaty to fruition).

Not every policy question on our approach to Pakistan gets escalated to the political level. Several issues need to be addressed at the diplomatic level within the broad parameters of extant policy. Often, on the ground, diplomats need to exercise their judgement and local creativity in tackling ticklish issues and difficult conversations. This is what they are paid to do.


Since everything is reciprocal between India and Pakistan, have you ever been put in an awkward position vis a vis your host?

Pakistan’s quest for parity with India has been one of the defining features of bilateral ties. Broad reciprocity in the treatment of other countries is a common practice in diplomacy globally, but the petty ‘micro-reciprocity’ that comes into play in Indo-Pakistan relations makes for awkward and often hilarious situations. Accusations of ‘conduct unbecoming of diplomats’, a euphemism for espionage, precedes expulsions. It is mostly followed by similar accusations on the other side. The assured reciprocity of behaviour is also a good deterrent to that behaviour not becoming too ugly, in terms of the treatment of diplomats.

In my own experience, a large Iftar gathering that I hosted in an Islamabad hotel for over 500 people in 2019 was sabotaged by Pakistan’s agencies by barring guests from entering the hotel, because of accusations that Indian agencies had discouraged guests from attending Pakistan’s national day after the Pulwama attack.


What is the day in the life of an Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan like?

A typical day could involve some unpleasant meetings with tough conversations at the official level in the morning, followed by some constructive interactions with non-officials or diplomats from other countries in the afternoon and ending with friendly social chats at a glittering reception in the evening. Indian diplomats in Pakistan have for decades experienced the paradox of hostile conversations during the day and fraternal ones in the evening in the welcoming homes of Pakistani friends. Indian diplomats are closely followed, with aggressive surveillance. They cannot leave the bubble of Islamabad, without permission of the minders. But they do enjoy deep access into Pakistani society. Apart from official circles, they do interact with business and cultural circles. However, often, in times of crisis, all these relations get poisoned.


In your brief stay in Islamabad, what have been your pleasant and unpleasant memories?

I did experience some hostile conversations and more than a few awkward situations simply because I was representing India or an Indian viewpoint. But I also carry several pleasant memories of genuine friendships with ordinary or elite Pakistanis, who wished to see peace in the relationship. It was greatly satisfying to see some Indian prisoners languishing in jail in Pakistan to get pulled out to freedom after our efforts. I saw a reservoir of goodwill and admiration for India lurking beneath the surface, but equally a lot of resentment against the neighbour in some quarters. Diplomats from India will need to keep navigating the minefields in Pakistan and sometimes spend time hunkering down in the diplomatic trenches!


In his memoirs, Mani Shankar Aiyar has written very fondly about his tenure in Pakistan, going as far as saying that Pakistani civilians are more hospitable than their Indian counterpart. What has been your experience?

Without a doubt, the famed Punjabi hospitality, particularly in Lahore, is overwhelming. People like to open their homes with generous dollops of friendship and goodwill. But I have also seen strongly emotional moments in India, where Pakistanis with family connections have been welcomed and feted. In the past, it used to be said that Pakistani diplomats were popular guests in homes in Delhi, but given the freeze in relations, such people-to-people ties have also been hit.


You write that India’s threshold for terrorism has lowered and Pakistan must recognise this reality. From Pakistan’s perspective, terrorism has been linked to the unresolved Kashmir issue between the two countries, which was a bilateral matter under the Shimla agreement. Can this gap be bridged?

Yes. India’s acceptance of cross border terror has gone down as also the threshold for a kinetic response to a terror attack. With perfect hindsight, I make the argument about the 2008 Mumbai attacks that a response of the nature of Uri 2016 or Balakot 2019 was what was called for at that point to establish a deterrent for the subsequent terrorism that India faced. But I make an even deeper point. If you look back with perfect vision at the post-independence relationship, I think we were perhaps too soft on Pakistan in the 1980s when it supported terrorism in Punjab. A tougher military response could have perhaps prevented some of the terrorism we faced in Kashmir in the 1990s. And if we had responded in the 1990s in the same manner as we’ve done recently, we would perhaps have prevented the all-India terrorism that shook India in the 2000s, from the Parliament attack of 2001 to Mumbai 2008.

We need to also make one distinction there. 1998 was an inflection point, when the two countries went nuclear. For policymakers on both sides then, it was important to ascertain where the adversary’s red lines and thresholds were. In 2001, when India’s Parliament was attacked, since the red lines were not established, it was perhaps a legitimate policy response to deploy global diplomacy, coercive diplomacy, through Operation Parakram, to make the point globally about delegitimising terrorism. At that point, we were delegitimizing rather than directly countering terrorism. But I think after 2008, the thresholds were much clearer and therefore policy should have been about countering terrorism using kinetic force.

The linkage between the Kashmir issue and terrorism is no longer an acceptable one for India. Creating an atmosphere free of violence and terrorism is critical to getting on to dealing with larger and more complex territorial issues. India and Pakistan currently have completely different positions on the Kashmir issue, and therefore it is important to build trust before addressing this issue that has remained a challenge for over 76 years.


Given the sensitivity of the subject, how difficult was writing this book? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out? Did you employ any self-censorship?

I did face a couple of interesting challenges in the writing of the book. First, it was a history of a relationship which had already been written about multiple times from various angles. So, the challenge was to find a new lens to tell this important story again, and that was the lens of diplomacy. In other words, it was an attempt to tell the story from the point of view of diplomats as the primary protagonists. Second, at some points of the book, it is also a practitioner’s first-person account. That requires some self-censorship not to make public any operational details, or sensitive matters. All those who have served the government are not permitted to spill any official secrets, until the records are declassified. But short of that, I think those who have served in key positions have an obligation to history and to their successors to record their accounts. These could inform future practitioners and perhaps also lead to better policymaking.



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