India’s recent move to reduce staffing at its High Commission in Islamabad comes after a string of incidents involving the harassment of its diplomats stationed in Pakistan. Retired and serving officers of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) have been on the frontlines of an acrimonious relationship with a country that makes no distinction between soldiers and personnel with diplomatic immunity.
Throughout history, the onus of furthering inter-state relations has fallen on diplomats, schooled in the fine art of dialogue and negotiation. In the not so distant past, they were often handpicked by the ruling sovereign to represent him/her in foreign capitals. In modern times, diplomats are public servants, appointed to keep foreign relations on an even keel. More often than not, they will have notched up significant successes in crisis prevention, not many of which are public knowledge. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, it was hectic back-channel communications between US and Soviet diplomats that averted a catastrophic nuclear war between the two countries.
Watch: The Diplomatic contribution to averting the Cuban Missile Crisis
This was revealed in documents declassified in 2012 by the State Department. The nerves of steel shown by two veteran diplomats, US Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson and the Soviet Union’s Anatoly Dobrynin, enabled a return to status quo after 13 gruelling days. Had the standoff escalated, the death toll would have easily exceeded 200 million in North America alone, according to the US National Archives.
In the India-Pakistan context, the Indian diplomatic corps has played a critical role in helping bilateral relations survive periodic tremors. However, as any member of the IFS will corroborate, a posting in Pakistan means contending with a brand of rabid hostility towards Indians that is unique only to that country.
Persevering in a shroud of hostility
Despite the protections afforded to diplomats by the Geneva Convention, officials at the Indian High Commission (IHC) in Islamabad have been sanguine about performing their duties in a vindictive environment that invariably brings with it not only mental duress but also the threat of bodily harm. Pakistani security agencies are notorious for aggressively tailing vehicles belonging to Indian diplomats and even cutting off their electricity and water supply without cause. Indian diplomats have also been physically assaulted on a regular basis by Pakistani police after being arrested on bogus charges. It is no surprise that many in the IFS view a stint in Pakistan as punishment for past sins. The list of indignities has also included abduction, surprise raids, and the use of foul language against IHC staffers.
The Indian government deploys trained Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel to protect Indian diplomats in Islamabad. However, protocol prevents them interfering with local police. Curiously, two CISF drivers working at the IHC were recently abducted in Pakistan days after India expelled two Pakistani mission staffers for espionage.
Pakistan High Commission: Diplomats or spies?
The ebb and flow of diplomatic relations between the two countries has closely mirrored the on-ground situation in Kashmir, a legacy of their colonial past. In line with its stated goal of “providing moral and political support to the Kashmir cause”, the Pakistan High Commission (PHC) in New Delhi has routinely hosted separatist leaders from the All Party Hurriyat Conference for Iftaar parties and other events, much to the displeasure of the Central Government.
It has used these interactions to assiduously cultivate Kashmiri youth to fight Indian forces in their home state, while also directing the political moves of the Hurriyat. An investigation by Indian intelligence agencies recently revealed that more than 200 Kashmiri youth who had visited Pakistan on visas issued by the PHC were yet to return. This is the clearest indication yet that the PHC is a front for anti-national activities in India.
Watch: Pakistan’s Spying Racket Busted in Delhi
Seen in conjunction with the recent arrest and subsequent expulsion of three Pakistan spies, a murky new dimension in India-Pakistan relations appears to be emerging. Though Pakistan denies India’s allegations, its visceral animosity towards Indian diplomats speaks volumes. Past episodes involving Pakistani diplomatic spying are very instructive in this regard. In 1988, Brigadier Zaheer ul Islam Abbasi, Military Attache in the PHC, was caught trying to obtain classified military information from a local Indian informer.
Since then, several other junior and mid-level staffers have also been apprehended. According to G Parthasarthy, India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan from 1998 to 2000, more than 70 to 80 percent of Pakistani diplomatic personnel in India work for the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Islamabad’s external intelligence agency.
India’s responses have been limited to cutting down the size of the number of Pakistani diplomatic personnel in the country. However, experts say that a leaner workforce could reduce the PHCs appetite for intelligence gathering and facilitating agitation in India. On the other side of the border, Indian diplomats may well escape physical assaults by Pakistani agencies.
Chained, shackled, isolated
Watch: Indian Diplomat Ajay Bisaria stopped from visiting Gurudwara in Pakistan
Enhancing cultural exchanges and people-to-people engagement is one of the key parts of any diplomat’s brief. However, the importance of this has been clearly lost on Pakistan. While Pakistani diplomats in India enjoy the patronage of intellectuals and high society, IHC personnel in Islamabad wear desolate looks most days due to the many restrictions placed on them by the Pakistani government. Pakistan apparently prefers back-channel diplomacy involving former envoys and academics who lack any real authority to soothe the frayed ties between the two countries.
Watch: India Protests Guests’ Harassment at Embassy’s Iftar Party in Pakistan
The deeply embedded distrust between India and Pakistan means that diplomats from either country will continue to be in the line of fire, figuratively and literally, even as the global order is undergoing fundamental shifts