Book Review: ‘A Life Well Spent: Four Decades in the Indian Foreign Service’; Amb. Satish Chandra, Roopa Publications, 2023, ISBN: 9357020950, pp. 284, Rs 636
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The book by Ambassador Satish Chandra covers four decades he served in the Indian Foreign Service from 1965 to 2005. The book is not simply an account of his personal journey. It provides a glimpse into the making of foreign policy. It also covers India’s trajectory from the mid-60s, when it was recovering from the 1962 war to the post-Pokhran phase when it had emerged as a nuclear weapons state. Mr. Satish Chandra saw many of the defining events of this period from close quarters. He was a Second Secretary in India’s Deputy High Commission in Karachi just before the outbreak of the 1971 war. He was India’s PR during the crucial 50th session of UNCHR at Geneva in 1994 when Pakistan tabled a resolution on J&K. The book covers this, though he has understated his role. He deserves the fullest credit for leading India’s campaign from the front. He was India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan in 1998 when the two countries conducted nuclear tests. He was instrumental in setting up the National Security Council Secretariat after the Kargil War and steered it in its formative years.

Mr. Satish Chandra had a widely varied career. Apart from political work, he also dealt with economic diplomacy. He served in the Department of Economic Affairs as well as in the Economic Wing of the Indian Embassy in Washington. He was posted to Algeria; later he headed the WANA Division of the Ministry dealing with the Arab world and North Africa. He was Joint Secretary heading Pakistan and Afghanistan Division in the 80s. This was a transition period. The impending Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had set in motion a search for India’s diplomatic options in the post-Soviet order. He was also involved in defusing the Indo-Pak tensions following Exercise Brasstacks. His rich experience of dealing with our neighbours came in handy in dealing with Pakistan’s moves in the UN Commission on Human Rights, where he headed the Indian Mission to the UN in 1993-95.

The book has interesting anecdotes about life in Missions abroad. As a young diplomat, the author invited himself to Mr. Dixit’s home for a drink or dinner, particularly towards the end of the month when he was ‘low on funds’. Their career paths would cross frequently. He has described his visit to Czechoslovakia during Soviet intervention in that country in 1968. The visit, which entailed some pub crawling, was most useful in getting a first-hand impression of the ground situation. The Indian neutrality was not well received.

The author writes that the Vienna sojourn ended on a tragic note. His father who was visiting him died of a heart attack. Mr. Satish Chandra asked for a transfer back to the headquarters to take care of his mother. Instead, he received orders to proceed to Karachi in June 1969. The posting would last till November 1971, just before the outbreak of the India-Pakistan war. The author arrived when General Yahya had taken over from General Ayub. He had a ring-side view of the developments of the period. As he describes it, Yahya presided over ‘perhaps the most tumultuous period of Pakistan’s history’. His posting coincided with the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft Ganga and the March 1971 crackdown by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. Unknown to the outside world at the time, Pakistan was also acting as the bridge between Nixon Administration and China. General Yahya ordered general elections. The author describes that ‘most pre-poll assessments were that no party would emerge as a clear winner, leaving enough scope for the Army to create a coalition government of its choice.’ The British estimate was that PPP would get 30-40 seats. The assessment of the Indian Deputy High Commission was more conservative and pegged this number at around 25 seats. In the event, PPP bagged 81 out of 138 seats in West Pakistan, while the Awami League had a landslide victory in East Pakistan winning 160 out of 162 seats.
The author says that Yahya ‘bore much of the responsibility’, but ‘Bhutto too was complicit’ in the events which eventually led to the break-up of Pakistan. He explains that ‘at a more subliminal level’, West Pakistan’s aversion to the acceptance of the Awami League leadership, and the campaign of genocide in East Pakistan, was rooted in the ‘racist psyche of its leadership and its people.’ He said this was brought home to him in a brutally frank exchange in October 1971 with a PPP journalist, who was a fellow Stephanian and a friend. ‘He blithely justified the brutalities committed in East Pakistan on the grounds that Bengalis were not North Indians like the two of us and fully deserved the treatment meted out to them.’ The author said that this exchange ended their relationship and he never met the journalist again.

