Have had the occasion to meet several Chiefs of Staff of the Pakistan armed services over the years, mostly during the trips I made to Pakistan, most of them in the decade following the nuclear tests by both countries in May 1998. Among them are/were Generals (the Azamgarh-born) Mirza Aslam Beg and Khalid Mahmud Arif, and Pakistan naval chief Admiral Fasih Bokhari. Arif carried the most heft. As Vice Chief he ran the army during General Zia ul-Haq’s extended tenure as COAS. But Zia was busy as Martial Law Administrator and later President of the country, and trusted his fellow Araini from Jallandar to mind the store and manage the army and, for his troubles, handed Arif his 4th star, making him the first and so far only Vice Chief of Staff in the subcontinent with the rank of full General.
I found Beg to be cautious and calculating; Arif, who died earlier this year on March 6, to be straight forward and, surprisingly, for someone who was the second most powerful man in all Pakistan, without airs. I recall that in our first meeting Arif explained the entire 1987 Op Brasstacks episode when he exposed the approaches to the Indus River line by concentrating his Army Reserve South at the chicken’s neck to cut off India’s access to Jammu & Kashmir — a stunningly audacious move that dared General K. Sundarji and the Indian government to make the exchange — try and cut off Pakistan at its waist as he severed India from Kashmir and took it. He bet that while his forces would take Kashmir, Indian forces wouldn’t be able to bisect Pakistan (with Op Brasstacks transitioning to Op Trident). In any case, that bait was not taken. Asked why he thought he would get away with risking so much, Arif replied with five-words dipped in contempt and etched in my mind as if with acid ever since — “Kyon ki aap buzdil ho” (“Because you are cowards”). When I once asked Sundarji (then residing in a bungalow within the Signals Enclave in Delhi) about Arif’s ruse de guerre he confirmed the essentials of the situation as the Pakistani General had described them to me but didn’t, other than shrugging his shoulders, either dilate on Brasstacks or respond to Arif’s taunt.
Arif, incidentally, provided an essay — “Roots of Conflict in South Asia: A Pakistani Perspective” for the 1994 compilation published by Penguin which I edited — ‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’ — unfortunately out of publication. Among the other notables who contributed to the book were Sundarji, K Subrahmanyam, US Senator Larry Pressler, KPS Gill, Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran, and the then US Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence for Planning & Resources Dov Zakheim during the Reagan Presidency, who in the George W Bush Administration was appointed the US Under-Secretary of Defence and Comptroller of the Pentagon.
Beg is alive, Arif and Bokhari are gone. They are/were, as expected, stout defenders of Pakistan, the Pakistan ideology and Pakistan’s national interests. Except the CNS, 1997-1999, Bokhari, a submariner was almost the exact opposite of Arif — his sophistication and easy-going urbanity and charm a contrast to the rough-hewn self-conscious toughness of Arif. In another profession, Bokhari would have made for a cultured, gentle-spoken, professor who commanded respect for the logic and persuasiveness with which he put forth his views.
Bokhari became CNS when the Pakistan Navy was passing through a hard time, its reputation stained by his predecessor Admiral Mansurul Haq’s being drummed out of service on corruption charges relating to the Agosta-B submarine deal with France. Haq escaped to the US, was extradited, and imprisoned by the Nawaz Sharif regime on an anti-corruption drive. His military credentials and spotless record led in 2011 to Asif Ali Zardari appointing Bokhari chairman of the National Accountability Bureau set up to collar the corrupt within the establishment. Bokhari’s appointment by Zardari was on the basis of the former’s success in cleaning up the naval procurement system, with the new naval acquisition system configured along the lines recommended by Ayesha Siddiqa — as she explains in her obituary of the Admiral ( https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/750707-remembering-fasih-bokhari ), who was back home with a PhD from King’s College, London, and impressed Bokhari by her new thinking. He appointed her ‘Head of Naval Research’. This reaching out to an outsider for fresh ideas was typically Bokhari.
