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Ambassador Lambah and the gamut of India-Pakistan relations

I had known Ambassador S.K. Lambah through his position and his works for a couple of decades but my first personal meeting with him was in a foreign country in December 2015. This was in a new political environment when the need for an India-Pakistan engagement excited none

Ever since the outbreak of militant violence and heightened separatism in Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s, the period between 2005 and 2008 is widely considered a golden time of peace and prosperity when everyone in the erstwhile state looked forward to a better tomorrow as the relationships between India and Pakistan appeared at their best in decades.

There was a variety of factors that happened together and a number of actors worked together to make the situation unprecedentedly promising for a grand reconciliation between India and Pakistan, and lasting peace and stability in Jammu and Kashmir. Among the actors who played a key role during this period was Ambassador Satinder Lambah who passed away on Thursday, in New Delhi, at the age of 81.

Born in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1941, Lambah was an officer of the 1966 batch of the Indian Foreign Service. Very early in his career, he played a significant role in establishing the Indian High Commission at Dhaka after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1972. Among other positions of significance, Lambah was India’s Deputy High Commissioner to Pakistan from 1978 to 1981 and then High Commissioner from 1992 to 1995. With the love for his birthplace never fading away, these two stints in Islamabad enabled Lambah to build a deeper understanding and personal contacts in Pakistan which proved to be of immense use later on.

Lambah was also India’s Ambassador to Russia (1998-2001) at a crucial time of transition from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Upon his retirement from Foreign Service in 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee picked Lambah for the sensitive and high-profile role of Special Envoy on Pakistan.

India-Pakistan Dialogue

Ever since the Partition, India and Pakistan have struggled with issues but have also desired to work on resolutions. The two countries, however, lacked a mutually acceptable framework. In 1998, on the sidelines of a SAARC Summit in the Maldives, Prime Ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and Mian Nawaz Sharief agreed on the need for an agenda for any next meeting. They tasked Foreign Secretaries Salman Haidar of India and Shamshad Akhtar of Pakistan to work on a document, which upon its finalization came to be known as Composite Dialogue Process (CDP). Gujral’s Government was short-lived. A rational Prime Minister as he was, Atal Behari Vajpayee found Composite Dialogue Process as a workable format of engagement with Pakistan as it sought to address concerns of both countries on the same page. However, the unfolding Kargil Conflict and subsequently Musharraf-led military coup in Pakistan thwarted all efforts of reconciliation. The Agra Summit of July 2001 was a change-making event despite its visible failure. Weeks later when New Delhi and Islamabad began to pick up the threads gradually, the Composite Dialogue Process helped as a guiding document. Whatever unfolded between India and Pakistan after the arrival of Manmohan Singh had its foundations laid by Vajpayee, particularly with the Islamabad declaration of January 2004.

 Manmohan picks up Lambah

Manmohan Singh enjoyed a close relationship of trust with Lambah. They were in conversation on a Pakistan engagement since 2004 soon after Singh took over as Prime Minister. Later same year when N.N. Vohra was appointed interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir, Lambah was also given out the task of engaging with Pakistan but New Delhi awaited Islamabad’s announcement of his counterpart. Musharraf preferred to continue with Tariq Aziz as his backchannel interlocutor with India. Often criticized within his own administration Aziz was already Musharraf’s troubleshooter on a number of domestic fronts. Since 2003, Tariq Aziz was already engaging with Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and then he continued his engagement with J.N. Dixit under Manmohan Singh. After Dixit’s passing away in January 2005, Lambah was put in direct engagement with Tariq Aziz in a process on which he worked tirelessly for the next ten years despite the change of two regimes in Pakistan during this period.

Knowing Lambah

I had known Ambassador S.K. Lambah through his position and his works for a couple of decades but my first personal meeting with him was in a foreign country in December 2015. This was in a new political environment when the need for an India-Pakistan engagement excited none. We were a group of twelve persons including diplomats, military generals, academicians and journalists from India and Pakistan together for five days, spending almost 14 hours together every day. Lambah kept on emphasizing the need for engagement as he would bring insights from the results the previous engagements achieved. He and another veteran participant in the meeting opined that only a summit-level engagement could change the political environment in two countries as it was not for the bureaucrats to be able to build the atmosphere for engagement. As we returned to Delhi and Islamabad, the two countries were already in a grip of surprise –Prime Minister Modi had landed in Raiwind, Lahore. That was exactly the much-desired summit meeting but its impact could not last longer than two weeks as terrorists attacked an airbase in Pathankot.

We continued to meet within India and abroad. Perseverance, trust, and discretion, Lambah believed, were the key elements to sustaining a peace process. April 8, 2005, was a historic day when a bus service was launched between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. This was the first-ever major change in the India-Pakistan status quo on Jammu and Kashmir. Militant groups were averse to it. A day before the scheduled launch of the bus service by the Prime Minister, militants set on fire the building that housed passengers of the first bus. Incidentally, Lambah was to fly out the same night to Dubai for his crucial meeting with Tariq Aziz. Rumor in Delhi’s power corridors was that in view of the terror attack the launch of the bus service will have to be put off as also the connected processes. “Instead of driving to the airport, I went to see the Prime Minister. His ‘gatekeeper’ told me, sarcastically, that everything was off. But I found the PM unmoved. Dr Singh said to me: you take your flight to Dubai, I am on with my Srinagar schedule tomorrow”, Lambah told me once to explain how leaders protect the peace processes sought to be destroyed by terrorists.