The author got transferred back to Delhi, where after a brief interregnum in the Department of Economic Affairs, he was deployed in the Pakistan Division in early 1973, a little after the signing of the Shimla Agreement in July 1972. He was told that prior to the agreement, the Division’s views that Pakistan could not be trusted were made known to the senior-most levels in our system. He adds that ‘it was unfortunate that these went unheeded, where-under we conceded much and gained little and lost a golden opportunity of settling the Kashmir issue once and for all.’ ‘India occupied 5,000 square miles of Pakistani territory and held around 93,000 Pakistani soldiers in joint custody with Bangladesh.’ Given this situation, ‘it was a no-brainer that it should have been possible for us to have made Pakistan at least accept the conversion of the ceasefire line in Kashmir into an international border, with marginal adjustments.’ He says that ‘Our inability to do so can only be attributed to our leadership being wooly-headed and bereft of any sense of realpolitik.’ We are still paying the price of this huge blunder.

The author has described a further folly committed by India. India repatriated the 95,000 Prisoners of War (PoWs) held in India under the India-Bangladesh Joint Command, including the 195 PoWs held for war crime trials. He says that ‘It is regrettable that Bangladesh’s demand for holding the 195 Pakistani PoWs for war crime trials was given up.’ ‘Holding of such trials would have prevented a patch-up in Pakistan-Bangladesh ties in the immediate aftermath of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination. He adds that ‘This would also have given an enormous setback to the reactionary forces in Bangladesh, which were able to wrest power from the Awami League for decades.’

The author has described his posting to Washington as ‘a rare spell of underemployment.’ He was posted to the Economic Wing of the Indian Embassy in October 1974. He did economic work and also covered Congressional debates. In the wake of the US’s tilt towards Pakistan in 1971, and the conduct of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion by India in 1974, the political relations were at a low ebb. This stands out in contrast with the present situation.

The author’s next posting was Algeria. He describes one of the most memorable visits was that of Foreign Minister Vajpayee in 1979. He would later deal with the recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as Joint Secretary WANA. This was welcomed by Algeria but brought countervailing pressure from Morocco. The author returned to the Headquarters and took over the charge of the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) Division. Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination took place during this period. He has described an interesting anecdote. The head of the Libyan delegation which arrived to take part in Mrs. Gandhi’s funeral told him that ‘he had been asked by his President to ascertain from India as to who we felt was behind the conspiracy to assassinate his sister Mrs. Gandhi so that Libya could eliminate him!’

There followed a posting to Bangladesh from 1981 to 1984 when India-Bangladesh ties were strained. Abdus Sattar, who belonged to the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), was the President when he arrived at the station. He was later ousted by General Ershad. A fresh MOU was concluded on water sharing between India and Bangladesh. The author has mentioned that the main factor responsible for India-Bangladesh tensions was that Bangladesh was governed by pro-Pakistan and fundamentalist elements averse to good ties with India. This was a reflection of the deep polarization within that country.

The author took over as Joint Secretary (AP) dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Division suggested that with the impending Soviet pull-out from Afghanistan, and the possibility of the takeover of the Afghan government by elements of the alliance of the seven groups of Mujahidins based in Peshawar, India should establish contacts with Hikmatyar. This, however, could not take place due to various reasons. With the demise of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in January 1988, Rajiv Gandhi decided to proceed forthwith to Peshawar to pay tribute to Ghaffar Khan. India also sent a delegation led by the Vice President to Kabul to take part in Badshah Khan’s burial in Jalalabad. He mentions that the Afghan people who held Badshah Khan in high esteem thronged for his funeral and ‘observed a ceasefire in the midst of a bloody civil war.’ This was a testimony to his popularity on both sides of the Durand Line

