Crucial talks between India and Pakistan hung in the balance on Saturday as both sides dug in their heels over a planned meeting between Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz and Hurriyat leaders ahead of the formal diplomatic engagement.
Tensions spiked on Friday after Pakistan rejected India’s advisory against meeting Hurriyat leaders and sought to include Kashmir in the agenda for Monday’s talks between Aziz and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval. Neither side 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 – agreed on when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif met in Russia last month – 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 the two Prime Ministers had agreed that the meeting should be confined to terrorism-related issues.
New Delhi reacted strongly with foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup saying that “unilateral imposition of new conditions and distortion of the agreed agenda cannot be the basis for going forward”.
In a late night statement, Pakistan’s Foreign Office accused India of putting “pre-conditions” for the talks and backing away from dialogue by “coming up with frivolous pretexts”. It said the two countries should engage in serious dialogue to reduce tensions and normalise relations.
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.
Indian government sources 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.
“The insistence on meeting Hurriyat as a pre-condition is also a complete departure from the Ufa understanding. India has always held the position that there are only two stakeholders in our relationship, not three,” said Swarup.
“Without confirming either the programme or the agenda, the Pakistani high commissioner invited Hurriyat representatives to consult with the visiting NSA. This provocative action was completely in consonance with Pakistan’s desire to evade its commitment at Ufa to engage in a substantive discussion on terrorism,” he added.
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 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.
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.
Amid the battle of nerves, the Pakistani mission made hotel bookings for Aziz, who is scheduled to reach New Delhi on Sunday. Hurriyat leader Ali Shah Geelani is expected to meet Aziz at 9:30am on Monday before the talks begin, Pakistani sources said.
Pakistan’s information minister said on Friday that Islamabad is ready for 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,” information minister Pervez 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.”
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.