Restore High Commissioners, reopen visas, restart trade ties: former envoys to Pakistan

Restore High Commissioners, reopen visas, restart trade ties: former envoys to Pakistan

At launch of book by former special envoy Lambah, who died in 2022, former envoys advise ‘small steps’ rather than ‘grand solution’ for India-Pakistan ties

India and Pakistan should work towards restoring High Commissioners in each other’s capitals and restarting visas, rather than seeking “grand solutions” at this time, said former High Commissioners to Pakistan, who said the present lack of engagement is unsustainable in the long run. The former envoys, including G. Parthasarathy, Shiv Shankar Menon, Sharat Sabharwal and T.C.A. Raghavan, who together spanned about sixteen years of service in Islamabad (1999-2015), were speaking at the launch of a book by the former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan (1992-1995), Satinder Kumar Lambah, who passed away in 2022. The book, In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations under Six Prime Ministerschronicles peace efforts between the two countries from Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh, including the famous “Kashmir LoC” (Line of Control) agreement that was never signed, which Mr. Lambah negotiated as special envoy.

“As a realist and a hard-nosed diplomat, Mr. Lambah knew how to keep Indian interests but also the art of compromise when required,” Mr. Sabharwal said. “He also realised that not talking to a country that is a neighbour and a nuclear power, is not an option,” he added, referring to Pakistan. 

Former Ambassador Parthasarathy said that it was telling that every Prime Minister, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had sought to restore ties with Pakistan, and Mr. Modi had, as revealed in the book, sent an emissary to Pakistan in 2017 to restart the back channel when the peace process had faltered. “We must make no concession to Pakistan’s ruling establishment, but remember that India is not fighting a war against the people of Pakistan,” Mr. Parthasarathy said, advocating the restoration of visas. 

After the Pulwama attack and the government’s move to reorganise Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, both sides downgraded ties, including the recall of envoys and other diplomats from missions, snapping trade and travel links, and cutting down on visas, even those given for health and humanitarian purposes. There has also been no political contact, although Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto and others have been invited to India this year to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings .

Despite the lack of political contact, the envoys pointed out that the India-Pakistan back channel, believed to run the engagement between National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has delivered several important outcomes, including the LoC ceasefire of 2021.  

Mr. Menon, who also dealt with Pakistan as the NSA (2010-2014) said that Pakistan’s current economic and political troubles should be a warning for New Delhi, as it will make India’s neighbourhood more amenable to “outside powers” like the U.S. and China to play out their “great power rivalry”. “Ultimately, it will be harder to prosper and grow if the neighbourhood is in chaos,” he added.

Mr. Raghavan said that while India-Pakistan talks are needed, it was clear that there is little appetite in India for engagement with Pakistan, especially in non-border States that don’t have historical connections to the other side. “It is best to go forward with just the small things to begin with — restore High Commissioners, open the visa regime up and talk about reopening trade,” he suggested, in the discussion moderated by foreign policy analyst C. Rajamohan. 

Lambah had written the book before he died in June 2022, but its final editing and preparation was completed by his wife Nilima Lambah, who also spoke at the event, pointing out that both she and Lambah had lost their homes in the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947. “For those of us who lived through the Partition, stark choices had to be made — to be consumed by bitterness, or, to heal ourselves, in pursuit of higher values, and a better world. Sati [Lambah] chose the latter,” Ms. Lambah said.

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