The chill in India-Pakistan ties was on full display at the meeting of SAARC interior ministers in Islamabad on Thursday, with home minister Rajnath Singh seeking the “strongest” action against countries that back terrorism.
Singh did not name any countries or individuals in his terse speech but there was little doubt he was referring to Pakistan. In a speech that was not covered by the Pakistani media, Singh sent out a strong message to his hosts: “There is no good or bad terrorism…Terrorism is terrorism."
He said mere condemnation of terrorism is not enough, adding: “Strongest possible steps need to be taken not only against terrorists and terrorist organizations but also those individuals, institutions, organisations or nations that support them.” Terrorists, Singh said, should not be eulogised or glorified as “martyrs”.
The remarks were an apparent reference to the stance adopted by Pakistan on slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir. Islamabad has angered New Delhi by referring to Wani as a “Kashmiri leader” and a martyr and describing his death as an “extrajudicial killing”.
“If we are to rid ourselves of terrorism, we will have to genuinely believe that attempts to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' terrorists are misleading, and thus, no type of terrorism or support to it can be justified on any grounds whatsoever," Singh said.
“Immediate and effective action is required against all those who support or encourage international terrorism in any way, whether they are state actors or non-state. Only then justice will be ensured for the victims of terrorist attacks such as in Mumbai and Pathankot. We must have the approach of 'zero tolerance' against any type of terrorism," he added.
Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan brought up Kashmir in his speech and criticised what he said was the use of “excessive force" to suppress protests in Jammu and Kashmir. He also said there was a difference between fighting for freedom and terrorism.
“Using torture against innocent children and violence against civilians qualifies as terrorism,” Khan was quoted as saying by the Dawn.
As the SAARC meeting began at Serena Hotel in Islamabad, the frost permeating bilateral ties was plain for all to see. Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was receiving participants at the entrance of the venue and shaking their hands.
When Singh and a grim-looking Khan came face-to-face, their hands barely touched before the Indian minister moved into the hall, witnesses said.
Visiting Indian journalists were not allowed to capture the moment as they were kept at a distance by Pakistani officials. This led to an angry exchange between an Indian official and a Pakistani official.
Both Singh and Khan stayed away from a lunch hosted for the SAARC ministers.
Pakistani media, including the vibrant private TV news channels, did not cover Singh’s speech. Pakistani officials said there was great anger in the country against the Indian government over the violence in Jammu and Kashmir, and that was why the media “blacked out” Singh.
“We are respecting public sentiments," one official said. TV news channel directors said on condition of anonymity they were advised by official quarters not to cover Singh’s speech.
The Pakistan government tried to downplay the SAARC meet and only state-run Pakistan Television covered the introductory speeches by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and interior minister Khan.
Singh is the first Indian minister to visit Pakistan since the terror attack on Pathankot airbase in January that was blamed on the banned Jaish-e-Mohammed. The two sides have not held any substantial dialogue since the 2008 Mumbai attacks by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
During his speech, Singh also said terrorism had been greatly amplified by the misuse of digital technology. He asked governments to look at all aspects of cyber crime and called for immediate ratification of the SAARC convention on mutual assistance in criminal matters. Prime Minister Sharif also touched on terrorism in his opening address but from a different point of view. Sharif said Pakistan had registered "remarkable gains" against terrorists at the national level through the army’s operation Zarb-e-Azb and the implementation of a National Action Plan.
"This reflects our government’s determination to eliminate the scourge of terrorism from our soil for good," he said. "Let me reaffirm that Pakistan remains committed to jointly working with the SAARC member states in fighting terrorism, corruption and organised crime among others.”
Interior Minister Khan told the gathering, "It is time for us to seize the moment, to leverage our potential and overcome our challenges." Pakistan is committed to the SAARC process and desires to see it a successful regional organisation, he added. Even before Singh reached Islamabad on Wednesday, India ruled out a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart or other leaders, with officials saying the atmosphere was not conducive to such an interaction.
Singh’s arrival coincided with protests at several places by radical organisations and extremist leaders such as Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed and Hizbul Mujahideen head Syed Salahuddin. Some protesters gathered at a distance of about 10 km from the National Assembly, located close to the venue of the SAARC meet. The media reported that civil society groups and religious and hardline organisations staged protests for the second day against Singh's visit. Islamabad’s main express highway was blocked by a large number of workers of the Hurriyat Conference.
The focus shifted from the SAARC meeting to the visit by the Indian minister. Pakistani officials said the stance adopted by the Nawaz Sharif government was meant "to compensate for the fact that the Indian minister had been welcomed in Pakistan despite the situation in Kashmir". Security was high for Singh, who was transported to the hotel in a helicopter.
Singh also called on the Pakistani premier with other SAARC ministers. The ministers were with Sharif for about 20 minutes and exchanged pleasantries. There were no formal discussions. Soon after the SAARC meeting, Singh left for India.