India and Pakistan will hold separate press conferences on Saturday amid a suspense over whether the NSA-level talks between the two countries will be held after both sides refuse to budge from their positions on the issue of involving Kashmiri separatists in the agenda.
While external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj will address a press conference in Delhi at 4pm to likely clear India's stance on the issue, Pakistan's national security advisor Sartaj Aziz too has called a media meet in Islamabad at 1:30pm (IST) just a day before his scheduled departure for Delhi.
Aziz is scheduled to hold discussions with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on August 23-24.
Pakistan on Friday had rejected India's advisory against meeting Hurriyat leaders and sought to include Kashmir in the agenda for Monday's talks between Aziz and Doval. Neither side has formally called off the talks, but the prospects of a meeting appeared to be dim.
Through Friday night, India and Pakistan traded angry charges over the meeting and failed to find any common ground. Adding to the confusion was a report by a news agency, subsequently retracted, that the talks had been called off.
Besides Aziz's plans to meet senior Hurriyat separatists, India was irked by Pakistan's decision to raise all issues, including Kashmir, during talks between the NSAs even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had agreed in the Russian city of Ufa last month that the meeting should be confined to terrorism-related issues.
While India has made it clear to Pakistan that a meeting between the separatists and Aziz was not appropriate, Pakistan reacted strongly to insist that it would not depart from the "established past practice" of interacting with separatist Hurriyat leaders.
India has described the invitation to Hurriyat representatives as a "provocative action" and accused Pakistan of trying to evade its commitment to engage in a substantive discussion on terrorism as had been agreed between the two Prime Ministers.
It said that Islamabad's insistence on meeting Hurriyat leaders as a pre-condition was a complete departure from the Ufa understanding. India has always held the position that there are only two, not three, stakeholders in the bilateral relationship.
External affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup had said on Friday that unilateral imposition of new conditions and "distortion of the agreed agenda cannot be the basis for going forward".
On its part, Pakistan said it was "deeply disappointed" at India putting forth "pre-conditions" for NSA-level talks, accusing it of going back on the decision mutually agreed at the highest level by coming up with "frivolous pretexts".
"This is the second time that India has chosen to go back on a decision mutually agreed upon between the two Prime Ministers, to engage in a comprehensive dialogue, by coming up with frivolous pretexts," Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson said.
Pakistan also stuck to its decision to invite Hurriyat leaders to meet Aziz, saying it was "very much in keeping with the practice and tradition of the past many years” as the separatists are “genuine stakeholders" in the Kashmir issue.
Sources in the Indian government clarified New Delhi would not call off the talks and it was for Pakistan to respect what was agreed on between the Prime Ministers in Russia.
India and Pakistan have not held any substantive talks since Pakistani troops beheaded two Indian soldiers along the Line of Control (LoC) in 2013. After Sharif visited Delhi for Modi's swearing-in last year, several efforts by both sides to re-engage have fizzled out.
India has insisted that terrorism and talks cannot go side by side, while Sharif has been hamstrung by the Pakistani military’s interference in foreign policy issues.
India has now put the ball firmly in Pakistan's court amid the game of brinksmanship and speculation has mounted over who will blink first.
"India remains committed to discussing issues with Pakistan peacefully and bilaterally. In fact, we took the initiative to engage at Ufa," the external affairs ministry said.
India has also hinted at the Pakistan Army's role in trying to scupper the talks. "The people of both countries can legitimately ask today what is the force that compels Pakistan to disregard the agreements reached by two elected leaders and sabotage their implementation," said Swarup.
Pakistan's information minister Pervez Rasheed said on Friday that Islamabad is ready for the talks, but New Delhi is looking for excuses not to hold them. "This is not the world’s largest democracy. It is behaving like a fascist state that detains its people for no reason whatsoever," Rasheed told media.
"It seems that India is looking for excuses not to hold the talks. We have come to the table without any conditions and we will attend without any preconditions," he added.
The brief house arrest and release of Hurriyat leaders on Thursday added another twist to the diplomatic tussle, with sources saying the Kashmiri separatists will be detained in Delhi if they tried to meet Aziz "before or after talks" between the NSAs. Hurriyat leader Ali Shah Geelani is expected to meet Aziz at 9:30am on Monday before the talks begin, Pakistani sources said.
Amid the battle of nerves, the Pakistani mission made hotel bookings for Aziz, who is scheduled to reach New Delhi on Sunday.
India had called off scheduled talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries last year after the Pakistani envoy met Kashmiri separatists in New Delhi ahead of the bilateral meeting.
Read: NSA talks 'likely to be called off', says Pak media
Hurriyat takes spotlight as India, Pakistan spar over NSA talks
(With agency inputs)