Hostility: A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan-India Relations and More
By Abdul Basit
Lightstone, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697161164
334pp.

In his widely read book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, India’s former foreign secretary and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon repeated his country’s terrorism refrain against Pakistan. Defending New Delhi’s decision to not respond militarily to what it called ‘Pakistan’s act of terrorism in Mumbai’, Menon wrote: “Let’s consider what might have happened had India attacked Pakistan. Most immediately, the fact of a terrorist attack from Pakistan on India with official involvement on the Pakistan side would have been obscured.”

Seasoned diplomat Menon is no stranger to Pakistan, given that he was, in the early 2000s, India’s high commissioner in the country. Menon’s arguments, clearly articulated in the book, are but a reflection of India’s bid to internally isolate Pakistan through selling its tendentious narrative, which implicates Pakistan in terrorism. It is reasonable to argue that, ever since the dastardly 9/11 attacks, India has deviously used the global distaste for terrorism to its advantage against Pakistan. This had, by and large, helped change the international discourse on Indo-Pak relations in favour of India.

India’s efforts to label Pakistan as the den and purveyor of terrorism are aimed at hoodwinking the international community when it comes to the issue of Kashmir. Over the years, India, buoyed by international apathy and ratification, has adopted an aggressive approach towards the people of India Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJK). Despite the fact that Kashmir remains a dispute pending resolution, India has taken unilateral measures to change the status of IOJK, resorted to the use of force and refused to meaningfully engage with Pakistan.

For India, Kashmir is an internal matter and, resultantly, the freedom struggle an act of terrorism. Pakistan’s rightful moral and political support to the occupied and brutalised Kashmiris has been conflated with India’s narrative of cross-border terrorism and militancy. Since the overt nuclearisation of South Asia, global powers, especially the United States, have seen the region as a nuclear flashpoint. Also, rather than attribute the outbreak of Indo-Pak crises to the lingering and festering Kashmir dispute, global actors consider sub-conventional war as their propellants. The corollary is that the hapless Kashmiris bear the brunt of India’s high-handedness, with Pakistan embroiling itself in countering mendacious Indian propaganda.

While a former diplomat’s version cannot be taken entirely at face value, it does lay bare Pakistan’s often ad hoc, secretive and short-sighted policies with respect to India

Under its current supremo Narendra Modi, India has become more intransigent, brazen and hostile towards Pakistan, as evidenced by its use of kinetic options, sabre-rattling and the annexation of Kashmir. With India changing tack, it is imperative to assess how Pakistan has fared in dealing with India in a manner that keeps the Kashmir issue alive.

In his latest book Hostility: A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan-India Relations and More, former Pakistani diplomat Abdul Basit gives a first-hand, practitioner’s account of Indo-Pak relations during his three-year-long tenure as Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi, while also shedding light on their current trajectory.

Basit’s stint, which witnessed Modi’s coming into power, the resurgence of the freedom struggle in occupied Kashmir, and two short yet significant crises, is what makes this book an invaluable addition to the corpus of works on this nuclear-tinged acrimony. What’s more, the book becomes all the more useful at a time when speculations abound over a resumption of dialogue with India through a back-channel.

Basit’s ruminations could become a ‘not-to-do’ list for policymakers in Islamabad when it comes to engaging with India. Recently, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan categorically said that improving economic relations with India without the resolution of the Kashmir issue would be an act of perfidy with the Kashmiris. Khan reassured Pakistanis and Kashmiris that his government remains committed to vociferously fighting Kashmir’s case. Pakistan’s principled stand on Kashmir — it must be stressed — clashes with India’s terrorism edifice. The more one side effectively articulates and projects its position, the more untenable the situation becomes for the other.

Resultantly, Indo-Pak negotiations are but an exercise in ensuring that one side’s view prevails, even though it may do little to change the course or nature of their ties. Basit lays bare how India was given more space to pin Pakistan down and, in the process, damage one of the cornerstones of the country’s foreign policy: Kashmir. Detailing the first interaction between then Pakistani prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and India’s Modi, Basit elucidates the crisis in leadership, lack of institutional alacrity and the inability to understand what the enemy wants out of a particular engagement.

