Ajay Bisaria's New Book Explores Heightened India-Pakistan Tensions Over Pulwama

Bisaria was the High Commissioner to Pakistan from 2017 to August 2019. He was expelled after Art 370 was revoked.

5 min read
Hindi Female

(The following is an excerpt from Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship between India and Pakistan by Ajay Bisaria, published by Aleph Book Company.)

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman flew the MiG-21 bison that was part of the air defence sortie scrambled to intercept Pakistani aircraft on the morning of 27 February. In the ensuing aerial dogfight, his aircraft was struck by a missile and crashed, but Varthaman safely ejected, to descend into a village in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, some 7 kilometres from the LoC. Varthaman was initially captured and assaulted by locals before army soldiers took him into custody. Soon, Varthaman became for the Indian public both a symbol of heroism—having engaged an enemy aircraft—and the human cost of the skirmish. He also became the lightning rod for the diplomatic action of the next few days and its primary focus.


India’s demands for Pakistan were clear. Pakistan had retaliated against India’s pre-emptive counterterrorism action. It had responded by attacking military targets. It had captured an Indian pilot and violated the Geneva Conventions. India would expect the pilot not to come to any harm. Pakistan should exercise restraint and responsibility; any provocation along the LoC would not be tolerated.

India had activated multiple diplomatic channels to deal with the crisis. Pakistan on its part was trying to drag the matter to the UN, as an issue that threatened regional peace and stability. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale in Delhi had emphasized to the US and UK that any attempt by Pakistan to escalate the situation further or to cause harm to Varthaman would lead to an escalation by India; raising this issue at the UNSC instead of resolving the issue of terror could also lead to an escalated response from India. Other channels were in play to send similar messages to countries with influence over Pakistan, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The US ambassador to India, Ken Juster, and UK envoy, Dominic Asquith, worked with their counterparts in Islamabad, Paul Jones, and Tom Drew, to impress upon Pakistani interlocutors that India was serious. Frenetic diplomatic action was unfolding in Pakistan. India’s hard messages were being conveyed both in the diplomatic bubble of Islamabad and at general headquarters, Rawalpindi. The diplomats of the P5 in particular had been called in by the foreign office ‘thrice in rapid succession’ after 26 February, most of the time separately.

To the diplomats, Pakistan appeared genuinely spooked by the prospects of an escalation in the conflict. At the same time, Pakistani officials, as also ISI officers, were insisting that they had no direct role in the Pulwama attack. It had been claimed by the JeM, which was based in Pakistan, but had no connection with the army or with Bajwa personally.

Pakistan’s public and private talking points included the default position that the Pulwama attacker was a local Kashmiri, the video of the JeM owning responsibility was suspect, the weapons shown in the video were not Pakistani, and that the flag displayed in the video did not belong to the JeM. There was ‘considerable pushback’ by the US, UK, and France to the Pakistani narrative, in their discussions with the DG ISI Asim Munir and Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua. They pointed out to Pakistan that its narrative was weak. One, the JeM had already undeniably claimed responsibility for Pulwama. Two, the Jaish chief Masood Azhar was undeniably in Pakistani territory. Three, the video of the claim may have been edited, but did not suggest the Jaish did not claim the attack. Four, the markings on the weapons did not matter, since any sort of weapons could be bought, even within the arms markets of Pakistan. Five, the flag of Jaish may not be the original one but could have belonged to some splinter group.

The Western diplomats were pointing out in private conversations that the connection between Pakistan and the terror attack was obvious. Pakistan also tried to make the argument that this may have been a ‘false- flag operation’ connected to Indian elections. The British high commissioner and the US ambassador both advised their interlocutors to not even go down that route. This was a familiar denial practised by Pakistan through this century, whether it was for 9/11 or Mumbai or Pathankot or Uri, and was no longer credible.

At 4 p.m. on 27 February, the day after India’s air strikes at Balakot, the US, UK, and French ambassadors were closeted at the US embassy in Islamabad to discuss the crisis. During their consultations, their offices called to say that the foreign office was requesting them to show up for yet another meeting with the Pakistan foreign secretary at 5 p.m. While the conference was in progress, and they were discussing India’s asks, Foreign Secretary Janjua paused the conversation at 5.45 p.m. to read out a message she had just received from the army, saying that nine missiles from India had been pointed towards Pakistan, to be launched any time that day.

Also, India’s navy had taken on an aggressive, threatening posture. The foreign secretary requested the envoys to report this intelligence to their capitals and ask India not to escalate the situation. The diplomats promptly reported these developments, leading to a flurry of diplomatic activity in Islamabad, P5 capitals, and in New Delhi that night. One of them recommended to her that Pakistan should convey its concerns directly to India. (A P5 diplomat later reconstructed these events for my benefit.)

Later in the evening, the DG for South Asia, Mohammad Faisal, summoned India’s acting high commissioner, Ahluwalia, for a démarche. After condemning the ‘unprovoked ceasefire violations by the Indian occupation forces along the Line of Control’ a ruffled Faisal said that Pakistan had credible information on nine missiles India had prepared to launch into Pakistani territory. India was asked to desist, since this was an unprecedented act of aggression and an action tantamount to open war. While Pakistan’s media reported the démarche on ceasefire violations by India, the story of the potential missile launch was held back that night but released in a background briefing by ISPR on 4 March, with some embellishments. Several media reports appeared in March, detailing the conversations around the missiles between India and Pakistan and through global interlocutors.


At around midnight I got a call in Delhi from Pakistani high commissioner Sohail Mahmood, now in Islamabad, who said that PM Imran Khan was keen to talk to Prime Minister Modi. I checked upstairs and responded that our prime minister was not available at this hour but in case Imran Khan had any urgent message to convey he could, of course, convey it to me. I got no call back that night.

The US and UK envoys in Delhi got back overnight to India’s foreign secretary to claim that Pakistan was now ready to de-escalate the situation, to act on India’s dossier, and to seriously address the issue of terrorism. Pakistan’s PM would himself make these announcements and the pilot would be returned to India the next day. India’s coercive diplomacy had been effective, India’s expectations of Pakistan and of the world had been clear, backed by a credible resolve to escalate the crisis. Prime Minister Modi would later say in a campaign speech that, ‘Fortunately, Pakistan announced that the pilot would be sent back to India. Else, it would have been qatal ki raat, a night of bloodshed.’

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from lifestyle and books

Topics:  Ajay Bisaria   Pulwama Attack 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More