India on Sunday lodged a strong protest by issuing a note verbale to Pakistan over intimidation of guests invited for an iftaar party in Islamabad on Saturday. The iftaar, traditionally held in the holy month of Ramzan, was hosted by Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria at Hotel Serena in Islamabad’s Diplomatic Enclave.
A statement from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad said more than 300 Pakistani guests were turned away, including parliamentarians, government officials, media representatives, retired military officials, businessmen, and retired diplomats, in addition to citizens from all walks of life.
According to sources, a former spokesperson of the Pakistan Army, Major General (retired) Athar Abbas, was among those stopped. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Farhatullah Babar was able to attend “after much difficulty”.
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High Commissioner Bisaria later told his guests that some of them could not make it to the party. “I want to apologise because some of you faced a lot of trouble to come here and some of our friends could not come,” he said.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the Indian High Commission said that the guests faced “unprecedented harassment and intimidation at the hands of security agencies”.
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“A concerted campaign was launched by Pakistan’s security agencies in the days preceding the Iftar function to reach out to invitees to actively dissuade them from attending the event. Those guests who did reach the function venue, in some cases from places as far as Lahore and Karachi, were intimidated and physically stopped from attending the Iftar function by Pakistani security forces, who had virtually laid the Serena hotel under siege”, the statement said, adding that many guests from the diplomatic community based in Islamabad were also subjected to harassment.
Sources said despite facing harassment and questioning about 130 people were able to attend the event, including leaders from major political parties such as the PTI, PML(N) and PPP who, a source said, “came in their personal capacity, and not as representatives of their parties”.
Tweeting about the harassment he faced, senior PPP leader Farhatullah Babar, who was advisor to former Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari, said, “Came to Serena for iftar hosted by Indian HC. Hotel seems barricaded. Told that iftar cancelled. When insisted, I was told to use other gate. Other gate also closed and told to go back to front gate again. What’s going on, something fishy,” he tweeted.
Babar said that he somehow managed to attend the Indian mission’s iftar despite efforts by the local authorities to stop invitees on one pretext or other.
In its statement, the Indian High Commission said that in violation of diplomatic norms, a large Pakistani security detachment, equipped with fork lifts, was detailed outside Serena Hotel to aggressively turned away Pakistani citizens. “In some cases, cars used by invitees were lifted and removed using forklifts”, it said.
“The security forces stationed on the main road outside Hotel Serena rudely rebuffed and intimidated officers and diplomatic staff of the High Commission of India who tried to ascertain from the security personnel the reasons for harassment of the guests. Some officials were jostled, pushed, abused and aggressively threatened with bodily harm. In some cases, mobile phones belonging to officials were snatched away,” it said.
The Indian High Commission called the events of June 1 “disappointing” and said they not only “violate basic norms of diplomatic conduct but are against all notions of civilized behaviour”.
“Stopping diplomats and officials of the High Commission of India in Pakistan from discharging their diplomatic functions by intimidation and coercion is entirely counter-productive for our bilateral relationship,” the statement said.
“We have requested the government of Pakistan to urgently investigate these ugly events and share the results of the exercise with the High Commission of India. Further, we have emphasized to the government of Pakistan the need to ensure that diplomats and officials of the High Commission of India are allowed to discharge their diplomatic functions without fear of coercion or harassment,” it said.
The incident takes place more than two months after the Indian government’s security establishment stepped up screening of guests attending the Pakistan National Day event in Delhi. Then, on March 23, as guests walked past barricades manned by Delhi Police, security personnel in plain clothes asked the guests about the purpose of the visit. After they were shown the invitation card, the police personnel had noted down the details of the guests: name, designation, organisation, address and mobile number. The Indian government had decided to boycott the event, on the pretext that Hurriyat leaders had been invited.