Book Review

A Practitioner’s Expert View of India’s Relationship with Pakistan

25 Aug, 2022    ·   5826

Rana Banerji reviews former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ambassador (Retd) Sharat Sabharwal's recently published book, India’s Pakistan Conundrum: Managing a Complex Relationship.

Rana Banerji
Rana Banerji
Distinguished Fellow

It is heartening to see Indian career diplomats of recent vintage penning their understanding of the complex India-Pakistan relationship. Soon after The People Next Door (Harper Collins, 2017) by T.C.A. Raghavan, India’s high commissioner in Islamabad from 2013-2015, we have India’s Pakistan Conundrum (Routledge Books, 2022), by Sharat Sabharwal, his predecessor in Pakistan from 2009-2013. Both Raghavan and Sabharwal also served as deputy high commissioners in Pakistan.

At the outset, Sabharwal ruefully flags both the “negative and positive” aspects he saw in his two stints there. In the mid-nineties, for example, he found the country “imbued with a jihadi fervour,” yet by the time he was posted to Pakistan as high commissioner in 2009, “nearly all his interlocutors in the political class and civil society” spoke of “the urgent need to stem the tide of extremism and radicalization.”

Civil-military relations

In Part 1, Sabharwal’s book deals with the Pakistani state’s internal dynamics: the origins and changing dimensions of religious extremism, the chronically ailing “external aid dependent” economy, and the army’s continuing proclivity to function as “a state within a state.” The author rightly believes that the civil-military imbalance persists because every so often, the army violates constitutional norms and acts well beyond its remit, finding new instrumentalities to maintain its iron grip over power.

The Abbottabad enquiry and the Memogate crisis of 2011 find mention within these pages, though the interesting fracas between the civilian Cabinet Secretary, Nargis Sethi, and the military’s representative, Defence Secretary, Lt. Gen. Naeem Lodhi, has been missed. The cutting to size of then sitting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the Panama leaks, through a joint investigation team that included military intelligence and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers, as also the induced advent of Imran Khan, have been brought out well. Sabharwal focuses on the irony of “the wheel turning full circle,” after Imran Khan’s futile assertions against Lt. Gen. Bajwa, with the agenda of keeping Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed on at the ISI.

Ethnic fault-lines

Pakistan’s ethnic fault-lines are described next. Some important landmarks like the Bushra Zaidi tragedy of 1985, which led to the Muhajir-Pashtun riots in Karachi, or the kidnapping of Major Kalim in 1991, are not catalogued. The latter incident characterised the ups and downs of the mercurial Muhajir-army relationship. In Balochistan, the State has depended almost exclusively on force, doing very little to address genuine grievances. The cases of missing people keep revealing establishment complicity. Sabharwal believes that while the Baloch problem will continue to simmer, the challenge posed to the Pakistani state by Pakhtun nationalism could prove far more serious. This could well be so, if supporters of the Pashtun Tahaffuz movement join hands with more militant elements of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) across the border, and instability in Afghanistan casts an uneven shadow in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Bilateral relations

Sabharwal deals next with themes such as the reasons for Pakistan’s hostility towards India, Pakistan’s identity dilemma, and whether it is indeed a “failing state.” These chapters preface Part II, where the book tackles more complex determinants of the Indo-Pak relationship, like Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), terrorism, and trade.

Differences over J&K have become the primary anchor of Pakistan’s hostility towards India. Sabharwal finds that not only does Pakistan’s case on Kashmir attract less attention globally, but even within Pakistan, “it does not resonate with the people as it used to in the past.” Yet the Pakistani establishment continues with its short-sighted approach in dealing with Indian counterparts. Islamabad divides subjects and pays less attention to issues like trade or people-to-people engagement, which it believes may be of greater interest to India.

Though the momentum of the backchannel talks on Kashmir between India’s special envoy, Ambassador S.K. Lambah and former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s close friend, Tariq Aziz, had foundered by the time Sabharwal arrived as high commissioner, he found that there were contradictory internal signals as to the dialogue’s revival. Later, Ambassador Riaz Mohammad Khan was appointed on the Pakistani side, and top civilian functionaries of the Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government seemed sometimes keen, and at other times, non-committal. However, Sabharwal soon found out, “it neither had the political capital nor the backing of the Army, under Gen. Kayani, to arrive at an understanding.” He was told by a Pakistani army officer that the army leadership had not seen any record of these discussions, either in the Foreign Office, or in Musharraf’s office, contrary to the acknowledgment offered by a former Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, in his book, Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove. This “claim obviously sounded hollow” to Sabharwal.

Sabharwal briefly touches upon the post-August 2019 situation and the abrogation of J&K’s special status under Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. He believes that Pakistan’s reactions at the time “reeked of double standards.” Islamabad’s hostile policy approach since then has been consistent—not least because of China’s support. In his perspective, the Pakistani dimension of India’s problems in Kashmir will remain serious.


