India was left scrambling on Tuesday after its envoy to Pakistan said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “looking forward” to visiting Islamabad for the Saarc Summit in November, with officials clarifying a final decision is yet to be made.
High commissioner Gautam Bambawale made the remarks during an interactive session organised by the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations in the Pakistani port city on Monday. Coming against the backdrop of a spike in tensions between the two countries , the comments took some in New Delhi by surprise.
“I can’t say about the future but as of today, Prime Minister Modi is looking forward to visiting Islamabad for the Saarc summit in November this year,” Bambawale was quoted by Dawn newspaper as saying in response to a question at the event.
After Bambawale’s remarks were reported by the Indian media, external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup clarified that “decisions and announcements of such nature are not made so far in advance”.
Other officials said a final decision is yet to be made and it would be announced at the right time. “We will only announce dates for any visit of the prime minister just before the visit,” said one official who did not want to be named.
Another source questioned the envoy’s remarks. “Whether he should have made the comment now is another question. But it’s also a fact that it was a qualified statement,” the source said.
Pakistan has formally invited Modi to the summit and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had said in December – before the attack on Pathankot airbase that was blamed on the Jaish-e-Mohammed – that Modi would attend.
Bambawale also said there had been contacts at the operational level between the two governments even while tensions were high. Over the past month-and-a-half, there had been “cordial” interactions between Pakistani and Indian border forces and several meetings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc).
A Saarc Summit cannot go ahead if even one of the heads of state or government of the eight member states opts out. No Indian prime minister has skipped a summit so far.
India-Pakistan ties have nosedived several times since January over the Pathankot attack, the unrest in Kashmir and Modi’s remarks about Islamabad answering for “atrocities” in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The two sides had announced a new Comprehensive Dialogue when Swaraj visited Islamabad in December but the process is yet to take off.
Home minister Rajnath Singh visited Pakistan last month for a meeting of Saarc interior ministers but his interactions with his Pakistani counterpart were marked by a lack of warmth. Finance minister Arun Jaitley subsequently skipped another Saarc meet held in Islamabad during August 25-26.
At the interaction in Karachi, Bambawale also said it was India’s desire to see a Pakistan that is moderate, prosperous and stable, and at peace with itself, its neighbours and the rest of the world. The way forward is to increase trust and confidence between the two countries because this had been lacking for the many years, he said.
There had been contacts at the operational level between the two governments even when tensions were high, he said. Over the past month-and-a-half, there had been “cordial” interactions between Pakistani and Indian border forces and several meetings of Saarc had been held, he added.
The Indian government, Bambawale said, had been saying: “Let’s work together to get to the bottom of terrorism which was a headache not only for Pakistan, but for India and the world.” The two countries should not be talking on just one issue but on all issues, he said.
Replying to a question about alleged atrocities in Kashmir, he said Indians were as concerned about the people of Kashmir as anyone else in the world. However, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir is domestic and “you should focus on your problems”, he added.
Asked about India’s alleged interference in Balochistan, Bambawale referred to the arrest of former Indian Navy officer Kulbhushan Jadhav by Pakistani authorities and the capture of Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Bahadur Ali in Jammu and Kashmir and said there is a need to discuss these matters though there would be difficulties.
When Pakistan arrested Jadhav on charges of spying, India said he was an Indian national and sought consular access, but it was not given, Bambawale said. “We have arrested in Jammu and Kashmir a Pakistani, Bahadur Ali, who has confessed that he received training of terrorism in Pakistan. We have offered Pakistani authorities full consular access to him,” he said.
(With inputs from agencies)