He reached out to me — having heard of the views I had aired on nuclear and other issues relating to South Asian security in a session chaired by the former foreign minister Agha Shahi, ex-ICS, Madras cadre, at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, whose Board Shahi presided over. Shahi informed me of his pulling time as Private Secretary to the Premier of the Madras Presidency, C. Rajagopalachari — “Rajaji” to one and all — in the late 1930s and, in fact, opened his conversation with me in his office with a flourish, in what sounded to me like pure, flawless Tamil! I was taken aback but recovered sufficiently to remind him that my birthplace in Karnataka (mentioned on my passport) did not make me a “Madrassi”. He said he knew I was not a Tamilian but hoped nevertheless that I could speak his native tongue at least a little because, he said, with not little nostalgia, he wanted to show off his Tamil! Shahi hailed from the small but distinguished community of shia Muslims of Madras. He then spent half an hour speaking of Rajaji, and the latter’s run-ins with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and generally about the exciting political times on the cusp of freedom, as a young ICS officer attached to Rajaji, and relayed many tales of the “great man” he had served. But I digress!
Bokhari wanted to discuss matters of South Asian security and contacted me in my hotel (if I remember correctly). He invited me for lunch; I readily accepted. He picked me up from my Islamabad hotel and once in his Pajaro Bokhari informed me that he was taking me to Murree for the meal! I informed him that my visa, while absolving me of the daily trip to the police station to mark hazari, restricted my movement. He told me not to worry about it and the police and army jawans manning the several check points we passed on the way, did not bother to inquire about his passenger, and we breezed through. At Murree and in numerous discussions thereafter the one thing that struck me was the complete absence of dogma in everything the Admiral said. There was the light-hearted tittle-tattle about life under General Pervez Muharraf, more serious stuff about how he, along with the CAS, Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi, had not an inkling of Musharraf’s and the army’s plan to occupy the Kargil heights, and the fact that they were informed of these actions by the Northern Light Infantry elements by Musharraf some time after the launch of this operation. Bokhari said he protested vehemently but was stopped short by Musharraf wondering how the Pakistan Navy would have contributed to the operation, implying that because the navy had no role, Bokhari was not in on the planning, and that the Kargil action would have sailed through anyway with or without the CNS’ concurrence. But, considering how that episode panned out, Bokhari sounded relieved he was not party to this ill-conceived and failed military venture.
Bokhari particularly liked a lot the idea I had developed in a 1996 issue of ‘The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of international Affairs’ in London of having the Indian and Pakistani armed services restore their old, pre-Partition, social, cultural, and sporting ties as a “confidence and security-building measure” between the two countries. He thought it doable once the passions aroused by the Kargil conflict were spent, and talked of the mechanisms of such interactions, the procedural hurdles at both ends, etc., and even proposed that the naval chiefs of India and Pakistan meet to break the ice.
Like many senior military officers, Bokhari wanted India-Pakistan peace. But unlike quite a few of them, he did not pivot peace on prior resolution of the Kashmir dispute which position, he indicated, he had communicated to Musharraf and which view the latter accepted or came to realize on his own as the Open Sesame to a negotiated settlement. The broad contours of such an accord were broached by Musharraf to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in the July 2001 summit in Agra, and later to Manmohan Singh. Pity, it didn’t work out on either occasion. Because the central concept was of a joint Indo-Pak mechanism to oversee developments in J&K which solution, if only Delhi had pushed for it, could have included Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan as well, and combined with Pakistan’s acceptance that natives of PoK and Northern Areas and of J&K travelling freely across the LoC on the basis of their residential papers being stamped, would have satisfied both sides. This last provision essentially would have formalized and internationalized the India-Pakistan border on the Line of Control, something the MEA had at that time determined was a satisfactory remedy. The joint mechanism on the other hand by creating the fiction of Pakistani oversight in Kashmir would have salved the ego of the Pakistan Army. All these years later, there still is no better solution.
Admiral Bokhari, exactly six years my senior in age, and I corresponded sporadically via email until that correspondence petered out some years back because we knew what we agreed on and neither of us had anything new to say to each other. But the goodwill remained until this morning when I read Dr Siddiqa’s obit of Bokhari. I cannot claim to have known him well, but what I divined of the Admiral as a gentleman and a man of honour, and through his email-messages, was his clear-eyed frustration with how the situation was unravelling in his own country and in the subcontinent at-large, causing loss and pain to Indians and Pakistanis alike, and reducing both India and Pakistan in Asia. But I cannot but think that with the generations on either side of the Great Divide that still believe that rapprochement and even intimacy is somehow possible between India and Pakistan passing inexorably from the scene, hope grows dimmer.
Admiral Fasih Bokhari. Rest in Peace.