The book covers Pakistan’s brazen use of the terror card against India in detail, even as it explores Pakistan’s inward implosion as a result of the backlash.  With regard to the Mumbai terror attacks, in the cases against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) assailants, the former high commissioner faced continuous foot-dragging by his interlocutors. Sabharwal does not rule out the Pakistani establishment’s awareness of the attacks and ISI endorsement of the LeT’s attack plans at some stage.

The nuclear dimension

While taking note of Pakistan’s increasing nuclear arsenal, reportedly larger than India’s stockpile, Sabharwal questions the success of Indian military experts calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. He flags in particular the ‘red lines’ articulated by Lt. Gen. Kidwai, first in 2002, and then in 2015 in the US, where the latter contended that India’s idea of massive retaliation “had not been thought through.” Sabharwal believes that any such escalation could have an uncertain outcome: not sufficient either to deter Pakistan’s use of terror, or enhance India’s ability to coerce any change in Pakistan military’s behaviour.


The trade negotiations in 2011-12 did offer a chance to make some constructive progress in bilateral ties, but here, too, the Pakistani side made frequent U-turns to create new hurdles. Sometimes the Indians were told that there was support for trade liberalisation among influential Pakistani industrialists, yet the move to give Most Favored Nation (MFN) status faced opposition from the pharmaceutical and automobile sectors. At other times, the view that open trade could hurt farmers’ interests inside Pakistan was projected. Nevertheless, the author remains convinced that trade has the potential to build and strengthen constituencies on both sides, if there is political will to work for economic dividends by resuming the peace process.

Engaging with the real power centre

Sabharwal’s book contains an interesting chapter on why India did not seriously engage with “the real power centre” of the Pakistan Army, as recommended by a section of India’s strategic community. Here, he is in no doubt that “the seemingly positive signals” that emerge from the army and “its lower appetite for adventurism against India” are more a “result of their growing troubles.” These include terrorism turning inwards, sectarian violence and the Baloch insurgency, problems on Pakistan’s western frontier, and its bumpy relationship with the US. The author firmly believes that the army sustains the India bogey to perpetuate its stranglehold on Pakistan’s polity. While it may be useful to maintain contact at the top, it would be futile to expect positive results until there is “a strategic shift in their world view, in which hostility to India” and “serving their institutional interest” remain paramount.

Way forward

The author points out in earlier chapters how Pakistan remains a highly dysfunctional state with widespread lawlessness, because of its internal dynamics, the civil-military imbalance, and the nurturing of terrorist groups as an instrument of state policy. He nevertheless believes that promoting Pakistan’s disintegration is questionable, as “the resulting chaos would not leave India untouched.” Acknowledging that Pakistan will remain a relentless adversary, Sabharwal cautions that any Indian strategy based merely on political point-scoring—or “jingoistic media debates”—only to display greater masculinity or “false notions of national honour,” would be flawed.

Sabharwal reminds the reader about “work to be done at home,” if only to deny Pakistan “the opportunity to fish in troubled waters” in Kashmir. This will have to be done by effectively reaching out to the Kashmiris, fulfilling the promises of development that accompanied the move to withdraw J&K’s special status.

Sabharwal notes that there could be merit in cultivating a segment of opinion in Pakistan that challenges the security establishment narrative. “Though weak,” this constituency is “conscious of the need to build a stable relationship with India” in “the interest of its people.” The army may suppress this constituency but it cannot “put it out of existence.”

The dilemma of Indian diplomats dealing with Pakistan has been amusingly likened to a game of ‘snakes and ladders’. Every now and then, you climb a short ladder and feel elated about moving in the right direction. Yet, “the roll of the dice takes you to a box where a snake…bites you, bringing you crashing down to a point lower than where you started.” “Pakistan’s security establishment and its terror proxies”…“manipulated the roll each time the relationship seemed to be looking up”… “sending it into a tailspin” from which it takes “years to recover.” This trend is likely to continue and will have to be taken in stride.

Notwithstanding the above challenges, Sabharwal believes that “time will work in India’s favour, provided we remain patient” and “manage the relationship,” combining engagement or dialogue with “constructive constituencies”, while retaining the option of “a discreet and calibrated punitive deterrence,” to counter those perpetrating terror or violence against India.

These suggestions seem eminently sensible.

Throughout his narration, Sabharwal depicts facts with an understated simplicity. He is the quintessential ‘good diplomat’: he never names his contacts—either well-placed politicians or bureaucrats/serving defence officers—when describing or sharing assessments of those in power.

India’s Pakistan Conundrum should be essential reading: it is of immense value to scholars and lay readers alike.


Rana Banerji is Member, IPCS Governing Council, and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.