Vishwanath Pratap Singh was Prime Minister when India went through a phase of sharpening border tensions with Pakistan in 1990. Earlier, in 1987, as Defence Minister he had been tasked with defusing the standoff that was engendered by the Indian Army's Operations Brasstacks on the western border. In this interview with Sukumar Muralidharan, V.P. Singh offers a retrospect on those events and the possible lessons they hold for the current situation. Excerpts:
Looking at the current phase of India-Pakistan tensions and the issues that India has raised both bilaterally and in global forums, there is some evidence that Pakistan is becoming more serious about India's concerns. How does this situation today compare with the border tensions you faced as Prime Minister?
You see, as soon as I became Prime Minister, they did the same thing they have done now. After winter exercises, they just kept their forces on the border and dug trenches. They brought out grade one ammunition, which is brought out only during war, and put their radars in forward positions. We were monitoring their air sorties and there was every indication of war.
I adopted two strategies: one was the mobilisation of our strength and two was diplomacy. Rajiv Gandhi had already committed for the recalling of Indian troops from Sri Lanka. I took advantage of this and advanced it. We had never fought on two fronts and getting caught in Sri Lanka while fighting this battle would have been disastrous.
Then, I thought that if I could release forces from the Chinese border I could put them on the Pakistan front. So we immediately contacted China and the second person in command came to Delhi and met me and I told him, we are not going to war, so why are we having war strength forces on the front? We need forces for patrolling and a mechanism should be there so that any misunderstanding is sorted out. China agreed. That was a big achievement of that government, which is hardly noticed. Later on, Narasimha Rao formalised it.
So we managed to put massive forces on the northern and western borders. That was why when Benazir (Bhutto) said they would fight a thousand-year war, I said 'when you cannot fight a thousand hours, why talk of a thousand years?' There were two purposes. One, telling Pakistan that it could not catch us unawares, that we are ready and our response will be punishing.
The other is that when you generate fear in your enemy, two reactions are possible: fight or flight. I used the diplomatic language and conveyed (to them) that we do not want war. I told them, you do not move your armoured corps, since if you do we will take it as a sign of war. I got a message from Benazir that she would not.
At that time an American delegation had come under (Deputy National Security Adviser Robert) Gates. They went to Islamabad and also to Delhi. I told him, 'look here, if you think we are at loggerheads with Pakistan because we have had three wars in the past, look at China - we have had a war but that does not mean we are continually at loggerheads. Our relations have improved. What is the difference between the two? China is not interfering in our internal matters, while Pakistan is actively doing so. That is the crux of the matter. So I think that since you (the U.S.) are their friend, you would have to go and tell them not to try all this military adventurism against us.
Now, at that time terrorism was not the issue.... We were not asking Pakistan to do something inside Pakistan. But strategies have to include both diplomatic and military pressure. Diplomacy can be quite effective at this moment because the world has now been alerted to terrorism. And we should avail of this opportunity to put maximum diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to really act against terrorism.
At that time there was a civilian government there and now there is a military administration.
I don't think that makes a difference. Finally we have to deal with the person who decides.
That was a time when the U.S. and Pakistan were on relatively good terms - the Afghanistan operation against the Soviet Union had just concluded.
That was the success of our diplomacy, and during my period we had good relations with the U.S. They stated then that a referendum (in Jammu and Kashmir) is not needed - it is outdated.
The 1990 military mobilisation succeeded in the sense that the Pakistan armed forces withdrew from their belligerent posture, but the infiltration and the militancy in Kashmir continued.
Initially it was mainly the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) - and they were separatist rather than militant.You mean not fundamentalist?Yes. That element was not there.
You mean it was not considered as dangerous then as it is now?
Well, even if you look at those whom we released (in the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnap incident), they were separatists. They were not charged with any criminal offence except making speeches and giving pamphlets. And they were very low level (members) in the separatist movements. In fact, in the Rubaiya case they did not succeed in getting the top leadership released. They succeeded with the BJP government (in the IC 814 hijacking in December 1999). They got the topmost leaders released. And the people we released were Indian nationals. They (the BJP government) released Pakistani nationals. And after once having had the experience, we did not buckle. Though there has been criticism that in the first case we gave in because it involved the daughter of a Home Minister and later only certain officials - that is not true.
Operation Brasstacks happened under your watch in the Defence Ministry and that was also a military mobilisation with a coercive political purpose. What exactly happened there, and what was the objective?
Brasstacks was initiated much earlier. It was on when I was shifted from Finance to Defence... So, as soon as my name was announced, on January 24 (1987), I went straight to the Operations Room and took a whole briefing on Brasstacks.
A delegation (from Pakistan) came after that, with Abdul Sattar leading. We were negotiating a withdrawal, but the problem was that both sides had amassed so much power there and nobody trusted each other. There were negotiations, but nothing came out of it at the Foreign Ministers' level. Then Sattar came to see me. We worked out a plan over a few months.What was the objective then?
I don't know. So much armour was amassed and it also caused a lot of wear and tear of our equipment. So I don't want to guess.
But there was a coercive intent. There was a determination to show Pakistan that we could cut right through their country.
It was all planned by Rajiv. There had to be a political objective in the context. But I don't know.
How do you assess the situation now - with General Musharraf having banned the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad? He is showing some signs of movement. Do you think this is enough?
No, there should be more. He has to abandon the policy itself. Though we must also understand that we should give him breathing time. Our purpose cannot be the destabilisation of Musharraf.
But in Pakistan he may face a crisis of legitimacy, since he cannot afford to be seen as buckling under Indian pressure.
That is true. He said right in the beginning of the confrontation with Afghanistan that the Taliban is very dear but Pakistan comes first.
The main purpose was to see that Pakistan's Kashmir policy was not compromised and to protect its strategic assets.
You see, the rhetoric in Pakistan is very high over Kashmir. They have gone up on the roof without a ladder and now they can't come down slowly. But they should do something to obtain some flexibility for a political dialogue. They cannot do it overnight, but over a few years, they could. Musharraf may have to act out of compulsion rather than conviction.
Have we succeeded in convincing the world that the problem in Kashmir is cross-border in origin, or is there a political dimension which still needs attention?
I suppose we had a window of opportunity in 1996. At that time the mood was that Pakistan would not take up their fight. They felt let down by Pakistan and India is too strong a state to give up. And they had the attitude that if any honourable solution was proposed, they could have accepted it. We should have utilised that situation and I told (Prime Minister) Deve Gowda that that was the time to act.