Pakistan is ready to talk with India, and India’s concerns about terrorism from Pakistan can be addressed within the framework of a comprehensive dialogue agreed upon on the sidelines of last year’s Heart of Asia, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told The Sunday Express on Saturday.
“I am here to attend the Heart of Asia meeting and, by coming here, we are showing our commitment to, first of all, the importance of Heart of Asia for Afghanistan’s peace and security. I am also here to show our commitment to peace and security of the region, and commitment to promote multilateral peace for this purpose,” Aziz said.
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He added that Pakistan would not raise Kashmir or any bilateral issue with India at Heart of Asia, as “this is not the forum” for it, and reiterated that his presence in India was an indication that Pakistan was ready for bilateral talks.
“If India shows any interest, I would certainly like to meet. I don’t think we need to request for a meeting. We are here, so we will see how it goes,” Aziz said.
Pakistan, he said, was “desirous” of peace. “Peace requires dialogue, any issues can be discussed across the table than through the media. If we don’t have structured dialogue, then the dialogue through media increases hostility and increases negative perceptions,” Aziz said.
“Whenever India is ready, we will be ready. Terrorism is a subject under the comprehensive dialogue, when we meet, we can discuss that also,” he said.
A senior Indian official, however, told The Sunday Express there was “no possibility” of a bil)ateral India-Pakistan meeting on the sidelines of the 6th Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process on Afghanistan, which began on Saturday and will be formally inaugurated on Sunday by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“Frankly, it is a challenge to find something to talk about when they are pushing in infiltrators every night across,” the official said.
Aziz, who flew into Amritsar from Islamabad, advanced his arrival to Saturday evening from Sunday morning, apparently to avoid the early morning fog. Within an hour of his arrival, Aziz attended a grand dinner for all delegates hosted by Modi at a village-theme restaurant on the Amritsar-Attari road.
He was among the first delegates to arrive at the venue, looking relaxed as he strolled in with Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit. He got himself a blue safa tied by a turbanwallah, and walked down the cobbled pathway appreciating the exhibits and stalls in the faux village.
On the way he ran into Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who took a couple of seconds to recognise him with the turban on. The two shook hands and greeted each other warmly, before Jaishankar rushed off in the opposite direction.
The banquet was set up under a huge tent decked up in festive colours, with several rows of round tables, all in front of a stage. Aziz was listed for Table 2.
He took off his safa and was looking for his place at the table when the Iranian delegation walked in, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif and Aziz hugged each like long-lost friends.
As waiters swanned around with trays of juice, Aziz and Zarief sat by themselves and chatted for over 30 minutes before the arrival of Modi and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan.
Modi walked briskly towards the head table with Ghani, only giving Aziz a quick mid-stride namaste. Apart from Modi and Ghani, the head table had Zarief, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab Governor V P Singh Badnore and two others.
Minister of State M J Akbar gave Aziz company at Table 2, later joined by Punjab Deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, and his wife and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
External Affairs spokesman Vikas Swarup and Basit were seated side by side on a table immediately behind. Punjab BJP president Vijay Sampla, who was slotted to sit on Table 2 with Aziz, did not attend the dinner.
If Aziz was put out at being sidelined in the seating, he did not show it, and could be seen applauding the shows on the stage, where a speed artist drew a portrait of Ghani in a few minutes, dancers performed Bhangra and Kathak, Afghan pop singer Farhad Darya sang, and Punjab’s own Harshdeep Kaur belted out Laung gawacha.
Later, the foreign ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Slovakia (which holds the European Union Presidency this month) and Aziz called on Modi. The PM stressed that it was the collective responsibility of all to work together to help Afghanistan, and hoped that the conference would produce good results.
On Sunday, the conference will adopt a declaration on terrorism in the region that will seek to put pressure on Pakistan with what is being described as a “breakthrough”, with “new” and more specific language.
Officials from the 14 Heart of Asia member countries, including Pakistan, who met here on Saturday, the first day of the conference, agreed on the final draft of the declaration, including “a tough section” on terrorism.
A delegate who did not wish to be identified said the countries had been negotiating the language of the draft since September.
The fact that Pakistan, seen by both Afghanistan and host India as a source of terrorism in the region, is part of the consensus on the document means there was “give and take” on all sides on the wording. “In a multilateral document like this, there is no question of cornering any one country. It has to be agreed upon by everyone,” said the delegate.
India and Afghanistan are united in their stand against cross-border terrorism that emanates from Pakistan. And most participating countries also view terrorism as the biggest obstacle to Afghanistan’s peace, stability and development, which are the focus of the Heart of Asia conference.
All five Heart of Asia declarations before this one have had a strong section committing member states to tackling terrorism. But terror attacks have continued in Afghanistan, and in India. Another delegate said what the conference could do at best was to serve as “an annual point of pressure on Pakistan”.
The declaration will also mandate a group of experts to begin discussions on a draft document on a regional counter-terrorism strategy that has been in circulation. It will also announce Azerbaijan as the next venue of the Heart of Asia conference.
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