In a custom derived through centuries of the practice of diplomacy, a diplomat enjoys immunity under the Vienna Convention from criminal and judicial procedures while serving in a foreign land. As a corollary to it, they are also at a safe distance from physical attacks, harassment and mental torture. The limits of these advantages are, however, seriously tested when Indian and Pakistani diplomats serve in each other’s countries.
In 70 years of engagement, relations between India and Pakistan have mostly been spiked with belligerence. But a sure sign of bilateral ties taking a turn for the worse is when diplomats and embassy officials become targets of hostility.
The recent spurt in such incidents has once again brought the ugly side of the troubled relationship to the surface, forcing high commissioners of both countries to lodge formal complaints—about intimidation and regular harassment of their diplomats and offi-cials—with their hosts.
“The attacks on diplomats are a signal to each other of hostile intent,” says Pakistani strategic commentator Ayesha Siddiqa.
But the degree of such hostile intent has begun to bother many in the sub-continent and beyond. Its pertinence stems from the current state of relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. For the past several weeks, Indian and Pakistani soldiers along the Line of Control have been firing at each other’s positions, forcing villagers living in the area to evacuate to safer places. This has also raised concerns on whether a brief, armed conflict between them is a natural progression of the current combative spell.
According to India, the current spate of hostility expanding into civilian areas started when its diplomats and officials were being subjected to harassment and intimidation by Pakistani agencies for nearly a year. Vehicles belonging to the Indian High Commission have been forcibly stopped, houses of Indian staff and officials burgled, even the chancery’s contractor, under pressure from the agencies, threatened to suspend work.
For days, Indian officials complain, water and electricity supply to the chancery were also cut off and local guards at the gates were asked to dissuade Pakistani nationals from visiting the mission.
In February this year, when essential services were cut off and the chancery broken into, Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria thought a “red line” had been crossed. Subsequently, he brought it to the notice of the Pakistani foreign ministry and lodged a formal complaint.
Indian agencies don’t harass Pakistani diplomats without MEA approval. The ISI has no such fetters upon them.
Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Pakistani officials complain of several incidents of ‘coercion’, after vehicles of senior diplomats, including that of the deputy high commissioner ferrying his children from school, were chased and abuses hurled at the drivers and passengers.
Pakistani High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood met senior officials in South Block and lodged a formal complaint about the alleged harassment. He says a few more such incidents happened even after lodging the complaint.
On March 9, a note verbale—a document containing the formal complaint—was submitted by Mahmood to South Block, indicating that in three days there had been six incidents of harassment of Pakistani diplomats and officials.
In Pakistan, this entire toxic mix was poisoned further when the membership of the coveted Islamabad Club was thrown into it. According to officials, while a membership to the club come automatically to all ambassadors based in Islamabad, Bisaria’s membership was put on hold.
Kulbhushan Yadav meets his wife and mother
The Pakistanis complained that since the high commissioner in New Delhi and other senior Pakistani officials have to pay huge membership fees for access to either the Gymkhana or the Delhi Golf Club—unlike the Indian High Commissioner’s subsidised membership rate at the Islamabad Club—such privileges should be extended only on the basis of reciprocity. India has tried to reason that these are private clubs with their own set of rules, where the government’s interference is not entertained. Such arguments have not worked with the Pakistanis so far.
Officials point out that despite technicalities, the club issue reflects the state of India-Pakistan relations. In the past, membership to the Islamabad Club had never been an issue, though relations were mostly based on reciprocity. Does this partial abandonment of diplomatic civility towards each other’s diplomats indicate the lowest level in ties?
“No. I certainly don’t think so. They were worse in the mid 1990s, when harassment, intimidation and even physical attacks had become a regular feature,” says former MEA secretary Vivek Katju.
Other Indian officials, however, say that though harassment and intimidation of diplomats were par for the course, careful attention was given to avoid violating the Vienna Convention. This meant officials not holding diplomatic passports could be physically assaulted, while diplomats were spared with only verbal abuse and other harassment.
“It is more a case of systematic harassment than direct violation of the Vienna Convention,” says a former Indian diplomat. He points out that much of these activities that are not deemed political are carried out when relations are seriously strained.
Indian officials, on their part, acknowledge these practices, but say the situation can always get nastier in Pakistani. According to them, Indian agencies seldom act against Pakistani diplomats and officials without the MEA’s approval. Across the border, however, the foreign ministry is often overruled or kept in the dark by the ISI or the Pakistani ‘deep state’ that almost runs a parallel establishment.
Predictably, such claims are contested by the Pakistanis, who admit that when relations take a turn for the worse, neither side is willing to give any quarters without a fight.
Many in Pakistan and India point out that relations began to worsen after family members of Kulbhushan Yadav, the Indian national who is in Pakistani custody and charged with espionage, visited him. Though Pakistan allowed the visit after dragging its feet for long, the ISI ensured that Yadav’s family had an extremely harrowing time. Undoubtedly, the visit—given wide media coverage in India—embittered many Indians, who read in it a dire sign of how serious Pakistan was about normalising ties.
Since chances of talks—with both countries getting into the election mode—seems remote, this unlovely turn of events often turns the narrative towards a brief armed engagement.
“India could try a surgical strike, but the possibility to upping the ante to push the Pakistan army back into giving up the use of non-state actors is weak,” says Siddiqa. According to her, India may not even be able to win a limited, conventional war—a dangerous, difficult option. Not ruling it out, she says, “But politicians and decision-makers may not have the EQ to understand the limited options and thus might stumble upon the error of a war.”
But many in the Indian establishment feel that with the US putting pressure on Pakistan to relinquish their support for terror groups operating from its soil, along with New Delhi’s attempt to normalise ties with Pakistan’s main backer, China, it may be a good idea to force Pakistan to mend its ways with a short war, or at least with the threat of one.
But Siddiqa warns that it would be a problematic calculation on India’s part to think of improved relations with China as a signal of its ability to squeeze Pakistan. She laments, “The larger issue in the region is that currently there is no single power whose diplomatic intervention is accepted by both India and Pakistan, especially during a crisis.”
It’s indescribably malign to let strained ties mangle the correct protocol that every diplomat deserves. As mature nations, India and Pakistan should take a plunge towards the talks table. They should, at least, spare the people who are at the vanguard of creating better ties.