By Shubhajit Roy
The BJP-led NDA government had given just about 20 minutes to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit on August 18 to cancel his meeting with Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah or else the Foreign Secretary-level talks will be cancelled, The Indian Express has learnt.
When the Ministry of External Affairs approached the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi around 2.30 pm last Monday, saying that Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh would like to speak with Basit, the Pakistan envoy was out of the mission premises for a meeting.
By the time he returned to the mission in Chanakyapuri and called back the Foreign Secretary around 3.40 pm, Shah was already on his way to the High Commission. The Pakistani diplomats recalled watching the visuals of his car approaching the High Commission on TV news channels.
Singh, during her short and curt phone conversation that lasted about seven minutes, conveyed the political decision — which had been taken around 1 pm by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — that if Basit’s meeting with Shah at 4 pm was not cancelled, she is not going to Islamabad for the talks with her counterpart.
After getting the terse message from Singh, the Pakistan High Commission immediately contacted their Foreign Office in Islamabad. In those tense 15 minutes, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary was out of office and could not be contacted — since cellphone lines were down in Islamabad due to the Imran Khan-Tahir ul-Qadri protests at Zero Point.
However, the Pakistan High Commission got a go-ahead from the Pakistan Foreign Office, and went ahead with the meeting with Shah.
A Pakistan government official told The Indian Express, “Look, these are principled positions (about meeting Hurriyat leaders). The government cannot deviate from these positions within minutes.”
He reiterated that these have been a practice for the past two decades, and the bilateral talks have never been held hostage to these meetings with the “Kashmiri stakeholders”.
What has surprised Islamabad is this last-minute warning that came from South Block despite the information available about their meeting for almost a week.
Sources said the invitations for meetings between Basit and Hurriyat leaders went from August 11 onwards. These invitations were conveyed to all the seperatist leaders through phone calls, as is the practice. Syed Ali Shah Geelani made it public on August 12, and Mirwaiz Omer Farooq and Yasin Malik also told the Kashmiri media through the week about their meetings with Basit.
“The Indian government had the information about these meetings between the Pakistan High Commissioner and the Hurriyat leaders for almost a week, but not a single official from the MEA said anything about the cancellation of FS-level talks in those 5-6 days,” the Pakistan government official said.
In fact, some Kashmiri leaders, including Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Bhat, had come for the Iftaar hosted by Basit on July 19, which happened around the time the two sides were discussing the scheduling of FS-level talks.
Sujatha Singh had called up the Pakistan Foreign Secretary on July 23 to schedule the meeting in Islamabad on August 23, and she had not said a word about the Iftaar meeting, Pakistan government sources said. The only thing she had raised were the ceasefire violations on the LoC.
The Indian side, however, maintained that while the meetings between the Pakistan envoy and the Hurriyat leaders were not new and have taken place in the past, but their “timing” this time — held just ahead of the Foreign Secretary-level talks — was the “issue”. “So far as information available in the public domain, the meeting between a Pakistan envoy and the Hurriyat leaders have never taken place before a Foreign Secretary’s visit to Pakistan. That is the main issue,” Indian government sources said.
Also, South Block sources have raised eyebrows on Basit’s meeting since Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had not met any Hurriyat leader during his visit in May to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.