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The Rediff Special/K Natwar Singh

Master of the Game

Zia-ul Haq St Stephen's College, Delhi, had produced two heads of State. Both were Muslims. Mr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed did not choose to migrate to Pakistan in 1947. Lieutenant Zia-ul Haq's lower middle-class family left Jalandhar for Pakistan in late 1947.

President Zia-ul Haq was proud of being a Stephanian. So am I. The Stephanian link helped me to establish a working rapport with Zia.

Zia possessed one extraordinary talent. In the management of his public relations he displayed genius. His manners were so impeccable that those who came to jeer, returned to cheer. I saw this time and again with Indian visitors who were received by the president.

In 1981, Professor Mohammad Hasan of the Jawaharlal Nehru University came to Pakistan with a group of scholars from several Indian universities. I was much impressed by their views on Indo-Pak relations and what could be gradually done to improve them. They appreciated that a wide gulf divided the desirable and the achievable.

A day or two after my talk with this group, I met the president at a reception. I asked if he could spare a few minutes for Professor Hasan and his colleagues. "Why a few minutes, Kanwar Sahib, I shall invite them to dinner at my house," the president replied.

On the appointed day the five assembled at my residence. I told them they were to have dinner with the president. They were incredulous. When we arrived at Zia's house, even I was astonished. Present, beside the head of state were five cabinet ministers, four vice-chancellors and senior officials. All were standing to receive us.

The president of Pakistan spent nearly three hours with five unknown though not insignificant Indians. There was not a jarring note. After the dinner he came to the porch to see them off and did not leave till the last Indian car left. I can think of only one other head of government matching this quite fantastic PR exercise -- Chou En-Lai.

Zia put Kashmir on top of his agenda and persuaded many Islamic countries to side with him purely on religious grounds. I repeatedly told him that by raising Kashmir day in and day out he was not being at all helpful. He persisted but without the special brand of hysteria invented by Benazir Bhutto Zardari.

I might here say something about the quality of Pakistani diplomats. They are a formidable group. Their best are as good as our best. For some Pakistani diplomats the foreign service was both a cause and a career. For a handful it was a crusade. A few, however, gave the smell of being oversmart. It is no mean achievement to keep alive the Kashmir question on the international agenda for so long. Even greater is their achievement in maintaining excellent relations with China and the US and at our expense. That too when Americans were dead opposed to Mao's China from 1962 to 1971. The Americans used Pakistan to first establish contact with China in July 1971. The world was taken completely by surprise.

Men like Agha Shahi, Abdus Sattar, Agha Hillai combine subtlety with sophistication with engaging ease. If ever the two countries achieve common foreign policy objectives, a combined Indo-Pak diplomatic team would be difficult to match.

Zia spread his India net wide. He made it a point to cultivate the Sikhs in particular. Each year large Sikh jathas visited Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib. Zia made certain that they were not only well looked after, but also ensured that their leaders met him. I informed the Pakistani foreign office that unlike the past I would accompany the Sikh leaders when the president received them.

In 1981, the MEA official attached to the jathas was Lakshmi Puri, the under secretary in charge of Pakistan. She had had a pretty thin time during Narasimha Rao's visit earlier in the year. Since Rao had not protested, I as an ambassador could then do nothing to get her a fair deal. This time I was determined to establish that an Indian lady diplomat was not subject to antediluvian Pakistani laws regarding the place of women in society.

I had it conveyed to the foreign office that Lakshmi Puri was an officer of the IFS and was in Pakistan on official duty. She would accompany the jatha leaders when they met the president. The answer was, no, this cannot be done. I decided to ignore this preposterous foreign office diktat. I took Lakshmi Puri in my flag car to the president's house. Zia greeted the Sikh leaders, gave me a lukewarm handshake and all but ignored Lakshmi Puri. He handled the situation with exceptional delicacy. The man could think on his feet and think fast.

As we sat down on his spacious and well-manicured lawn, I saw his ADC whispering to Lakshmi. For a moment I thought she was being asked to leave. I decided that I would leave with her. Zia also acted instantly. Begum Zia appeared, and Mrs Puri was taken to her. A table was laid and tea for two was served. They were no more than thirty yards from where we were. It was quite an act. Here was an IFS under secretary having tea with the numero uno lady of Pakistan! I thought the president and I both emerged quits. I had made my point. He his. Lakshmi Puri received star treatment.

A few weeks later the president retaliated. I was denied permission to see Khan Wali Khan at his home in Charsada. I informed the BBC representative about the Pakistanis restricting my movements. The whole world got to know. We got much mileage out of this decision.

Zia grew in his job by the day. He was a far more successful and skillful diplomat than any of his predecessors. He never talked of a thousand-year-war with India, avoided confrontation, made all the right noises in the presence of Indians. He pursued a policy, the aim of which was to reduce the level of hostility with India. At the same time he did not evolve any framework of a positive, self-sustaining process for maintaining good neighborly relations with India. He used religion, Kashmir and India's defence budget to tarnish our image.

He respected and feared Indira Gandhi. As a military man he knew only too well that a post-1971 Pakistan was no match for India. He never made snide remarks about her person. That was left to the Urdu print media.

Excerpted from Profiles & Letters by K Natwar Singh, Sterling Publishers, 1997, Rs 350, with the publisher's permission. Readers who wish to buy a copy of this book may e-mail the publishers at

'What does Pakistan have about which India should be making such a noise?'

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