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‘Best foreign secretary that India never had’, led back-channel talks with Pak

India News

Satinder Lambah, the diplomat who led the back-channel process between India and Pakistan from 2005 till 2014, and was unshaken until the end in his conviction that engagement with an adversary was a must, died in New Delhi on Thursday night. He had been ailing for about a year. He was 81 years old.

As then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy to Pakistan, Lambah held discreet behind-the-scene talks with his counterpart Tariq Aziz, appointed for the back-channel process by then military ruler General Parvez Musharraf. In his death, India has lost its foremost expert on Pakistan.

Lambah also served as special envoy to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2004. He was Delhi’s emissary at the Bonn conference and led India’s participation in the post-Taliban reconstruction and redevelopment of the country, laying the foundations for the decade-and-a-half of Delhi’s successful engagement with that country.

An Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1964 batch, Lambah had earlier served as deputy high commissioner and high commissioner to Pakistan, and was also joint secretary at the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran division at the Ministry of External Affairs. Colleagues recall him as a self-effacing but skilled diplomat. His last posting before he retired was as ambassador to Moscow from 1998 to 2001.

Lambah was born in pre-Partition Peshawar, as was his wife Nilima, and during his two tours of duty in that country, he built a formidable range of contacts among Pakistan’s political and social elites that he mobilised for furthering bilateral ties.

He had happened to meet Nawaz Sharif in the 1980s, during his first posting to Pakistan, through a mutual friend. The young Sharif, who was then working in the family steel business and was nursing political ambitions, was waiting to receive Lambah at Lahore airport when he flew in from Islamabad. The two drove back to the city in Sharif’s red sports car.

When Lambah returned to Islamabad as India’s high commissioner, a day after he presented his credentials, Sharif, by then Prime Minister, hosted a grand lunch in his honour, an unprecedented welcome for an Indian diplomat in Pakistan.

At the end of his term there, he was given a similar farewell by Benazir Bhutto, who had succeeded Sharif as Prime Minister. Against the advice of the Foreign Office at the time, she hosted a lunch reception to bid him goodbye.

“He was a doyen of old school diplomacy, which was about people, personal contacts and face-to-face interactions, and he was completely charming,” said a colleague in the Indian Foreign Service.

Amitabh Mattoo, professor at JNU’s School of International Studies, describes him “as the best foreign secretary that India never had”.

Lambah’s role as Vajpayee’s back-channel negotiator with Musharraf saw relations between the two countries improve greatly from 2004 to 2008. A ceasefire was already in place from 2003. By 2006, India and Pakistan were said to be close to an accord on Kashmir through the back channel. And by early 2007, the two sides were reported to have exchanged a “white paper” detailing the terms, though Lambah himself never spoke about this.

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Musharraf’s decline after his ill-judged decision to sack the chief justice in March 2007 put the agreement on hold, Lambah has said in interviews. The bus services across the LoC to enable interaction between the two sides of J&K as well as cross-LoC trade, implemented during this time, appear to have been part of the proposed resolution.

After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the back channel sputtered on until 2014 with Pakistan’s flip-flops on tracing and prosecuting the Mumbai perpetrators ensuring a virtual halt to the bilateral engagement. At one point, the post-Musharraf PPP-led civilian government denied the existence of the “white paper”.

Lambah maintained in interviews as late as 2015 that the formula that he and Aziz had prepared had the concurrence of the leadership on both sides. He described it as a “win-win” for both countries and said it could serve as a basis for any future resolution of the Kashmir issue.

In a speech at Jadavpur University in Kolkata in September 2018, Lambah said it was unlikely that Pakistan would change fundamentally in its attitudes towards India, but, in order to be an effective regional or global player, it was in India’s interests to ensure good relations with neighbours.

For this, he said engagement — different from dialogue – had to be maintained. He also pointed out that bilateral issues should not become an issue of domestic electoral politics. He was a votary of an unrestricted visa regime to enable as many Pakistanis to visit India, arguing that they were the best ambassadors of India in Pakistan. He also believed that India had to set its own house in order in J&K to prevent outsiders from fishing in troubled waters.

During the back-channel years, Lambah ensured complete secrecy about his mission, though he was pursued by newshounds. Even in later years, he would only talk about it in general terms, and was careful not to give out too much detail.

“He was very discreet in terms of what he shared of his assessments and conclusions. As someone who was deeply engaged with Pakistan as the designated back-channel contact, he remained inscrutable to outsiders,” said T C A Raghavan, who served as deputy high commissioner in Islamabad during those years, and was later high commissioner to Pakistan.

When this reporter was going to Pakistan on a long-term assignment as a foreign correspondent, he advised: “You will be one of only two Indians (at the time there were two Indian journalists based in Pakistan) who can write what they see and hear for others to read. Write lots, write about everything. We diplomats write too, but that’s for the files.”

While his biggest contribution was India’s diplomacy with Pakistan and Afghanistan, he is also remembered for laying the foundation of India’s robust engagement with Silicon Valley, during his years as consul general in San Francisco in the early 1990s. He also mobilised NRIs on the US West Coast to contribute towards setting up the first India Studies chair at Berkeley, which, due to the massive response, became two chairs. He has given a fascinating account of this in the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal’s Oral History Project.

Few now remember that while he was ambassador to Germany, Lambah also initiated the first contact between the Indian government and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s daughter in Germany, Anita Pfaff, for permission to bring back the freedom fighter’s ashes from the Renkoji temple in Tokyo, where they are preserved. Then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee met Pfaff during a visit to Germany in 2012.

In Moscow too, he made a mark, working on the India-Russia strategic partnership that was signed in October 2000, and initiating ONGC’s first investment abroad in the gas fields of Sakhalin, a venture that continues to be productive to date.

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