Exercise Brasstacks also took place during the period when Mr. Satish Chandra headed Afghanistan-Pakistan Division. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation was diffused through dialogue. The bilateral discussions were led by Mr. Alfred Gonsalves from the Indian side and Foreign Secretary Abdul Sattar from the Pakistani side. The details of the force reduction and pullbacks were negotiated between Sri N. N. Vohra and his Pakistani counterpart, Maj. General (retd) Raja Iqbal Mahmood. Their personal chemistry played a part in resolving the issue. He has pointed out that Kuldip Nayyar’s interview of Sri A. Q. Khan on 28th January 1987 became public only on 1st March 1987 after the tensions had already subsided following the bilateral discussions. The nuclear ‘messaging’ by Pakistan did not influence India’s decision-making.

The author has described the discussions on Siachin. A view developed that in order to reduce the financial burden and casualties being incurred by keeping troops in a most inhospitable terrain, the areas occupied by the two sides should be demilitarized and their respective forces be withdrawn to mutually agreed positions. However, progress remained ‘stalled due to lack of agreement on the points to which both sides would withdraw as well as Pakistan’s reluctance to authenticate the location of the points from which the troop withdrawal would be effectuated.’ ‘The Indian Army had made it clear that in the event of Pakistan violating this understanding and occupying the commanding heights of the area, it would not be possible for it to dislodge the Pakistani forces in a localized action, and the only way of so doing would be by resorting to an all-out confrontation.’

Rajiv Gandhi visited Pakistan in December 1988 to attend the SAARC summit followed by a bilateral visit in July 1989. Mr. Satish Chandra says that he discussed this with Prime Minister on the flight back to India after the second visit. He made a pitch for concluding an agreement subject to ‘the authentication of the current location of the forces of both sides on a map as well as detailing of the withdrawal of both sides to agreed-upon points.’ This was to be accompanied by a clear understanding that ‘any breach of the agreement would inevitably trigger a wider confrontation.’ ‘There was no reaction from Rajiv Gandhi.’ The author adds that ‘there was a strange disinterest in pushing this matter further, triggered possibly by the fact that following his interaction with Benazir, he no longer saw a bright future for the bilateral relationship.’

After a posting to the Philippines as India’s Ambassador, the author was transferred to Geneva as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1992. This was going to be an extremely eventful posting. Ambassador Satish Chandra dealt with both the Disarmament and Human Rights issues, though most of his time was perhaps taken up by the latter. This was the period when India’s positions on CTBT and FMCT were taking shape. Human rights issues were being increasingly raised by the West in the UN fora. The collapse of the Soviet Union had given them a unilateral advantage. They were not about to miss the opportunity. There was a push to strengthen human rights norms and give the UN an intrusive role in monitoring their implementation, which was a departure from the role of the world body as given in the UN Charter. The World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna in June 1993. This was preceded by a series of preparatory regional meetings. At home, J&K was witnessing a massive upsurge in terrorist violence orchestrated by Pakistan. This provided the backdrop to the action at Geneva which had already begun.

Pakistan’s move against India in the UNCHR in 1993 was initiated ‘only after the separatist movement in Kashmir had gathered momentum’. Pakistan also made propaganda use of the disturbances in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots. Pakistan circulated a detailed draft resolution with as many as 11 operative paragraphs for comments by friendly delegations in Islamabad. This included the standard Pakistani line on the right of self-determination of the people of J&K and condemnation of Human rights violations by Indian security forces in J&K. The resolution called for the dispatch to J&K of a fact-finding mission nominated by the OIC Secretary-General. It demanded the withdrawal of Indian forces from J&K.

The initial draft represented a maximalist position. Finding that it was not gathering traction, Pakistan drastically watered it down in early March 1993, ‘limiting it to an expression of concern at Human Rights violations in J&K, calling for dispatch of an OIC fact-finding mission to the state and inscribing it as an item to be taken up at the next session.’ The last element was ‘to give the resolution an afterlife so that India always had a sword of Damocles hanging on its head.’ Despite sacrificing many elements of the initial draft, Pakistan’s attempt to have a resolution adopted against India failed.

