What was it like to be a diplomat in Pakistan during the Kargil war: A former Indian envoy remembers

The bonhomie that never was.
The bonhomie that never was.
Image: Muzammil Pasha/Reuters
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In the summer of 1999, all hell broke loose. As the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad, I learnt that Pakistani infiltrators had been discovered inside Indian territory along the Line of Control (LoC). It would later become clear this was the handiwork of the Pakistan Army headed by its newly appointed chief, General Pervez Musharraf. I had always harboured doubts about Musharraf, but couldn’t quite decide why.

Before the war, in February 1999, the charge of handling the high-profile visit of Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Pakistan had fallen on me.

There’s a false perception that Vajpayee’s Pakistan visit was a naïve misstep. It was, however, a strategic diplomatic move with several layers. This visit came soon after India and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons, and India was facing sanctions from the US for threatening to destabilise the region.

Beneath the visit was also Vajpayee’s own persona: he wanted to go down in history as the man who normalised relations with Pakistan. This was deep in him.

Yet, my advice was to proceed with caution. Musharraf had just been appointed and he was nothing like his mild-mannered predecessor, General Jehangir Karamat. At a political level, though, my caution would have been viewed as that of a recently-arrived bureaucrat, which I accepted.

The visit, however, went off well and Vajpayee returned home after signing the Lahore Declaration.

The war begins

When the news of the infiltration broke, I was very clear it wasn’t as simple as it looked.

Soon after the discovery of the infiltrators, I was called back to India in May. There was a meeting in which the then chief of army staff, General Ved Prakash Malik, briefed Vajpayee. What we were told was astonishing: The Pakistanis were all across the Indian mountain peaks. It was the biggest intelligence failure in Indian history.

I had fought the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, serving in the army, and we had no such intelligence failure back then. In 1971, the Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, was all over the Pakistanis. What happened in Kargil in 1999 was pretty bad.

In the meeting in New Delhi, Gen Malik sought air support. A few hours later, I was told the Indian Air Force would step in the next morning, and so I must head back to Islamabad. Naturally, I went back via the land route.

Once the conflict began openly, the Pakistani establishment often tried to drag me into a dialogue. Several ministers met me, but I never spoke to them about what was happening at the LoC. I was clear to them about one thing: If you did not leave, we would throw you out.

Keeping cool

We at the high commission, and the Indian government, on the whole, played it very coolly.

Vajpayee must be admired for keeping the bus service to Lahore and Samjhauta Express operational through all the hostilities. Flights between India and Pakistan, too, continued and life largely went on.

However, nowhere did we give an impression of backing down. Our national security advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra conveyed the message to his American counterpart, Sandy Berger, that we were not going to yield or cease-fire till we pushed the Pakistani army out of our territory.

This was also when we learnt that Pakistan was telling the US and international agencies that the LoC was not clearly defined, and was open to interpretation. We, at the high commission and the Indian external affairs ministry, launched a propaganda barrage saying that this claim (of Pakistan) that the LoC is too thick is just nonsense: the army commanders of India and Pakistan had met in 1972 in Simla, after the 1971 war, to not just delineate (simply draw a line) but also demarcated (specified the grid line of every mountain peak) the LoC very minutely.

We maintained all our social and media contacts within Pakistan. We wanted to send out the message that we don’t want to do anything that will harm or inconvenience the people of Pakistan. I think that was a remarkable sophistication that we were able to maintain. Visas were freely issued and I told my staff to be extra polite.

I met my staff every morning and we talked about the daily briefings from Delhi. I told them to meet friends if they had any, though most of them wouldn’t invite Indian high commission staff out of fear.

We also spread out wide in keeping in touch with diplomats from other countries. For instance, I got a very clear message from the Chinese ambassador that they were not keen on this conflict continuing. This was the general tenor, except for William B Millem, the American ambassador to Pakistan, who was a great admirer of Musharraf and seemed to share the Pakistani army’s joy in what it was doing.

