Was Hamid Gul actually brokering peace between Pakistan and India?

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaAug 28, 2015 | 17:04

Was Hamid Gul actually brokering peace between Pakistan and India?

On The Hindu op-ed page today, Anand Verma, director of R&AW in the Rajiv Gandhi era, has made stunning revelations of his secret negotiations with Lt General Hamid Gul, then ISI chief and his exact counterpart. In negotiations, mostly conducted overseas, and later on public phone lines using code words and signals, he says they came close to settling the Siachen dispute and also de-escalate the Kashmir theatre on both sides.


He also reveals that, as a gesture of goodwill and to build confidence, Gul handed over to India, in a covert operation, four soldiers of Sikh units who had deserted in the mutinies following Operation Blue Star and defected to Pakistan.

The negotiation process, he says, was initiated by Pakistan and had the direct blessing of Rajiv Gandhi and General Zia-ul-Haq. He writes that for the first meeting Rajiv sought the good offices of Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. He was a personal friend of Rajiv's (remember the controversy then of India allowing traffic rights to Royal Jordanian Airlines). Hassan had great goodwill in Pakistan too, and the old relationship between the Pakistan army, Zia and the Jordanian government are extensively recorded.

Accordingly, the first Verma-Gul meeting was hosted by Hassan, Verma says.

It stopped as Zia was assassinated. Verma suspects his assassination may have had something to do with his own army commanders' disapproval of his peacemaking. Gul was moved out of the ISI not long after. And the only civilian at the other end, former foreign secretary Niaz Naik, was also found dead in mysterious circumstances in the course of time.


It all adds up to a neat conspiracy theory. Certainly, Verma, a very cautious and understated spook as most Indians of the pre-Dulat/Raman generation were, has waited nearly three decades to make this revelation. He has also evidently been provoked by Gul's death and criticism of him now, including by this writer.

I do believe Verma to be truthful and accurate in his recollections. In the late 1980s and until the mid-1990s, I attended a series of Track-II meetings. One of these, called the Balusa Group, and organised by a former US ambassador of subcontinental origin, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, also had one round hosted by Hassan in Amman. This was a heavy-hitting group with one former Indian chief, Air Chief Marshal SK Kaul, his brother, former cabinet secretary and India's ambassador to US, PK Kaul, occasionally Lt General Satish Nambiar, former Pakistani army chief General KM Arif, top industrialist and liberal philanthropist Babar Ali (he hosted one session in Lahore at Pakistan's finest management institute, LUMS, that he had helped set up).

In another Track-II group (not Balusa) that I attended a couple of times, we also had former Indian and Pakistani army chiefs Sundarji and Jehangir Karamat, Jaswant Singh (later defence, external affairs and finance minister in the Vajpayee cabinet), the founder of Indian strategic thought (and father of the current foreign secretary, K Subrahmanyam, and India's foremost public intellectual-strategist C Raja Mohan.


Of course, one of the most sincere members of the group was retired Major-General Mahmud Durrani, by far the most sensible, pacifist and soldier-like Pakistani general I have met so far, and a Pakistani patriot to the core. No surprise that hawkish Pakistani commentators gave him the pejorative "General Shanti”. As Pakistan's National Security Advisor (NSA), he first made the brave admission that Kasab was a Pakistani and there was no point denying that fact. He paid for it with his job.

Just as an aside, because we observe the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war today: he fought as a young tank commander in defence in the Sialkot sector, particularly the viciously contested battles of Philora and Chawinda where India's strike corps, led by 1 Armoured Division, advanced. At one of the Balusa meetings at Lake Bellagio in Italy on a long evening walk, he recounted to us his story of 1965.

He spoke glowingly of the tactical audacity and courage of Lt Colonel A.B. Tarapore who led his regiment in assault and was given one of the two Param Vir Chakras of that war. He had found Tarapore's body and still held him in fellow cavalry-man's respect.

But to return to the Verma theme, this was also a time when parallel Track-II groups meetings were going on to reconstruct the stand-off of Exercise Brasstacks. These included General Arif from the Pakistani side, Anand Verma and Rajiv Gandhi's de facto defence minister Arun Singh from the Indian side. I am not sure if Gul was in these meetings, but probably he wasn’t, as he may have still been in service.

But there was plenty of talk of the Subcontinent having escaped a "near-thing" twice in 1987-88. First a war, during Brasstacks in 1987, and then peace in 1988. It was "common knowledge”, though never officially stated or confirmed by any of the players, that a Siachen deal was almost clinched.

There was also a great deal of debate on how this mood had turned so dramatically so soon.

Probably it was because both sides saw the dangers in the status quo how fragile their peace was. Probably because both knew that they were headed inevitably to becoming nuclear powers formally. And two more likely explanations which I too share: one, that Rajiv had seen the short-sightedness and dangers of military brinkmanship in Brasstacks, and two, as Verma says, Zia was shaken to see his defence eating up 48 per cent of the national budget.

There is sufficient background evidence, therefore, to confirm that what Verma has claimed is accurate. The only argument I might still have is over Hamid Gul's intentions and role.

Was he too a convert to the newthink on peace, or was he merely carrying out Zia's instructions, if reluctantly and with resentment? I would rather believe that he was doing what he was told to, but hated Zia for it.

And therefore, while I agree with Verma's suggestion that the powers-that-be in the Pakistani Establishment got rid of Zia as he was seen as becoming soft, it is more likely that Gul was also in on it. A president and military dictator was killed under Gul's watch as ISI chief and he continued in that job for a year after that, removed by Benazir and the new, professional army chief, Asif Nawaz, using the fiasco of Gul's brainchild, the Jalalabad assault in Afghanistan, as an excuse. Gul wasn't exactly punished either, and moved to command a vital corps in Multan.

To me, the possibility of Gul being a conspirator rather than a peacenik victim is a more logical possibility. Anything less conspiratorial or intrigue-filled does not go with the man's track record.

Last updated: August 29, 2015 | 16:57
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