The aftermath of the Pulwama attack in 2019.
The aftermath of the Pulwama attack in 2019.Express.

Book review: Ajay Bisaria's 'Anger Management' chronicles India-Pakistan relations post partition

Ajay Bisaria’s book offers an overview of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan since Partition and the birth of East and West Pakistan

Ajay Bisaria’s book on the troubled diplomatic relationships between India and Pakistan is much more than a memoir of an ambassador posted in Pakistan for 20 months, and expelled in August 2019, when the Indian Home Minister introduced an Act to revoke Article 370 and bifurcate the State of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. Infuriated by this, Pakistan declared Ambassador Bisaria a persona non-grata, and withdrew its ambassador in Delhi. What this book tells us is that this is just one more episode in the dispute between the two neighbours who have constantly engaged in ‘anger management’ for the last 75 years.

The book is a compendium of the bilateral relations since Partition and the birth of East and West Pakistan. It is divided into eight sections with each covering a decade of the tumultuous ties. What is interesting is the perspective the author brings to each decade from the point-of-view of the Indian High Commissioners posted in Karachi or Islamabad at the time. This shows how New Delhi and its key interlocutors saw and interpreted the events in Islamabad at each step.

While each chapter is fascinating with plenty of details, let us focus on two important terror attacks emanating from Pakistan, and how the Indian governments of the day responded to it.

First is the Mumbai attack on November 26, 2008. It was the first fully televised terrorist attack in India and, enraged by the audacity that killed 162 people, the media was baying for blood. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came out with an anodyne response in his address to the nation on November 27, and said,


“We will take up strongly with our neighbour that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.” This was not enough. Bisaria writes that Pranab Mukherjee was seeking out other options. In one such meeting, immediately after the attack, “as Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, then High Commissioner to Pakistan Satyabrata Pal, and Joint Secretary TCA Raghavan sat across the table, Pranab Mukherjee asked his advisors what should be done.

After a brief silence, Menon said India could target the LeT headquarters in Muridke with a cruise missile. Visibly startled, Mukherjee paused to clean his glasses, then thanked the officers to signal that the meeting was over.” Obviously, the decision to not hit back was a political one, but later, as Menon wrote in his book Choices-Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, “on sober reflection and in hindsight, he was convinced that restraint was the right choice”.

The author adds that “in case India had reacted the way it did in 2016 or 2019, with a surgical or air strike, a strong Indian response would have entered the calculus of Pakistan, and would have served as a disincentive for it’s army’s support to terrorist groups.” This is clearly wisdom in retrospect. In fact, one may argue that India’s restraint then had greatly helped in de-hyphenating the India-Pakistan relationship, and the notion that both carry out tit-for-tat terrorist campaigns.

This had taken root in the Western consciousness, but our restraint changed that perception and reinforced Pakistan’s reputation as the epicenter of global terrorism. Bisaria admits this possibility, but his fascination for Modi’s strategy of counter-attack in Balakot in February 2019 does seem to colour his judgment of the past government.

Second is the Pulwama attack, which was the trigger for the Balakot strike. Bisaria does not throw any light on the most important question as to who was behind the Pulwama attack. He writes that “investigation would confirm a year later that it was a meticulously planned operation of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) that had met with unexpected success”. First, if the JeM was targeting an army convoy, the success would hardly be ‘unexpected’. Secondly, the question of how a car filled with explosives could come on a road that was completely sanitised and cordoned off for all traffic, has never been answered. How was it not stopped at any check-post?

The author’s narration of the Balakot airstrike is interesting: “At around 3.30am (February 26, 2019) 12 Mirages of the IAF took off from multiple airbases and dropped five ‘Spice 2000’ bombs, out of which four penetrated the rooftops of the building in which more than 300 terrorists were housed.” This is where the intrigue starts. Who had counted this number—over 300? It went through many changes as the days passed by. How a pilot, flying at a height of several thousand feet, identifies a JeM terrorist, and then drops bombs is utterly unfathomable. With so many narratives coming through from the highest levels in the government, one is led to believe that our airforce probably killed no one. But such speculations do not find mention in Bisaria’s book.

In the epilogue, titled A Normal Kashmir, the author reveals that it was the land of his birth, and then goes on to write about his visit to the Valley in the spring of 2023; that he could sense “much had changed” since his last visit five years ago. The infiltration numbers and incidents of terrorism had gone down. He adds, “Srinagar now had a multiplex cinema...The road and tourism infrastructure were being furiously upgraded…to prepare for G20.” If this is normal Kashmir, nothing more need be said.

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