Manmohan To Modi, Inside The Dramatic India-Pakistan Back Channel On Kashmir

Former Indian special envoy Satinder Lambah’s book reveals PM Modi’s initiative to restart back channel with Pakistan.

By Team Mojo, 11 Apr 2023

In 2017, an emissary for the Prime Minister, “a leading businessman” was sent by the Narendra Modi government to meet Nawaz Sharif, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, to explore rebooting back-channel talks between both countries. This has been revealed in a new book by veteran diplomat, Satinder Lambah, who himself led the back-channel dialogue between the two countries during the Manmohan Singh tenure for nearly ten years.

The Modi government reached out to Lambah to represent it in talks with Sharif, but since the emissary had already flown to Pakistan “in his personal plane”, Lambah did not move ahead, feeling it wrong to have two people represent the government.

Most importantly, Lambah’s book, ‘In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations under Six Prime Ministers’ reveals a 14 point set of guidelines that formed the basis of a draft agreement between the two countries.

“Since Independence, there have been several initiatives and moments of hope of a settlement between India and Pakistan. This one, perhaps, came the closest,” he writes.

Despite grave provocations from Pakistan – the attack on the military base in Pathankot, the treatment of ex-naval officer Kulbushan Jadhav, among them- Prime Minister Modi was keen on appointing a back channel envoy. “A distinguished diplomat” was being considered for the role.

Lambah’s book, praised by present NSA Ajit Doval, reveals that the file on the draft agreement had been reviewed by the highest levels of the Modi government. “I was even once told that no major change was required…”

Though the book does not reveal the name of the businessman who flew into Pakistan, this correspondent previously broke the story on the role played by steel magnate Sajjan Jindal as the go-between for the two leaders.

In Nepal, he was the conduit for an unofficial, off-the-books, conversation between them on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit. At the time the secret meeting between the two PMs and Jindal’s role was denied by both governments.

Jindal’s role as emissary evidently continued over the years. Lambah’s book’s reference to the role of the “leading businessman” should be read together with Maryam Nawaz’s tweet admitting to the meeting between Jindal and Sharif in Lahore. “Nothing secret about it,” she tweeted on 27th April 2017.

Below is an excerpt of the backchannel agreement, a process that began in the tenure of Musharraf but concluded during the tenure of then Army Chief of Pakistan, Asfhaq Kayani. The file, denied by a series of Pakistan politicians, exists and for the first time its details have been officially placed in the public domain.


Over the period of 2001–06, Musharraf articulated, with varying degrees of detail, what amounted to his four-point proposal. But, for him, the starting point was to narrow down the issue to the region of Jammu and Kashmir that needed a resolution—essentially the Kashmir Valley. His four points were:

(i) demilitarization together with the cessation of military activities,

(ii) self-governance in the region,

(iii) a joint mechanism involving representatives of India, Pakistan and Kashmir, for the purpose of overseeing self-governance and for issues that were beyond the scope of self-governance, and

(iv) trade and movement of people between the two parts of Kashmir. The principles were, of course, to be applied equally on both sides.18*

His formula clearly recognized that the stated positions of the two countries on the territory of Jammu and Kashmir were not acceptable to either side, and an approach was required that obviated the need for settlement of the territorial issue. His proposal on a joint mechanism would result in a ‘status quo plus’ outcome for Pakistan with a say in the affairs of all of Kashmir.

At the same time, self-governance in Kashmir would appear to be a fulfilment of Pakistan’s commitment to the people of Kashmir and bury the possibility of independence.

The Hurriyat leader Prof. Abdul Ghani Bhat described the four points as an effective roadmap to peace in Kashmir and explained them as,

1) Self-governance;

2) Demilitarization;

3) The removal of irrelevant borders implying free movement of people and trade between India, Pakistan and the two Kashmirs;

4) Joint management forming a group to manage common interests and common issues like trade, tourism and river waters, etc.

As soon as the four-point formula was released in bits and pieces, we did an internal study and found it would be manageable to discuss Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan on the basis of this formula along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Amritsar speech.

As regards the regions, it was made abundantly clear that because of Pakistan’s mishandling of the territorial issue since 1947 (creation of POK) and 1963 (illegal cession of territory to China), the area to be discussed was the entire state of the erstwhile state of J&K.

Musharraf wanted to know if discussions could be limited to the problematic areas. His objective appeared to be to keep out the Northern Areas in the Pakistan side and Ladakh on the Indian side. Right from the beginning, it had been made clear to Pakistan that communal settlement was not acceptable.

The other element was disarmament. It was made clear to our Pakistani back-channel interlocutors that our forces had to deal with our China border as well. The important element of the fourpoint formula was demilitarization.

