In a huge snub to Pakistan, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj left a meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers early, which was attended by her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi amidst fresh chill in bilateral ties. Swaraj attended the Informal Meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers held on the margins of the 73rd UN General Assembly and chaired by Foreign Minister of Nepal Pradeep Kumar Gyawali on Thursday.
After making her statement, she left the meeting early, prompting criticism from Qureshi who later told reporters, “no I didn’t have any talk with her (Swaraj). On the positive gesture, I can say she left the meeting mid-way, may be she was not feeling well”.
Indian diplomatic sources told PTI that it was quite normal in a multilateral meeting to leave early after one has delivered the country’s statement. The sources said that Swaraj was not the first minister to leave the meeting as her counterparts from Afghanistan and Bangladesh had also left before her.
They added that Swaraj had other engagements as well and Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale was present throughout the SAARC meeting. Swaraj and Qureshi were slated to meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly session.
However, India called off the meeting last week, citing the brutal killings of three policemen in Jammu and Kashmir and Islamabad releasing postage stamps “glorifying” slain Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani. Qureshi said he saw that there was this thinking in the meeting that “if we have to achieve something from this forum we have to move forward”.
“What is the way to move forward. We have to decide the next step – I have no hesitation in saying that in the way of SAARC’s progress and success and in the region’s connectivity and prosperity, there is only one obstacle and one attitude.
“The attitude of one nation is making the spirit of SAARC and the spirit of the founding fathers of SAARC unfulfilled and unsuccessful,” he said, in a veiled reference to India.
He said that he heard the Indian Minister’s remarks at the meeting “very carefully”.
“She talked about regional cooperation. My question is how will regional cooperation be possible when the region’s nations are ready to sit together and you are the obstacle in that dialogue and discussion,” he said.
Qureshi said he judged from the SAARC meeting that most of the members present there understand the significance and value of the grouping.
“They want to move on. I can’t speak for them but I can deduce from their body language disappointment because if you do not move and if you do not sit and convene meetings how do you move on. You are talking of SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area), you are talking of regional trade, how do you have regional trade when you are unwilling to sit and talk. When you fail to agree on a date for a summit where is regional trade going,” he said.
He cited other regional blocs like ASEAN and the EU and said “look at this (SAARC) atmosphere”.
India had boycotted the 2016 SAARC summit citing Islamabad’s unrelenting support to terrorist activities in India and and after Pakistan-based terrorists attacked an Indian Army base in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir.
Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan had also joined India in boycotting the summit. Qureshi called the Foreign Secretary’s comments, made after Swaraj had left, as a “very vague statement”.
“You say the next summit will not happen until there is conducive environment. How do you define what conducive environment is? It can vary from country to country. It can vary from person to person. On the basis of an imaginary thing, you are becoming an obstacle in the way of the entire region and its prosperity,” he said.
Qureshi added that 1.78 billion plus people of the SAARC grouping have to ask in whose hands their fate and future are being kept as a mortgage.
On Qureshi’s remarks that India is an obstacle in SAARC’s prosperity and regional connectivity, the Indian diplomatic sources said the answer to this was in Swaraj’s statement.
In her statement, Swaraj voiced India’s commitment to regional cooperation, saying it attaches highest priority to the development and prosperity of the region, under the government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
“Development of seamless physical connectivity is key for achieving regional growth, employment and prosperity,” she said.
SAARC summits are usually held biennially. The member-state hosting the summit assumes the Chair of the association. The last SAARC Summit in 2014 was held in Kathmandu, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.