He would not reveal much from his meetings with Tariq Aziz but he had great liking and respect for his former Pakistani counterpart. Several conversations with Lambah excited me and another friend to seek out Tariq Aziz. More than understanding the contours of the backchannel process we got more interested in personal relationships shaping up the political processes. We tried for more than a year to catch up with Tariq Aziz but he was not accessible for being unwell and almost completely out of circulation since the fall of Musharraf almost ten years ago. Finally, we could reach him in early 2018 in Islamabad. He was happy to receive us as it looked like he was not visited by anyone on this subject for many years.

Tariq Aziz started the story from the early days of his friendship with Musharraf. On this India interlocution assignment, he took us through his engagement with Brajesh Mishra and J.N. Dixit including their discreet yet extraordinary meeting in Amritsar.

As he reached the Lambah phase of his engagement, Aziz got emotional. He recalled how the two cried while sitting in a sea-facing room in their Dubai hotel when they talked about the price the ordinary citizens were paying for the hostility between the two countries. Aziz appeared to have lost interest in the India-Pakistan story but he would engage in any process which would bring him together with Lambah once again.

On my return to Delhi, I shared with Lambah my insights from meeting with Aziz. He got emotional too. They had each other’s mobile numbers and would speak on Eid, Diwali, and their birthdays. Aziz’s birthday was between my meeting with him and Lambah. They had spoken to each other. Till the last meeting, I had with Lambah the desire of catching up with Tariq Aziz was very much afresh.

Nationalist and rationalist

In my personal view, our track-II process format was entirely different before Lambah and in the meetings without him. In his presence, one couldn’t get away with just perceptions, emotions, and casual statements reflecting the prevailing political environment. He would want every participant to qualify his statement with facts and firsthand practical knowledge. Some of us have a great liking for dialogue. Lambah would ask for homework, intentions, and a fair assessment of expectations. Our Pakistani colleagues, and also some from the Indian side, often regretted that New Delhi was not doing enough to initiate an engagement with Pakistan. Revival of SAARC, some of us said, could have paved way for providing the two countries an alibi to meet. Lambah disagreed. Platforms can’t help if there are no good intentions. In 1993, “he said, while Indian Foreign Secretary in Islamabad, his Pakistani counterpart refused to meet. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto didn’t attend the SAARC summit because it was happening in India. In Dhaka in 1985, the SAARC Secretariat put up a postal exhibition which was to be joining inaugurated by all member Prime Ministers. The Pakistani side had put up a map which showed Kashmir theirs”. He recalled a string of events from his photographic memory.

Lambah’s presence on these informal tables would always be like that of the Indian State. He not only held the key to balance but also taught the younger generation to ask more questions and be prepared for more answers. Whether it is a public seminar or a closed-door meeting, a newspaper article, or a television debate, the discussion is always mainly around the valley of Kashmir. Lambah would politely intervene, in almost every meeting, to say, “well, we are also interested in knowing a little more about the situation in the Pakistani side of Kashmir and also Gilgit-Baltistan”.

He disregarded with arguments the theory that engagement with Pakistan was stalled after BJP came to power. Lambah said there was already a tipping point in the relationship. A number of issues, for example, no progress on Mumbai 26/11, had left India frustrated with Pakistan’s lack of cooperation.

A loyal nationalist, he was thoroughly rationalist. All arguments and their bitterness would always be left behind in the meetings room to enjoy the comfort of personal relations in the evenings and the exciting road trips which we took together on many occasions in different countries.

Optimist

If it was not for Lambah’s optimism, one of the processes I was engaged in would have shut down its India-Pakistan track a long time ago. He was a staunch believer in reconciliation, read the situation very closely, and could imagine future possibilities. Despite the unprecedented political and constitutional changes of August 2019, Lambah held on to his optimism. With Lambah and Tariq Aziz as its key co-architects the much talked about four-point process which, besides others things, rests on the centrality of the Line of Control, may just get renamed at some point in time unless we find and agree on something better than that. Someone who staunchly believed in the sanctity of the official process, Lambah often underlined patience as a great virtue in peacemaking. He would say no unofficial process should do anything to irritate the official track. “The track-II is useful when track-I is not happening but it is more useful when the track-I is happening”, he would often say.

In our last meeting at his New Delhi residence, we talked a lot about diplomacy, culture, literature, and his wife Nilima’s book ‘Rai Bahadur Ram Saran Das of Lahore –The Grandfather I Didn’t Know’. In the little chat that we had about our ‘subject’, Lambah once again said with optimism that the amount of effort invested in building peace will never go waste.

 

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About the author

Zafar Choudhary

A journalist since 1999, Zafar Choudhary is also a policy analyst and author. An alumni of the London School of Economics, his book ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’ addresses a critical gap in scholarship on Kashmir. Zafar is founder and editor of The Dispatch

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