Musharraf said, he understood total disarmament could not take place in a day and suggested two stages. Pakistan would be willing to withdraw troops on the LoC as part of an overall settlement to deal with military confrontation between the two countries. He wanted Indian troops to be shifted from urban centres like Srinagar, Baramulla and Kupwara.

This he justified as a part of the well-being and human rights of the Kashmiri people. Pakistan was told that there had to be an end to hostility, violence and terrorism. There could be withdrawal of Indian troops from selected urban areas if this was put into practice.

For the first time, Manmohan Singh came up with the idea of economic integration through soft borders. Borders, he said, could not be redrawn but progressively softened by encouraging trade and travel, the results of which were already apparent during the 2006–08 period when it started.

In any case, our own Kargil Review Committee had mentioned that the large-scale involvement of army encounter and insurgency operations was not in our interest. The removal of the Indian Army troops from internal security duties would also be in accordance with the report of the Kargil Review Committee.

Pakistan was aware that the reduction of army deployment in internal security duties in Jammu and Kashmir was already under way as part of the internal process.

The group of ministers which had been formed after the Kargil War had noted that, ‘The ultimate objective should be to entrust Internal Security [IS] and Counter Insurgency [CI] duties entirely to Central Para Military Forces and the Rashtriya Rifles, thus de-inducting the Army from these duties, wherever possible.’19*

Another important point was self-governance for internal administration. What was agreed to was not in violation of both the Indian and Jammu & Kashmir Constitution.

As regards Pakistan’s proposal of a joint mechanism, the answer was to be found in PM Manmohan Singh’s Amritsar speech.

Dr Manmohan Singh, in his speech in Amritsar on 24 March 2006, laid the basic guidelines of how he wanted Kashmir to be resolved and it is best to quote him:

“I am aware that General Musharraf has often stated that the normalization of relations between our two countries cannot move forward unless what he calls the core issue of Jammu & Kashmir is dealt with.

In my view, it is a mistake to link normalization of other relations with finding a solution to Jammu & Kashmir. But we are not afraid of discussing Jammu & Kashmir or of finding pragmatic, practical solutions to resolve this issue as well… I have often said that borders cannot be redrawn but we can work towards making them irrelevant— towards making them just lines on a map.

People on both sides of the LoC should be able to move more freely and trade with one another. I also envisage a situation where the two parts of Jammu & Kashmir can, with the active encouragement of the governments of India and Pakistan, work out cooperative, consultative mechanisms so as to maximize the gains of cooperation in solving problems of social and economic development of the region.”

Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf approached the issue from different perspectives, but there was enough convergence to provide a substantive basis for dialogue and negotiation. Dr Singh was clear that there could be no settlement along communal lines, so he wanted to deal with the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, not just the Kashmir Valley.

Political leaders’ statements set the direction and act like guidelines. This was precisely the signal that came out of Musharraf’s four-point formula and Dr Singh’s Amritsar speech, though neither would find any reference in the draft agreements later.

After intensive internal discussions, a set of informal guidelines was made on the basis of which negotiations with Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir could be conducted. These included principles, prerequisites and outcomes in terms of possible arrangement in Jammu and Kashmir:

1) There cannot be any redrawing of borders.

2) No joint sovereignty.

3) LoC has to be respected like a normal border between the two countries.

4) People on both sides of LoC should be allowed to move freely from one side of LoC to another. This helps ethnic groups and divided families living on both sides.

5) Encourage meaningful trade across LoC.

6) To ensure trade flow, there has to be progressive removal of tariffs and non-tariff barriers in specified locally produced goods. The current trade across LoC is a zero duty and barter trade permitted for twenty-one categories of goods of Jammu and Kashmir origin only.

7) It is essential that based on experience of LoC trade, measures are taken to increase it, open more routes and take effective steps to discourage malpractices.

8) End of hostilities, violence and terrorism.

9) Progress on any discussion with Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir was based on twin pillars—respecting the ceasefire on the LoC and disavowal by Pakistan of use of terrorism as state policy and allowing use of its territory by non-state actors. These remain essential prerequisites for now and the future.

10) Once this happens, military formation on both sides of LoC to be kept to the minimum, particularly in populated areas.

11) Important to ensure self-governance for internal management on both sides of LoC.

12) Respect for human rights on both sides of LoC.

13) Ensure that population on both sides is kept informed of progress made.

14) Based on Dr Singh’s vision, articulated in his Amritsar speech, of a cooperative consultative mechanism for cooperation in solving problems of social and economic development of the region, joint consultative mechanisms could be explored for specified socio-economic issues like tourism, travel, health, education and culture.

Those guidelines formed the basis of negotiations and were fundamentally different from various solutions, including the Chenab formula, considered in the past.

