Sending a strong message to Islamabad, the Narendra Modi government on Monday called off the Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan, an hour after Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit met Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah here. Two other Kashmiri separatist leaders — Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik — are scheduled to meet Basit on Tuesday.
This is a serious setback to the efforts to re-start the dialogue process, which have been stalled since January 2013. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was scheduled to travel to Islamabad for talks with her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary on August 25. The last meeting between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries took place in Islamabad in September 2012.
Sources told The Indian Express that following a “high-level political consultation” on Monday morning, Singh called up Basit and asked him to desist from meeting the separatist leaders. This phone call took place before his scheduled meeting with Shah at 4 pm today. “He was told in very clear terms that if he went ahead with the meeting, the talks will be called off,” a source privy to the seven-minute phone conversation told The Indian Express.
After Basit’s meeting with Shah, South Block lost no time in announcing its decision. Sources attributed this tough stand to the “new BJP-led NDA government” among other factors.
“Foreign Secretary (Sujatha Singh) conveyed to the Pakistan High Commissioner today, in clear and unambiguous terms, that Pakistan’s continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable. It was underlined that the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meetings with these so-called leaders of the Hurriyat undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office,” said the Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin in a sharply-worded response.
“Therefore, under the present circumstances, it is felt that no useful purpose will be served by the Indian Foreign Secretary going to Islamabad next week. Foreign Secretary’s visit to Islamabad for talks on 25 August stands cancelled,” he said.
Akbaruddin underlined that at a time when serious initiatives were being undertaken by the Centre to push bilateral ties, including resumption of a regular dialogue process, the invitation to “so-called leaders” of the Hurriyat by the Pakistan High Commission “does indeed raise questions about Pakistan’s sincerity, and shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs continue unabated”.
The only path available to Pakistan is to resolve outstanding issues through a peaceful bilateral dialogue within the framework and principles of the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration, he said.
A few hours later, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam responded. “It is a longstanding practice that, prior to Pakistan-India talks, meetings with Kashmiri leaders are held to facilitate meaningful discussions on the issue of Kashmir,” said Aslam.
“The Indian decision is a setback to the efforts by our leadership to promote good neighbourly relations with India. The Prime Minister of Pakistan has clearly articulated the vision of peace for development. It was in this spirit that he accepted the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister to attend his inaugural ceremony. The meeting between the two Foreign Secretaries was scheduled at the directive of the two Prime Minister,” said Aslam.
While such meetings with separatist leaders are common, what is unusual is that the Pakistan High Commission scheduled the meetings ahead of the FS-level talks, despite knowing India’s displeasure on the issue.
In fact, mindful of India’s sensitivities, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not meet the Hurriyat leaders when he visited India to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26. “When Sharif did not meet the Hurriyat leaders, what was the need for the Pakistan High Commissioner to meet them?” pointed out an official source.
Defending New Delhi’s decision, a top government source told The Indian Express, “This new BJP-led NDA government has been reaching out constructively to the Pakistan government. Look at the reach-out from Delhi — the Prime Minister called Nawaz Sharif to attend the swearing-in ceremony, the Foreign Secretary called up her Pakistan counterpart for setting up the meeting on August 25. There have been no official reactions to the Kashmir-related statements by Sharif as well as Basit on August 14, during their Independence Day speeches. But there is a limit to the restraint.”
The separatist leaders are usually invited by the Pakistan High Commission for their National Day function on March 23, or during visits by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministers or Foreign Secretaries. South Block has always expressed displeasure at such meetings between visiting Pakistan dignitaries and Hurriyat leaders. The last such meeting was in November 2013, when the then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid described the meeting between separatist leaders and Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz as “insensitive” and “counterproductive”.
The decision to hold FS-level talks was taken in July-end, less than two months after Modi and Sharif agreed that the top diplomats would keep in touch. The Islamabad meeting, described by government sources as “talks about talks”, was expected to discuss the roadmap ahead.
Singh spoke with Chaudhary on July 23, and conveyed her decision to go to Islamabad on August 25 for a bilateral meeting. During her telephone conversation, Singh also raised the issue of ceasefire violations. She stressed that “incidents of this nature will impede the positive work” that the political leaders of the two countries wished to take up. She reiterated that meaningful cooperation between the two countries cannot take place alongside violence.
In the last few weeks, the ceasefire violations have been on the rise. However, New Delhi was categorical about linking the cancellation of talks with Basit’s meeting with separatist leaders.
Earlier in the day, after his meeting with Basit, Shabir Shah said he called for trilateral (India, Pakistan and Kashmir representatives) talks on Kashmir.