The challenge about writing a book about Pakistan is to find novel ways to tell an old story, even one in which new sub-stories keep sprouting within an apparently unchanging main frame. This is where a diplomat-writer has an advantage in the telling and retelling of this epic saga. Most new developments are in the official domain, and their details remain within the walls of a few buildings on either side of the border. Insider access is crucial. In any case, the total absence of Indian reportage from Pakistan since about 2014 (after the reporters of the only two Indian news organisations permitted to station their correspondents in Islamabad—The Hindu and the Press Trust of India—were asked to leave, ending a two-decade-long reciprocal practice) means that even impressionistic, anecdotal accounts about the country next door must wait for diplomats posted there to return and write a book.
And they have not disappointed us over the past decade. In 2016, Shivshankar Menon, who was India’s ambassador and then high commissioner to Pakistan between 2003-06, included a chapter on Pakistan in his book Choices: Inside The Making Of India’s Foreign Policy. He focused on India’s handling of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, which took place when he was foreign secretary, and that was still about a time when information was more readily accessible to journalists and scholars. T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door (2017) eschewed the beaten track and looked at the relationship over seven decades, mining the archives for riveting tales of friendship and hostility, to make the point that the India-Pakistan relationship is an ever-revolving wheel between good times and bad. Raghavan was high commissioner between 2013-15. His predecessor Sharat Sabharwal wrote about his two postings in Islamabad, including as high commissioner (2009-13), giving a detailed insider account of talks that almost led to a trade agreement in 2013, only to be put off, apparently on the advice of a senior functionary in the Sangh Parivar to the Pakistani side to wait for the change of government in 2014 (India’s Pakistan Conundrum: Managing A Complex Relationship).
To this series of high commissioners’ accounts comes Ajay Bisaria’s Anger Management. Bisaria’s term as envoy was cut short when he was “withdrawn” after the two countries fell out over India ending Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on 5 August 2019. Diplomatic relations have remained downgraded since then, with neither country having a high commissioner.
Bisaria’s term in Islamabad began in September 2017, a year after Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Uri attack and the subsequent “surgical strike” by India, an episode that put paid to all diplomatic efforts at normalisation. He had a ringside view of the Pakistan army’s “selection” of Imran Khan as Prime Minister in 2018, the negotiations for the opening of the Kartarpur corridor the next year, the Pulwama-Balakot episode, and the revoking of Article 370. Not unexpectedly, Bisaria hardly reveals more than what is already known, including the questions that still hang over the Balakot attack. Did the bombs actually kill terrorists? Did the Indian Air Force (IAF) actually shoot down an F16 on the other side? He doesn’t say.
Instead he treads lightly, and takes the patli gali, to use the Hindi expression, for a quiet exit. Thus, “(a)t around 3.30 am, the aircraft dropped five ‘Spice 2000’ bombs, out of which four penetrated the rooftops of the building in which more than 300 terrorists were housed”. Bisaria does not say if anyone was killed.
He reports instead “a theory” doing the rounds in Islamabad a few days later: When Pakistan claimed to have arrested some 190 cadres of terrorist groups, without showing any documentation of such arrests, its government was squaring up the numbers of the dead. For this, he quotes a report by an Italian journalist, controversial at the time it was published, that 170 terrorists died in the attack. He proffers his own conclusion that the numbers in the report “seemed to match” with the numbers of the arrested.
As we are on theories, one “theory” I heard in Delhi at the time was that the bombs had missed their target because of a miscalculation of the hill’s elevation by the source on the ground. A detailed report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (India’s Strike On Balakot: A Very Precise Miss?, 27 March 2019) fleshed out this “theory” with more details. I heard that the Indian security establishment was not unduly put out by missing the target. Perhaps it was even relieved. Why? Because had the bombs found their target—most certainly in a madrassa, even a terrorist one, the victims would have been teenagers or younger—Pakistan would have played the killing of children, the mangled remains of their bodies, on loop to the world. More important to those behind the action was the message that had been conveyed—that India had the resolve and the means for sub-conventional escalation within the nuclear threshold against Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir. As Bisaria himself notes, it brought a significant shift in the security dynamic between the two countries. At one point, Bisaria treads political ground with a counter-factual: had India done a Balakot after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, would there have been a Pulwama? But the questions could go on. For instance, would the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have done so well in the 2019 election without Pulwama? Menon’s book explains that the decision in 2008 was taken keeping in mind the India-US civil nuclear agreement that had been concluded just a couple of years earlier.