India undertook a major diplomatic exercise in lobbying at Geneva, Headquarters in Delhi, and through our bilateral Missions in third countries. India also made full use of the dynamics at UNCHR. China was facing pressure on a western sponsored resolution against it and needed India’s support. Eventually, China ‘persuaded Pakistan not to table the resolution’ against India. India’s vote in support of China was part of a broader policy decision not to support country-specific resolutions, which represented a politicization of the human rights situation.

The author has stated that ‘The 1993 UNCHR session was a baptism by fire for me’. This was followed by a second attempt by Pakistan to introduce a resolution on J&K in the 50th session of the UNCHR in 1994. In the interregnum, there was a regime change in Islamabad. Nawaz Sharif was followed by Benazir as prime minister of Pakistan. Pakistan introduced a bare-bones resolution similar to the final draft of the resolution circulated the previous year. ‘This included two introductory paragraphs reaffirming the fundamental rights of the people of J&K and expressed grave concern at the violation of their human rights. The operative paragraphs called for sending a fact-finding mission to J&K and to consider the situation of Human Rights there at the fifty-first session.’

The challenge to Indian diplomacy can be understood by the fact that most country-specific resolutions in the UNCHR and UNGA were far more intrusive. Pakistan was betting on the fact that such a simple resolution would easily pass muster. Of course, there was nothing simple behind Pakistan’s intent. It was trying to use human rights to mask its support for a campaign of terrorism in J&K. Its ultimate objective was, and remains, to advance its territorial interests with scant regard for Kashmiris or Indian Muslims. Unlike in the previous year, China did not prevent the tabling of the Pakistani resolution in 1994. We mounted a major campaign of briefing the Delhi-based Mission and lobbied the member States of the UNCHR in national capitals through our bilateral Missions, apart from lobbying in Geneva. A number of Special Envoys were sent especially to countries where we did not have resident Indian Missions. The effort was led by the two successive Foreign Secretaries Sri J.N. Dixit and Sri K. Srinivasan, who made an enormous contribution. There was very tight coordination with PMI Geneva. The presence of the leader of the opposition in Geneva demonstrated the political consensus behind India’s position. I had the privilege of being a small part of this saga as Director (UNP) in the Ministry.

Pakistan was forced to withdraw the resolution it had tabled. The diplomatic effort in Geneva was complemented by a series of steps in India. As Ambassador Satish Chandra has mentioned, the National Human Rights Commission was set up. An MOU was signed with ICRC. Unlike many human rights NGOs whose work is highly politicized, ICRC works on the basis of confidentiality.

We raised Pakistan’s violation of the human rights of the people of POK in the UN. Ambassador Satish Chandra has mentioned an interesting episode. He had informed the Ministry in advance that he was going to make an intervention relating to POK. However, when he was going to UNCHR the next morning, it was conveyed to him by his DPR that ‘the Joint Secretary in charge of the Pakistan Division had advised against the proposed intervention.’ He ignored the advice for good reasons and proceeded to make his statement. I had to face this predicament more frequently, as the issue also came up in the context of similar Pakistani moves in the two successive sessions of the UNGA in 1993 and 1994. I received the same advice from the same quarter. I had brought it to the attention of the two Foreign Secretaries. I not only received their approval but was provided with additional material. We prepared notes on the situation in POK which were used by our Missions. Our restraint does not bring any reciprocity by Pakistan. The latter does not see international and bilateral tracks as mutually exclusive. If Pakistani resolutions at the UNCHR or UNGA had been adopted, that would have brought additional pressure to wring concessions from us at the bilateral level.

