Biblio: review of Rajiv Dogra's Where Borders Bleed (published March-April 2015)
Review for BIBLIO
Where Borders Bleed: an insider's account of Indo-Pak relations
By Rajiv Dogra
Rupa, 2015, 288pp., Rs 500
(Review by Andrew Whitehead)
For a career diplomat, Rajiv Dogra has a low opinion of India's leaders. A lily-livered lot and appeasers all - he suggests - determined to think the best of Pakistan as its neighbour does its worst. 'Sometimes it seems that when all is going in India's favour' he insists in what is the refrain of this book 'it bends over to please Pakistan and concede to its demands'.
Nehru adopted a 'defensive, almost apologetic, posture' in his dealings with Pakistan. His daughter showed grit in pursuing and winning the 1971 war, then threw it all away by her naive and ill-considered conduct at the Simla summit the following year. And since then, according to Dogra, it's been downhill all the way. Vajpayee made a fool of himself by taking the bus to Lahore when Pakistan's incursion towards Kargil was already underway. The Operation Parakram army mobilisation after the attack on the Indian Parliament was 'bizarre' as well as ineffective. As for Manmohan Singh, India's response to the 26/11 attack on Mumbai is described as 'grotesque'.
'Like moths to a flame,' Dogra argues, 'Indian leaders have repeatedly been drawn to moulding a new beginning with Pakistan. ... Yet their failures do not deter those who succeed them.'
For a hard-headed account of Indo-Pak dealings from the midnight moment on, this book adopts the unsettling premise: "you shouldn't be starting from here". Without Partition, Dogra argues, India rather than China would have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; a united India's size and strength might well have dissuaded China from aggressive moves on the border; and as a secular and democratic force, this larger, greater India would probably have closed down the space which has allowed terrorism and jihad to develop.
Perhaps, perhaps not - but both diplomacy and international relations are about making the best of where we are rather than wishing we were somewhere else.
Whatever can be said of this engagingly dyspeptic account of India-Pakistan relations, it's certainly not even-handed. India's leaders may have been persistently wrong but India was always in the right. Pakistan's citizens have proved to be - in comments ascribed to 'foreigners' but repeated with apparent approbation - 'wild', 'volatile' and 'warlike'. It's rulers have been almost without exception sly, devious and immoral: Ayub Khan was - we're told - linked in the press to Christine Keeler, the young femme fatale in the Profumo affair, Britain's foremost sixties political scandal; Yahya Khan 'was known to be an alcoholic and a womanizer'; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was well known for 'his debauchery ... and his insistence that those close to him should follow his Lotharian lifestyle' who 'brought women home even while [his wife] slept in the adjoining room'.
What this isnt, however, is the 'insider's account' promised on the front cover. Rajiv Dogra spent most of his diplomatic career in Europe, well away from his country's diplomatic front-line. But he was for two years in the early 1990s India's Consul-General in Karachi, a city then on its knees at a time when relations between the two countries were bleak indeed. What conversations were there between Delhi and the MQM? What was it like being an Indian diplomat in Pakistan's principal city of commerce? What are his personal reflections on living in a place which had been so deeply affected by Partition, and which still had a significant Hindu population? We're not told.
'The first time I met Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had fixed us in an unblinking stare.' Now this is more like it - how intriguing to meet father and daughter together, the key figures of Pakistan's principal political dynasty. But it transpires that Dogra's encounter was fifteen or more years after Bhutto senior's execution, and the transfixing gaze was from a portrait.
The diplomatic tittle-tattle relayed here is not much more convincing. Dogra recalls being told in 1993 at a French national day reception in Karachi by a retired Pakistani judge that Nawaz Sharif had personally given the nod for the bomb attacks in Bombay a few months earlier. This former judge had, Dogra records, been told by a 'sitting judge of the Supreme Court, who should know'. Case proven! Then there's the unnamed friend in Karachi who happened to be sitting next to an unnamed Pakistani foreign minister on a flight at an unspecified date, during which the minister confided that his greatest wish was that God should "place a nuclear bomb each on my palms ... One I would drop on Bombay, the other on Delhi". Clearly admissible evidence.
Rajiv Dogra's recurring stylistic device is to make a political statement in the form of a rhetorical question: 'Can we afford to be generous with our water? Do we have enough for our people and our use?' Or again. 'Taliban, terror and the ISI are so closely interlinked in today's Pakistan as to be indistinguishable for all practical purposes. Will the Taliban eventually dominate them all?'
At times, this is combined with a bold assumption about how middle India thinks. 'The issue that often agitates the Indian people is this: why doesn't India assert itself? Why is it always on the defensive? Is the Indian leadership out of synchronisation with the mood of the nation?' The author recalls with anguish an encounter with a group of educated and thoughtful young Indian professionals and students where they were the hawks and he was pushed into the role of the "Pakistan is changing for the better" peacenik. It was not his natural role - 'there is no doubt they got the better of me', he ruefully concedes.
For such an angry book, it ends without any real call to action. The tone is of resigned defeatism. 'The prognosis is dark, but what can I do? If there has to be a future of strife and confrontation, then so be it.' Just about the only policy advocated - as opposed to past actions and omissions lamented - is to urge Washington to halt all financial aid to Pakistan and lobby multilateral agencies to follow suit. It's hardly a rallying cry.
Rajiv Dogra's trenchantly expressed and well informed arguments will be devoured eagerly by those who share his hawkish outlook. They are not presented in a fashion to entice those of less certain convictions. I'd be curious to know how Dogra would judge Narendra Modi's policy towards Pakistan. I suspect he would approve of the government's censure of links between the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi and the Hurriyat leaders, but be less impressed by the wavering on Article 370 and the doveish 'we'll talk to anybody' tone of the common minimum programme for Jammu & Kashmir.
I have no doubt Mr Dogra will tell us in due course.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent and the author of 'A Mission in Kashmir').