When I paid my last call on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as prime minister, at the time of the May 2014 elections to hand over my resignation as special envoy, he was as usual warm and graceful. He followed me to the door and questioned me as to why Musharraf agreed to negotiations on this set of guidelines.

He understood my brief response as he had the background to the history of various initiatives, including Musharraf’s own reported advocacy of the stillborn Chenab formula.

The Indian Team

I started my new assignment as special envoy towards the end of March 2005. Vikram Doraiswamy, then private secretary to the prime minister, later ambassador to Uzbekistan and high commissioner to Bangladesh, helped me adjust in the environment of the PMO.

Jawed Ashraf, currently ambassador to France, whom I have known since his first posting to Germany when I was ambassador and have remained in close touch with since then, always provided vital inputs and advice at different stages that were of great help, including when he was political counsellor/minister in Washington, D.C. and head of the Americas division in MEA, and later as joint secretary in the PMO under Dr Manmohan Singh, a position he continued in under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Jaideep Sarkar, director in the PMO, was appointed to assist me in my new responsibilities as special envoy. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed private secretary to the PM.

I requested the PM to allow Jaideep to continue working with me. When he asked the reason, I explained that he would be able to keep the PM informed of the progress of the back channel and all papers would be kept with him; it would facilitate my work, including fixing meetings with the PM and it would send a good signal outside, including in Pakistan, of the seriousness the PM attached to the back channel. He agreed. This proved beneficial.

Jaideep Sarkar provided significant help and contributions in the formulation of the back-channel agreement.

Later he was ambassador to Israel, Bhutan and South Africa. He was succeeded by another able officer, Vikram Misri, who was with me in the last six meetings of the back channel. His input and advice was equally valuable.

Vikram Misri has since been ambassador to Spain, Myanmar and China and is currently deputy NSA.

On many subjects we had prepared a brief background/ talking points, to be used if necessary. We knew that Pakistan would not raise the UN resolution; however, a brief note was always kept handy to be used if the need arose. Pakistan raised the UN resolution in the initial stages, but as expected, did not do so in the substantive back-channel discussion.


The Draft Agreement and the Transition

By the end of the second term of the UPA government and of Dr Manmohan Singh’s ten-year term, the draft agreement had been approved and was ready for signature. The draft was not made for a particular individual in office or a particular situation. It was meant to have an enduring value and be relevant for a long-term solution.

However, this point was not publicly made because it is well known that any draft on the back channel, until signed, is not a settled agreement and can be modified or rejected.

Shahryar Khan, in fact, suggested a change during our last meeting. I explained that this was my last meeting with him on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was not a candidate for the prime minister post in the next election. He would, therefore, get the response from the representative of the next prime minister of India. The official file contained all details of discussions together with a note by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that this could only be opened on the instructions of the next prime minister.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

This book does not cover the period of Prime Minister Modi. However, before he assumed office, he asked me to meet him at Gujarat Bhawan. I met him on 25 May 2016. He was very gracious and keen to speak to me.

Among those waiting outside were the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu, Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh and High Commissioner to Pakistan T.C.A. Raghavan. Apparently, the chief minister was in a hurry to meet the prime minister, as a few notes were sent in to the new prime minister.

I asked the prime minister whether I should return later, but he said no and carried on with our meeting.

His main query was regarding the visit of Nawaz Sharif for the swearing-in ceremony. I told him it was a good and positive action taken. I added that as far as I could recall Nawaz Sharif had last visited to attend the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi, and, as a result, he was coming to India after almost two decades.

Sometime later, Prime Minister Modi again asked to see me in his office. This time he asked for my assessment on India–Pakistan relations and I briefed him on the back channel. There appeared to be an intent to continue the back-channel process. The file on the subject had been reviewed. I was even once told that no major change was required.

A distinguished diplomat was being considered to be appointed as special envoy by Prime Minister Modi. I was asked to meet him. However, when I checked with the PMO, I was told there had been a change in thought and I would be informed regarding the briefing.

On 20 April 2017, a senior official of the PMO came to see me at my house. He said the prime minister wanted me to go to Pakistan to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I reiterated that such meetings are more valuable if the envoy has the public confidence of the prime minister.

However, on the 22nd I was told I would be given details of the points to be discussed and was asked to give my travel documents to enable me to travel to Pakistan. The same day, the senior official and I met Fali Nariman to refresh some points.

The following day, I saw a news item that a leading Indian businessman, who was an emissary, had gone to meet PM Nawaz Sharif, in his personal plane. I rang the official, who appeared surprised at this development.

I told him that under the circumstances, it would not be proper for two people to represent the prime minister for the same purpose. Clearly, the emissary had not coordinated his visit to Pakistan with the PMO. This was the last conversation I had on this subject.