Basit recalls how ultra-aggressive Modi managed to berate Pakistan while his counterpart was unable to bring up the issue of Kashmir during the first official meeting between the two. He writes: “Now that Modi had raised the issue of violence and held Pakistan responsible for the conflictual relationship, I was expecting the prime minister to respond adequately and, at the minimum, mention that the root cause of all the bilateral problems was the long-standing Jammu and Kashmir dispute. But, to my utmost dismay, he did not.”

The diplomat’s discomfiture was logical, to say the least. While displaying a degree of magnanimity to start a peace process is a step that states do, and should take, letting the opponent run away with the show is a recipe for disaster. Basit, the man leading Islamabad’s diplomatic blitz in New Delhi, feared that his country gave India what it wanted: ammunition to flay Pakistan. As he explains further, India was quick to use the media to good effect. With Pakistan dithering over how to present its version of the meeting, India got hold of the levers to control the narrative.

Former Pakistani prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif meets his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Lahore in Dec 2015 | Dawn file photo
Former Pakistani prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif meets his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Lahore in Dec 2015 | Dawn file photo

This callousness on the part of Pakistan’s political leadership encumbered Pakistan greatly. If Basit’s recollections about what followed the Sharif-Modi tête-à-tête are anything to go by, the pitfalls of mollifying a recalcitrant adversary become all the more lucid. According to the author, India mistook Pakistan’s openness to increasing the pathways to peace for its weakness. This belief gave further impetus to India to throw a spanner in the works for Pakistan as far as the Kashmir imbroglio was concerned.

Basit recounts how India reminded him that Sharif had ostensibly agreed to not meet the Hurriyat leadership. While the veracity of the claim may be up for scrutiny, what is clear is that India certainly perceived Pakistan as a weak, confused and pliant actor, one that was willing to concede more. Such a perception, as Basit fittingly enunciates, was costlier for Pakistan than those at the helm in Islamabad thought.

Other than the import of not budging an inch from one’s stated stand, coordination and cooperation among officials and institutions is critical to successfully tackling a relationship as troubled and significant as the one between Pakistan and India. While one could argue that Basit’s one-sided version cannot be entirely taken at face value, there is little that can be penned in defence of processes that sprouted from ad hocism, secrecy and short-sightedness.

Basit adroitly identifies how unnecessary disruptions in the flow of information from Islamabad to New Delhi became an insurmountable quandary, something that allowed India to press ahead with its strategic, multi-pronged disinformation campaign against Pakistan.

Apart from giving a frank account of what he saw and did as Pakistan’s envoy to India, Basit candidly castigates Imran Khan for his government’s lackadaisical approach towards Kashmir. He writes: “Simply put, the report card of the PTI government on Kashmir under Imran Khan is dismayingly poor. Their failures on Kashmir will haunt Imran Khan for years to come.” Though one could agree with the author on the lack of positive outcomes of Khan’s Kashmir policy, it is somewhat unreasonable to deride how, for the first time, Pakistan has exposed India’s occupation, brutality and, most importantly, its drift towards religious fanaticism.

Most of the bad press that India has been getting is owed to Prime Minister Khan tweeting, giving interviews and writing articles to warn the world of the impending chaos should the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) devotee in Modi be continually feted. That said, at times the Khan government has been found wanting in regard to strategic communications on Kashmir.

With India already ramping up its propaganda war to drive a wedge between Pakistan and the people of Kashmir, the government can ill-afford to dish out mixed signals. Basit has closely seen the new Indian polity and its stratagems to enfeeble Pakistan. Thus, his having documented his experiences in the form of this book is beneficial for the country’s policymakers.

Even a cursory reading of Basit’s stint in India would warn Pakistan against making two mistakes: getting beguiled by piecemeal, half-hearted gestures of peace, and letting India get ahead in the all-important war of narratives on Kashmir and terrorism.

The reviewer is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst. He tweets @syedalizia1992

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 1st, 2021

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