On the other big question, the Indian claim of downing an F-16, which Pakistan denied stridently, he glosses over it as one among a “host of claims, denials and allegations” in the “fog of war”. And is it true, as Bisaria writes, that Indian fighter planes crossed the International Boundary to spend “four minutes in Pakistani airspace”? Kashmir does not have an International Boundary. At the time, reporters were told off the record that the fighters did not even cross the Line of Control. But there was no official word on this question. Maybe it will take another two decades—and perhaps another diplomat returned from Pakistan—to use their privileged access to shed more light into what happened in 2019.
Bisaria, who went on to become the high commissioner to Canada in 2020, serving there until his retirement in 2022, writes more freely about the Kartarpur corridor. He appears to agree with the view that Pakistan took India by surprise and sprung the opening of the pilgrimage to Indians, with then Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa “softly whispering the proposal” into Navjot Sidhu’s ear, when the cricketer-politician was on a private visit to Islamabad to attend his friend Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony in 2018. It had been a long-standing Indian demand. “We initially assumed this was a polite talking point that the army had prepared for their chief, to speak of pleasant matters to a politician from Indian Punjab. However, it soon became clear that this was a more serious proposal that would be welcomed by millions in India, even if it was part of a larger tactical game plan that the army was developing to gain greater influence in Indian Punjab,” he writes.
That day, Sidhu got roasted by hyperventilating, hypernationalist TV channels for embracing Bajwa. He explained to Bisaria that it had been a spontaneous response to the news on Kartarpur that the army chief had mentioned to him. Bisaria suggested he put out an explanation to clear his name. Sidhu, who was then a member of the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab, shrugged off the advice with a one-liner, Bisaria writes: “Duniya mein sabsa bada rog, ki kende nain mere baare mein log (the world’s biggest affliction is to be worried about what other people are saying).”
Rare would be the occasion when an Indian diplomat in Pakistan exults in the feeling of having been part of something positive. Bisaria writes that amid all the hostility of Pulwama and the revocation of Article 370, the opening of the Kartaprur corridor in November 2019 was “as if steered by a divine hand”. Or was it a backchannel process amidst the freeze in ties over Kashmir? Bisaria mentions the backchannel fleetingly in the context of the two sides reiterating the 2003 ceasefire in February 2021, six months after his departure, but offers no details. It is strange, though, that he attacks Bollywood and the film Haider for the Burhan Wani phase of militancy in Kashmir from 2015-18. By that token, there are many other films that can be said to have alienated Kashmiri youth.
The most interesting parts of the book are actually from the distant past, also covered in some detail by Raghavan in his book. Bisaria writes with feeling of the travails of India’s first high commissioner to Pakistan, Sri Prakasa, a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, handpicked by Jawaharlal Nehru for the job, and friends with Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, the men who had to navigate the birth of two nations. There are details of high commissioner Kewal Singh racing against time to destroy records at the Indian high commission as the 1965 war broke out, being marooned at his home for the entire duration of the hostilities with no means to contact Delhi or find out what was happening at the front, and feeling bitter about the external affairs ministry abandoning the mission. There are snippets about Rameshwar Dayal’s friendship (he served between 1958-62) with Pakistan’s second president Ayub Khan, and Vijay Nambiar lingering on in Islamabad for a week after being asked to return to Delhi after the 2001 Parliament attack, attending farewell receptions and even playing a farewell round of golf.
Bisaria leaves readers with three scenarios for the future of India-Pakistan relations—business as usual, “conditional pessimism” and “conditional optimism”. In both conditional scenarios, the onus is on Pakistan. That gives the impression that India has no agency—or desires none—in dealing with its biggest neighbour except to respond to its acts of cross-border violence.
Nirupama Subramanian is a journalist who has reported from Pakistan.