Distantly Close | Satinder Lambah: The giant Indian diplomacy always had

A contemporary newspaper quoted foreign policy pundits as writing that veteran diplomat Satinder Lamba, who died after a long battle with cancer, was “the best foreign secretary India has ever had”.

I don’t agree.

A more apt and less clichéd description of a man who has worn many hats in his long and distinguished career is that he is the best back channel interlocutor the country has ever had.

Be it as India’s High Commissioner to Islamabad in the early 1990s or in the many ambassadorial and other duties he held while running the back channel from 2005-2014, Lamba, a friend to friends, was more comfortable with Pakistanis. As Dr Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy, General Pervez Musharraf’s key figure is Tariq Aziz.

“Much of the progress made on the backchannel was during Lamba’s time,” wrote former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri in his book: Neither Hawk nor Dove: An Inside Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. The book, Kasuri, was part of Musharraf’s inner circle, which discussed “paperless” exchanges in the backchannel.

I have first-hand knowledge that Lamba is in the middle of writing his memoirs, including what happened on Backchannel during the Covid lockdown while he was being treated for the disease late last month. A couple of times, he asked for inputs to his book, including A Press Trust of India His then Islamabad correspondent’s story on the hijacking of an Indian Airlines Boeing 737 to Lahore on 30 September 1981, Khalistani activists tried to release, among others, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a suspect in the assassination of Lala Jagat Narayan, of the Punjab Kesri group. He wanted Yashwant Sinha’s precise references to the discussions that led to the January 6, 2004 MoU (on non-use of Pakistani territory to launch terrorism against India) between AB Vajpayee and General Musharraf.

In these interactions, I remember asking Lamba if he agreed with Kasuri’s account of the backchannel talks that brought the two countries closer to an accord on Kashmir. “Widely, perhaps,” he replied, the typical response of an old-school diplomat. Brief to the extent of assigning monosyllables and half-sentences, but holding its own part of the narrative.

Out of compassion for posterity, Lamba completed a book on six prime ministers, serving as AB Vajpayee’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan from 2001-2004, before succumbing to cancer. “He would work even when he was very ill. He could review and finalize a manuscript ready for publication,” his wife Nilima Lamba and daughter Diya told me. Approached by several publishers, the family stuck with Penguin, the author’s choice in the end.

So, we finally get to know Lamba’s side of Aziz’s backchannel, which is closer to breaking Kashmir’s gridlock. But there is more to the book than that, especially the challenges faced by Indian diplomacy after the December 6, 1992 Babri Masjid episode when he was the head of our High Commission in Pakistan.

I distinctly remember what he said in Jang newspaper on December 7 about a report based on a conversation I had with the hawkish Jamaat-e-Islami parliamentary leader Liaquat Baloch outside the Indian mission. “You have made a clever journalistic distinction,” was his pithy response to my assertion to Baloch that Babri was not a struggle between Hindus and Muslims but a confrontation between the (then) secular core and the communalists.

During that difficult period, one unilateral decision taken by Lamba as part of his brief to protect Indian citizens was to accept the host administration’s offer to post police guards at the residences of resident Indian correspondents (then numbering four) in Islamabad. But when we refuse their advice to stay indoors until things calm down, they give way to us. He understood that we needed to move away from the strike call by the ruling Muslim League (Nawaz) to protest the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya.

Born in Peshawar, Pakistan, Lamba’s diplomatic prestige is largely a work of the relationships he has built across that country’s social, political and diplomatic spectrum. If Nawaz Sharif was a phone call away, he could have met Benazir Bhutto just as easily when she was prime minister. In fact, when Benazir’s government refused to extend my residence visa in 1994, he offered to intercede on my behalf. Although I am overwhelmed by the gesture, I see no reason for them to take responsibility when I have no vested interest. Beyond hospitality.

In fact, I personally told the then Interior Minister of Pakistan, Nasirullah Khan Babar, what I felt about the Benazir administration’s decision to cut the number of Indian journalists in Pakistan to bring in the number of Pakistani writers who were in India at the time. . Babar asked and I said: “History will not forgive you for tearing down an important bridge that our countries needed to improve relations.”

Not one to force his views on others, Lamba deferred instead asking what could be done to facilitate my return and enable me to pursue my interest at home in the domestic affairs of Pakistan and its relations with India. I requested him to provide copies of Pakistani daily and weekly newspapers sent to me every week through diplomatic bag as the internet era was far away then. He kept his word till he became our High Commissioner there.

Lamba did not disagree. He questioned the views in his own inferior way. “I’m surprised he told you that. That’s not my reading of his approach,” Lamba said when I explained in an article that Pranab Mukherjee emphasized Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) with the argument: Since Kashmir cannot be resolved through an accord or agreement, a solution can be obtained by giving an agreement. People on both sides (through CBMs) use the way of life.

Lamba’s commitment to dialogue and peace with Pakistan looms large in his approach to a relationship burdened by history. However, this did not make him abandon or resist coercive diplomacy when necessary. In May 1992, I was sitting with the then Foreign Secretary JN Dixit in his office when he called the hotline in the middle of the crisis caused by the abduction and assault of senior Pakistani embassy official Rajesh Mittal.

As he received the call, Lamba for some reason did not ask me and PTI reporter Sujit Chatterjee to leave the room. Apart from Dixit’s mumbled acknowledgments in the phone conversation, he didn’t speak much to speak from the other end. But when put down the receiver, he praised the foreign secretary: “I can’t stop admiring his courage. The Pakistanis are not allowing Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft to evacuate Mittal. Knowing that he was listening to us, he asked us to tell him that he was sending a Border Security Force (BSF) plane. They can shoot it down if they want.

A BSF plane arrived and Mittal was transported in it – all alone and with the clothes he was wearing. Then his family followed him. So much so that Lamba’s deputy MK Bhadrakumar, who had accompanied Mittal to the airport, had to turn back through the gate.

While the seasoned diplomat leaves countless friends and admirers across the aisle, if the border between India and Pakistan can be described as such, he has his share of detractors. As one foreign-service hand who worked with him put it: “India-Pakistan relations are not about classical textbook diplomacy. His is a Punjabi love (hate) fest in which Lamba gives a good performance. An amiable, sociable man, he was an efficient implementation agent of the governments he served in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In all probability, Lamba would not have risen to the bait! He thanked the disagreeable colleague for his “superior intelligence” and moved on. The old school he belonged to didn’t teach him verbal warfare or slugfests. By his death the country has lost a memorable bank of immense value.

HT’s Senior Political Editor Vinod Sharma brings together his four decades of experience closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theater and a keen eye for blending past and present in his weekly. Column, far close


Opinions expressed are personal

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