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  Books   27 May 2023  Book Review | Talking Indo-Pak peace on the back channel with open eyes

Book Review | Talking Indo-Pak peace on the back channel with open eyes

Published : May 28, 2023, 12:46 am IST
Updated : May 28, 2023, 12:46 am IST

The special thing is that from the facts before him, Lambah has produced a new way of seeing.

Cover photo of 'In Pursuit of Peace' by Satinder K. Lambah. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'In Pursuit of Peace' by Satinder K. Lambah. (Photo by arrangement)

On the complex and important subject of India’s relations with Pakistan — and the critical issues that go with it — namely the Kashmir question — and Afghanistan — the late Ambassador Satinder Kumar Lambah has give us a tour de force. If a single book were to be consulted on the history and vagaries of the India-Pakistan equation, Lambah’s remarkable writing can have no equal. It is a pity that the book appeared some six months after the demise of its diplomat-author, denying readers an opportunity to raise questions and seek clarifications with the writer.

The book is a straightforward narration of historical and contemporary events which emerged as facts on the ground, several of which the author was party to creating through his efforts as a diplomat of considerable sophistication. From these have been developed acute insights, making this work exceptional.

There is absence of sentimentality and jingoism in the writing. The tone is moderate. There is no rhetoric, no theorising, no drowning in an assemblage of citations and annotations, no effort at playing historian. The author has basically written about the work he did, especially on what is known as the back channel which can emerge, if the parties are willing, when official channels of communication between countries turn cold. The special thing is that from the facts before him, Lambah has produced a new way of seeing.

It is from the special view he offers that we get an idea why some of Pakistan’s civilian leaders — Benazir Bhutto, for instance — have acted more hawkish than the military men. It was a question of conjuncture. When the Cold War entered the subcontinent through the signing of the Mutual Defence Pact between the US and Pakistan in 1954, Pakistan lost interest in working on the Kashmir issue. In fact, the outside powers themselves developed a vested interest in the Kashmir question. This is a cautionary note for those who think that India and Pakistan should seek third party mediation if they cannot handle Kashmir bilaterally.

Lambah worked with six Prime Ministers starting with Indira Gandhi. About half of his work as a diplomat concerned Pakistan, a difficult and for the most part hostile neighbour. For Indian diplomats, negotiating Pakistan has brought despair, frustration and cynicism. But Lambah’s takeaway is that there is no substitute to engagement.

His work with PMs P.V. Narasimha Rao,  A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh is testimony to his individual effort in crafting a template for peace. Indeed, Lambah came tantalisingly close to producing the framework for an accord for long-term peace by leading the back channel work on the Indian side under the guidance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with Tariq Aziz as his Pakistani interlocutor who enjoyed the confidence of President Pervez Musharraf.

The effort nosedived with Musharraf getting into domestic trouble, but it is noteworthy that the best moments for the back channel peace process were when Musharraf was both Army chief and his country’s President. For reasons that are discussed with unusual clarity in the book, the Pakistan Army as an institution has, on balance, been a roadblock to resolving the Kashmir question, and yet no effort can go forward without engaging it even as it prevaricates in engaging India. The game is complex.

From the start, Pakistan made much of holding a plebiscite in Kashmir but four times did it turn down proposals to actually work for this end. Lambah informs us that “Pakistan now supports” plebiscite in Kashmir but this “no longer appears a viable option”. Probably this is because under Manmohan Singh and Musharraf an altogether different tack was attempted — that of not re-drawing borders. However, this aspect could have done with greater amplification.

The author takes us back to August 1949 when the reply of the Pakistan foreign minister to the UN Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) on the holding of a plebiscite “was tantamount to a rejection”. Lambah tells us, however: “Surprisingly, the Pakistani side showed keenness on an alternative UNCIP formulation under which both sides would retain the territory of Kashmir under their control and, by inference, forgo the plebiscite option.” It would be interesting to know why this matter was not pursued by the parties concerned.

Nevertheless, keeping the engagement going is the message that Lambah leaves us with. He endorses the eloquent words of Angela Merkel, great leader of post-reunification Germany: “I want to say that for the past sixteen years I have been to Russia sixteen times, which is to say, I was open to contacts. Talks between us have not always been easy… but our dialogue should continue... I will always say that a failure to maintain dialogue is a poor choice.”

Quite possibly, Lambah is to the India-Pakistan context what the author of the Long Telegram, George F. Kennan, then US charge d’affaires in Moscow, was to the post-war US-USSR relationship. Both have left a legacy. In an article in Foreign Affairs, signing himself as “X”, Kennan amplified on his famous diplomatic cable to produce the concept of the doctrine of containment of the USSR. In the case of Lambah, the rubric is “pursuit of peace” — with eyes open. The book under review is of long-term value.

In Pursuit of Peace

By Satinder K. Lambah


pp. 372, Rs.799

Tags: book review, penguin books, indira gandhi