Ambassador Satish Chandra’s next posting was to Islamabad as India’s High Commissioner. He has titled the concerned chapter very appropriately as ‘In the Enemy’s Lair: Islamabad.’ He served there from August 1995 till December 1998. The author has mentioned the relations between the two countries as ‘distinctly frosty’ when he took up his appointment. He has described an abortive coup by Major General Abbasi. As he has described it, ‘fundamentalism so assiduously promoted by General Zia had taken deep roots in Pakistan Armed Forces’. There are other revealing incidents. He has mentioned his exchange with Pakistan’s Interior Minister Major General Naseerullah Babar, who described the Taliban as ‘Pakistan’s children’. General Babar requested the High Commissioner’s intervention to secure the release of an ‘alleged Pakistani journalist’ from prison in J&K. It turned out that he was ‘none other than the notorious terrorist Masood Azhar who was one of the hostages released consequent to the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 and who went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammad.’ There are other interesting anecdotes about his meetings with Nawab Akbar Bugti and the ANP leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan.

High Commissioner Satish Chandra had to deal with the aftermath of the Pokhran II nuclear tests by India. He has described an incident on the eve of Pakistan’s nuclear tests. He was woken up by a phone call from the office of the Pakistan Foreign Secretary, Shamshad Ahmad, at around 11.00 pm. The latter told him that the reason for summoning the High Commissioner at such a late hour was that ‘Pakistan had credible information that India was about to attack its nuclear facilities using F16 aircraft currently based at Chennai.’ The Foreign Secretary said he was directed to ask the High Commissioner to ‘inform the Indian government that if such an attack was launched, it should expect ‘massive retaliation with devastating consequences.’ As the author has described it, ‘This language was clear shorthand for nuclear retaliation.’ He pointed out that ‘India did not possess any F16s and, indeed, if any attack on Pakistan were to take place, the Chennai airfield was an unlikely launch pad.’ He conveyed his assessment to the Ministry that ‘the whole exercise was for publicity purposes and to justify their impending tests, which were on the cards anytime.’

Ambassador Satish Chandra was asked to proceed to Delhi in December 1998 as the head of the about-to-be-set-up National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). He took over as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). He was Secretary, NSCS and from February 2002 was concurrently Deputy National Security Advisor. He prepared the Kargil Review Committee Report as Chairman, of JIC. He took over when the organization was in its nascent phase, which is also the most challenging phase in the life of any organization. It has since grown.

The author has summed up on page 207 of his book the arguments given by those who advocate that ‘we should continue to ‘manage’ relations with Pakistan as we have been doing for decades and desist from policies designed to impose costs on it.’It has not brought us any gains. Nor has it provided Pakistan any incentive to change its behavior.

Ambassador Satish Chandra has summed up 6 very useful suggestions about Pakistan policy on pages 209 to 212 of his book – a campaign to project Pakistan as a terrorist state, India should exercise full rights over the Indus waters as permitted under the Indus Water Treaty, exploiting or at least publicizing Pakistan’s fault lines, covert action, economic pressure and good working relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are based on his vast experience of dealing with that country in various capacities over a span of nearly 5 decades. They represent a refreshing change from a policy of business as usual, which has only meant one-way concessions by India to that country.

Ambassador Satish Chandra has indeed lived a life well spent. He dealt with bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy. Both are complimentary. Our success at the UNCHR was possible as we built on the strength of our bilateral relations. This may be a forgotten page of our contemporary history. But it needs to be remembered that in many ways, the battles in 1993-94 were more difficult than debates in the UNSC in the 50s. There is no veto in the deliberations of UNCHR and UNGA. And there is a ‘cost’ – both short-term and long term even though their resolutions are legally non-binding. Adoption of any of the resolutions would have provided encouragement to terrorists and aggravated the ground situation. The long-term costs would have been the repeat of these resolutions on an annual basis. It is also worth recalling that the UNSC resolutions on J&K were Chapter VI resolutions, which are not enforceable. They were the result of great power politics. Nevertheless, they created a misplaced perception externally and were exploited by separatists to foster a sense of grievance in the minds of the people of the Valley. We need to remind them how Pakistan has treated the Kashmiris on the other side of the Line of Control. Pakistan’s growing crisis brings out how Pakistan’s rulers have treated its own people.

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