Planned talks between the national security advisors (NSAs) of India and Pakistan collapsed under the weight of intense diplomatic acrimony, with New Delhi insisting the meeting must focus on terrorism and Islamabad saying parleys with conditions would serve no purpose.
Both sides did not categorically state they were calling off the talks and blamed the collapse of the process on the other.
The final break on Saturday was over two issues — the agenda of the talks to be held on Monday and the proposed meeting of Pakistan’s NSA Sartaj Aziz with the Hurriyat leadership — and it also marked the collapse of the framework agreed by the two prime ministers when they met in the Russian city of Ufa only last month.
Saturday saw four different acts play out — Aziz first made public his intentions through a press conference in Islamabad in the afternoon; external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj responded with clear redlines in New Delhi in the evening; a formal Pakistani statement late at night announced the talks “would not serve any purpose” if conducted on the basis of conditions laid down by Swaraj; and finally, India got back through the external affairs ministry spokesperson, calling the Pakistani decision “unfortunate” and emphasising there were no pre-conditions.
In the clearest articulation of Delhi’s policy yet, Swaraj said Aziz would be welcome in Delhi if Pakistan provided an assurance that he would not meet Hurriyat leaders and add a “third party” to the process, and accept that talks would only focus on terror.
“Keeping in mind the spirit of the (1972) Simla Agreement, don’t make Hurriyat a third party to the talks, and keeping the spirit of Ufa, don’t expand the subject of talks beyond terrorism,” Swaraj said.
When asked what would happen if Pakistan did not accept the position outlined by her, she said categorically, “There will be no talks.”
Swaraj clarified that what was agreed on at Ufa was not the resumption of the composite dialogue but only a decision to talk about terror to create an atmosphere conducive for dialogue on other issues.
In its formal response, Pakistan said terrorism was a part of the composite dialogue, discussed simultaneously with other issues. “It is not reasonable for India to now assume the right to decide unilaterally that from now onwards, other issues will be discussed after terrorism has been discussed and eliminated,” a statement released by its foreign office said.
It said discussing only terrorism would “intensify the blame game” and “further vitiate the atmosphere”. And that is why Pakistan said it had suggested discussing “modalities and if possible, a time schedule, for discussions on all outstanding issues”.
Islamabad said Pakistani leaders had met Hurriyat leaders whenever they visited India in the past 20 years, and it would be “inappropriate” for India to “impose the condition” of changing this “long-standing practice”.
India’s determination to not allow the separatists to be party to the engagement was reflected in the detention of separatist leaders Shabir Shah and Bilal Lone, among others, when they arrived in Delhi from Jammu and Kashmir on Saturday.
Earlier on Saturday, Aziz refrained from calling off the talks and said he would go to Delhi, but without pre-conditions.
He rebutted the charge that Pakistan was expanding the ambit of the proposed meeting as agreed to at Ufa. Referring to the phrase “all outstanding issues”, he claimed everyone knew the most important outstanding issue between the two countries is the future of Jammu and Kashmir. “The word ‘K’ is very much present in this sentence…”
Aziz rejected the perception that Pakistan was apprehensive of the dossiers Indian NSA Ajit Doval was preparing for presentation during the talks, and was looking for an exit. “I will also be carrying three dossiers on R&AW’s involvement in promoting terrorism in Pakistan,” he said while showing the documents.
He said he would hand over the dossiers to Doval at the UN General Assembly in New York in September if they did not meet in Delhi, and also to the UN secretary general.
India-Pakistan ties have gone through much turbulence in the past year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his counterpart Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in last year, but soon after, talks between the foreign secretaries were cancelled precisely over the issue of the Pakistani envoy meeting Hurriyat leaders.
At Ufa, India took the initiative to restart engagement. But with the talks now having collapsed before they even started, it throws open a big question about the future of the relationship; how meetings will be resumed given the incompatibility of the Indian redlines and Pakistani positions; and whether the other elements of the Ufa agreement — talks between the two Directors General of Military Operations and heads of the BSF and Pakistan Rangers — will be hold.
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