Distantly Close | Satinder Lambah: The giant Indian diplomacy always had
Lambah was a quintessential backchannel interlocutor and a ready-reckoner on Pakistan. He completed his memoirs spanning six PMs while fighting cancer.
A contemporary newspaper quoted a foreign policy pundit to write that veteran diplomat Satinder Lambah, who passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer, was the “best foreign secretary India never had”.
A more appropriate and less clichéd description of the man who wore many hats in his long and distinguished career would be that he was a quintessential back channel interlocutor the country forever had.
Of the many ambassadorial and other duties he performed, Lambah, who was Satti to friends, was most comfortable engaging with the Pakistanis, be it as India’s High Commissioner to Islamabad in the very volatile early 1990s or while running the back channel from 2005-2014 as Dr Manmohan Singh’s special envoy, with General Pervez Musharraf’s points-person, Tariq Aziz.
“A large part of the progress made on the backchannel was during Lambah’s time,” wrote former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri in his book: Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove: An Insider Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. The book’s significant as Kasuri was part of Musharraf’s inner circle that discussed “non-papers” the interlocutors exchanged in the backchannel.
I have first-hand knowledge that Lambah himself was in the middle of writing his memoirs, including what transpired in the backchannel, during the Covid lockdown while undergoing treatment for the disease that eventually took him away late last month. A couple of times, he asked me for inputs for his book, including a Press Trust of India story by their then Islamabad correspondent on the September 30, 1981 hijack of an Indian Airlines Boeing 737 to Lahore by a set of Khalistani activists who sought the release, among others, of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, then suspected in the murder of Lala Jagat Narain of the Punjab Kesri group. He also wanted the exact quotes of Yashwant Sinha on discussions that led to the January 6, 2004, Memorandum of Understanding (on non-use of Pakistani territory for launching terror against India) between AB Vajpayee and Gen. Musharraf.
In these interactions, I remember asking Lambah whether he agreed with Kasuri’s account of the backchannel talks that brought the two countries close to an agreement on Kashmir. “Broadly, maybe,” he replied, the response typical of the old-school diplomat that he was. Concise to the extent of deploying monosyllables and half-sentences that articulated, yet held back his side of the narrative.
Mercifully for posterity, Lambah could, before falling to cancer, complete his book spanning the six prime ministers he served, including his stint as AB Vajpayee’s special envoy to Afghanistan from 2001-2004. “He kept working on it even when he was very unwell. He could verify and finalise the manuscript which is ready for publication,” his wife Nilima Lambah and daughter Diya told me. Approached by several publishers, the family’s sticking with Penguin, the late author’s choice.
So, we will know finally Lambah’s side of his backchannel with Aziz that came close to breaking the gridlock that’s Kashmir. But there’s bound to be more than that in the book, especially the challenges Indian diplomacy faced in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid episode of December 6, 1992, when he was heading our High Commission in Pakistan.
I remember vividly what he had to say about a report in the Jung newspaper based on my conversation outside the Indian mission on December 7, with Liaquat Baloch, the parliamentary leader of the hawkish Jamat-e-Islami. “You made a smart journalistic distinction,” was his pithy response to my proposition to Baloch that Babri wasn’t as much a fight between Hindus and Muslims as a faceoff it (then) was between the secular core and a communal fringe.
In that difficult period, one unilateral decision that Lambah took, as part of his brief to protect Indian citizens, was to accept the host regime’s offer to post police guards at the residences of resident Indian correspondents (then numbering four) in Islamabad. But he let us have our way when we refused his counsel to stay indoors till things calmed down. He understood that we needed to move out to report the fallout from a strike call by the ruling Muslim League (Nawaz) to protest the Mosque’s demolition in Ayodhya.
The Peshawar-born Lambah’s diplomatic salience in Pakistan was mostly the work of the relations he had built across that country’s social, political and diplomatic spectrum. If Nawaz Sharif was a phone call away, he could get across equally easily to Benazir Bhutto when she was prime minister. In fact, he offered to intercede on my behalf with Benazir when her government denied me an extension of my residence visa in 1994. Overwhelmed though I was by the gesture, I saw no reason for him taking the obligation when I had no vested interest in overstaying the hospitality.
In fact, I had personally conveyed to the then Pakistani Interior Minister, Naseerullah Khan Babar, what I thought of the Benazir regime’s decision to cut down the number of Indian journalists in Pakistan to bring the count at par with Pakistani scribes in India at the time. Babar heard and I said: “History will not pardon you for pulling down an important bridge our countries need to improve ties.”
Not the one to force his views on others, Lambah deferred, asking me instead as to what he could do to facilitate my return and enable me to pursue at home my interest in Pakistan’s domestic affairs and its relations with India. As the internet age then was far away, I requested him to arrange for copies of a Pakistani daily and a weekly magazine sent to me through the diplomatic bag every week. He kept his word till he was our High Commissioner there.
Not that Lambah was loath to disagreeing. He questioned perspectives in his own understated way. “I’m surprised that he told you that. That’s not my reading of his approach,” enjoined Lambah when I explained in an article, Pranab Mukherjee’s emphasis on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) with the argument: As Kashmir cannot be resolved vide a pact or a treaty, a settlement might arise by giving people on both sides of the LoC a way of life they get used to (through CBMs).
Lambah’s commitment to dialogue and peace with Pakistan was writ large in his approach to a relationship burdened by history. That did not however make him abandon or oppose coercive diplomacy when needed. I was sitting with him in his office when the then foreign secretary JN Dikshit called on the hotline, in the middle of a crisis triggered by the abduction and assault of a senior embassy official, Rajesh Mittal by Pakistani intelligence operatives in May 1992.
As he took the call, Lambah did not, for some reason, ask me and the PTI correspondent Sujit Chatterjee to move out of the room. Except for muttering acknowledgements, he didn’t say much in the phone conversation in which Dikshit did the talking from the other end. But on putting down the receiver, he exclaimed praise for the foreign secretary: “I just can’t stop admiring his guts. The Pakistanis aren’t allowing an Indian Air Force (IAF) plane to evacuate Mittal. Knowing that they were overhearing us, he asked me to tell them that he’s sending a Border Security Force (BSF) plane. They can shoot it down if they want.”
The BSF plane arrived and Mittal was transported in it — all alone and with only the clothes he wore. His family followed him later. So much so, that Lambah’s deputy, M K Bhadrakumar, who had accompanied Mittal to the airport, was forced to return from the gates.
While the seasoned diplomat leaves behind countless friends and admirers across the aisle, if the border between India and Pakistan can be so described, he has had his share of detractors. As a foreign-service hand who had worked with him said: “India-Pakistan ties aren’t about classical textbook diplomacy. They’re a Punjabi love (hate) fest in which Lambah excelled. An amenable, sociable man, he was an efficient implementation agent of the governments he served, be it on Afghanistan or Pakistan.”
In all probability, Lambah wouldn’t have risen to the bait! He’d have thanked the disagreeable colleague for his “superior wisdom” and moved on. The old school to which he belonged didn’t teach him verbal combat or slugfest. In his death, the country has lost a memory bank of tremendous value.
HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close
The views expressed are personal