Life in the conflict zone

Despite these pleasantries and meetings, we were aware of the real possibility of being interned inside the high commission. During past conflicts, our embassy staff suffered and had to be evacuated. In the beginning, we did not know where this would end, so we had complete supplies. I would particularly like to pay tribute to my then counselor, Syed Akbaruddin. He was just top class in handling all the emergency arrangements.

My wife Shanthi was with me in Islamabad. A strong army girl, she was not one to be easily rattled. My children were grown up, one was working in India, another studying in the US. My parents were also worried. But no one urged me to return for fear of my safety. Especially my father, who belonged to the stiff upper lip, British-era Indian civil service school of thought.

There was always surveillance by the Pakistani government and that was nothing new or remarkable. It’s not like it (surveillance) became more obvious—it was always obvious to us. We largely went about our lives. Having served in the army (between 1963 and 1968), I was trained to look at the worst-case scenario—that we are interned and we go home. So what’s the point of worrying about that?

We did face some usual problems after the war ended on July 26, 1999. Some of our staff were beaten up in Islamabad. This time, I insisted on measured reciprocal retaliation in Delhi, making it clear that I would not be able to maintain the morale of my staff if this was not done. I wouldn’t like to detail what happened, but it was done.

Wartime diplomacy

The war was real and so were our diplomatic responsibilities. Pakistan’s armed forces shot down an Indian Air Force fighter jet, capturing Group Captain Kambampati Nachiketa Rao and killing Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja.

Eight days after his capture, I got a call from the Pakistani foreign office, saying that, as a gesture of goodwill, they were willing to hand over Group Captain Nachiketa to us. There was just one thing that went through my mind—the photograph of General AAK Niazi of Pakistan signing the instrument of surrender to India’s Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora. I saw red. Something told me Pakistan wanted to make a tamasha (spectacle) out of the handover.

I asked them if they will hand him over in the foreign secretary’s office. They said that would be done in the Jinnah Room (where the Pakistani government usually held its press conferences). I asked them, “You want me to come to a place where a large number of mediapersons will be present?” They said, “Yes, it’s a good occasion, they (media) will be there.” I gave them a mouthful. “If you think I am going to come to a function organised by you where you want to make an officer of the Indian Air Force a media monkey, I will not do that,” I said. This shook them.

I spoke to Brajesh Mishra and the air force chief in Delhi, lest they felt I jeopardised an officer’s release. I was relieved when I got my government’s support. I spoke to the Pakistan foreign office and said they should hand over Nachiketa to the International Committee of the Red Cross and I will receive him in my corridor, but not from them.

Nachiketa was escorted and dropped off at the Indian high commission. I made him stay the night in the air attaché’s residence. He seemed okay, though a bit shaken up. Then I told the air attaché and the naval advisor to take Nachiketa in one of the Mercedes cars of the embassy, put him between the two of us and drive straight to the Wagah Border. The car was not to stop anywhere, and we were not to speak to anyone.

The endgame

On July 4, 1999, Sharif left for the US for the American Independence Day. I had avoided speaking to the press till then because of the situation on the border. Comments were to come from Delhi. I was, of course, briefed regularly, and I knew the day Tiger Hill fell that it was over for the Pakistanis.

Around this time, I met Maleeha Lodhi, the editor of Pakistan’s The News International newspaper. She accosted me at a social gathering and said, “You have disappeared. You used to be so open, but you haven’t said a word for two months.” I told her, “Chup rehna mera farz hai (It is my duty not to say anything).” She persisted, and asked me, “Tell me one thing, how would you describe Sharif’s rushed visit to Washington?”

By this time I knew that our NSA, Mishra, had convinced the Americans with all the detailed maps that there was no confusion over the LoC. This is also obvious from the declaration to end the war, which was issued by the end of Sharif’s US visit in July 1999. It clearly mentions the respect for the sanctity of the LoC.

Given all this knowledge, I simply told Lodhi, “Your prime minister has gone to play out the end of the endgame of your Kargil misadventure.” The next day, she put it in the headline, “End of endgame, says Indian envoy.” And that’s how it ended.

As told to Manavi Kapur.