Less than 12 hours after the Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar denied US President Donald Trump’s claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to play the role of a mediator on Kashmir, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in Parliament Tuesday he would like to “categorically assure” that the Prime Minister had made no such request.
While Jaishankar’s statement was made at around 11 am in Rajya Sabha, after the ministry had about 11 hours to check the records in Delhi and Washington, the MEA spokesperson’s statement came after 40-45 minutes of deliberations within the government on how to respond to the US President’s statement.
It was around 10.30 pm on Monday when South Block first saw the reports of Trump’s statement — before his bilateral meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan — where he said that Modi had asked him to play the role of an arbitrator and mediator on Kashmir. “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago. We talked about this subject, and he actually said would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator? I said: Where? He said: Kashmir. Because this has been going on for many, many years… And If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” Trump said on Monday night.
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Senior officials in South Block, who were monitoring the meeting between Khan and Trump, conveyed Trump’s remark to Jaishankar, who had returned from his meeting with Russian Deputy PM Yury Borisov to discuss preparations for the September summit between Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While the reports quoted Trump, the officials waited for a video clip of his statement, as they worked the phones. As soon as the video clip was posted, the officials sent it to Jaishankar and the Prime Minister’s Office.
Sources said there was “absolute clarity” that Modi had not made any such suggestion during his meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka on June 27.
“Besides the Prime Minister, there were at least eight Indian officials as well as the External Affairs Minister in the room. There was no confusion on what the PM had said during the meeting,” said a source. The officials present included National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale.
The 40-minute Modi-Trump meeting had taken place at the International Exhibition Centre in Osaka, which was the summit venue. Briefing the media after the meeting, Foreign Secretary Gokhale had said four issues were discussed — Iran, 5G, trade and defence. Trump’s daughter and advisor, Ivanka Trump, who was part of the meeting, also released a video clip where she spelt out the issues discussed.
“There was no reference to Kashmir in the talks, nor in Gokhale’s briefing or Ivanka’s video,” the source said.
In Osaka, there was one more occasion where the two leaders sat side-by-side — at the dinner. Indian diplomat Nilakshi Saha Sinha, a director in the Central and Western Africa division in the MEA who doubles up as PM’s interpreter for such occasions, was sitting just behind Modi to smoothen the flow of conversation with Trump on one side and Australian PM Scott Morrison on the other side.
Sources said Modi did not mention anything about seeking mediation on Kashmir. Sources said the two leaders had a “good conversation” during the dinner, sometimes aided by the official interpreting for them.
There were a few other occasions where the two interacted during the G-20 summit, including the Japan-US-India trilateral meeting (just before the Modi-Trump bilateral meeting) and sometimes in the leaders’ lounge, and during the group photographs.
According to standard diplomatic practice, while the records of discussion of the bilateral meeting are prepared by officials present, the conversation over dinner is prepared by the interpreter-diplomat, and if the two leaders have a conversation with no aide by their side (in the lounge or while walking together), they brief the officials on the conversation. In all these cases, records of discussions – called “RoDs”, as per diplomatic jargon, are maintained.
While the Indian side was certain that Modi never mentioned mediation on Kashmir, the only question before them was how to rebut Trump’s statement. “Since the PM’s name had been invoked by the US President, we had to address the issue head-on. There was no ambiguity in that approach… but the key question was how,” the source said.
While a draft statement was prepared by officials and sent to Jaishankar, the minister took it to the Prime Minister, and senior officials, including Gokhale and Doval, pitched in. Modi gave his approval to Jaishankar for denying the claim, sources said.
Why PM may not speak
India has denied President Trump’s claim that PM Modi asked him to play mediator. But India is not planning to escalate the issue by getting the PM to speak on it. Delhi counts on Washington’s support to lean on Pakistan on terrorism, and Trump’s record has been better than many of his predecessors. Delhi would not like to lose that, and hand Pakistan a win.
So, the drafting of the statement began around 11.15 pm, and the MEA spokesperson tweeted it at 11.58 pm. During that time, the Indian side checked its records, with MEA’s joint secretary (Americas) Gourangalal Das concurring that there was nothing to suggest it could have been misinterpreted. But they wanted to be absolutely sure that there was no such suggestion at all in the American records as well.
So, through the night, while Delhi was sleeping, the Indian embassy in the US, led by Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla, also worked the phones with the US government. The records of discussions in the US State Department and the White House were also checked, and the US side confirmed that there was no such reference in their records as well.
In fact, Washington gently walked back on Trump’s statement. At 4.47 am on Tuesday, the US State Department’s highest ranking official on the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA), Acting Assistant Secretary Alice G Wells — equivalent to joint secretary (Americas) in the MEA — tweeted, “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes #Pakistan and #India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist.” This was a clear distancing of the US State Department from Trump’s statements.
Armed with a reconfirmation from Washington, Jaishankar added in his statement to Parliament that he would like to “categorically assure” the House that no such request has been made by Modi to Trump. “I repeat, no such request was made by the Prime Minister to the US President,” he said.
This “categorical assurance” was borne out of the cross-checking of the records on both sides, and Well’s tweet. “I would Sir, also reiterate that it has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. I would further underline that any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross-border terrorism. Sir, let me conclude by emphasising that the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India and Pakistan bilaterally. I hope, in view of my very specific and categorical responses, that there is no confusion in the mind of anybody on this matter,” he said.
However, the Indian side is not going to escalate the issue further, since the White House has chosen to keep quiet on the President’s statement. They have not contradicted India’s rebuttal, nor have they substantiated Trump’s statement in their readout after the meeting, sources pointed out.
Sources said that with the White House and the US State Department not contradicting the MEA and Jaishankar’s statement, the government is of the view that Modi’s statement on the controversy is not needed. “If the PM makes a statement, it will unnecessarily escalate matters between the two countries,” sources said.
Sources said Trump has continuously put pressure on Pakistan, and Delhi would not want to jeopardise the relationship because of his statement, giving Pakistan a win on the issue.
In fact, US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel spoke with Indian ambassador Shringla. “Engel reiterated his support for the longstanding US position on the Kashmir dispute, saying he supported dialogue between India & Pakistan, but the dialogue’s pace & scope can only be determined by India & Pakistan,” the committee’s handle tweeted.
US Congressman Brad Sherman, who is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted, “I just apologised to Indian Ambassador @HarshShringla for Trump’s amateurish and embarrassing mistake. Everyone who knows anything about foreign policy in South Asia knows that #India consistently opposes third-party mediation re #Kashmir. Everyone knows PM Modi would never suggest such a thing. Trump’s statement is amateurish and delusional. And embarrassing.”