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Drawing a new red line, India called off foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan — scheduled in Islamabad on August 25 — after Pakistani high commissioner to India Abdul Basit met Kashmiri separatist leader Shabir Shah on Monday. The decision, according to Indian diplomatic and intelligence sources, was well thought out and taken by PM Narendra Modi.
This is a sharp departure from India’s past practice of either ignoring meetings between Pakistani officials and Hurriyat Conference leaders or issuing perfunctory objections.
Early Monday morning, Modi had taken his senior cabinet colleagues into confidence, the government sources, requesting anonymity, told HT.
“He spoke with Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj and told them that he was in favour of calling off the dialogue if the Pakistani envoy went ahead and held meetings with separatist leaders,” an official said. National security advisor Ajit Doval, too, was apparently informed.
It was decided that India would let the Pakistan high commissioner know that it did not appreciate him meeting Hurriyat leaders a week ahead of the important bilateral engagement between the two foreign secretaries.
MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin confirmed that foreign secretary Sujatha Singh had called up Basit and told him not to go ahead with his Hurriyat meetings. But envoy told Singh that his meetings would help the political process between India and Pakistan, a government official told HT.
Singh then made it clear that his meetings would be “unacceptable” and seen as interference in India’s internal matters.
The Intelligence Bureau then apparently kept a watch on the Pakistan high commission to see if Basit would go ahead and meet Shah. Basit had fixed meetings with different Hurriyat leaders over Monday and Tuesday.
The moment Shah stepped out of the Pakistan high commission in Delhi’s diplomatic Shanti Path area, the government executed the decision Modi and his cabinet colleagues had taken in the morning. Singh called Basit. She told him that the foreign secretary level talks stood cancelled.
India had invited Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif for Modi’s swearing-in, but conveyed that his meeting Hurriyat leaders would be inappropriate. Sharif did not meet the separatists during his two-day May visit.
“If that template was fine with Sharif, why is it not good enough for Basit?” said the official.
Initial Modi-Sharif bonhomie had given way to a growing chill in relations. India claims more than 50 ceasefire violations by Pakistan this year, with a surge in the last ten days. In a speech in Kargil last week, Modi had attacked Pakistan’s “proxy war”. On Monday, Jaitley termed the violations “deliberate” and said powers in Pakistan did not want normal ties.
Jammu and Kashmir heads for elections this year, and observers believe that the move is also driven by domestic political calculations.
A few hours before meeting Shah, Basit, speaking exclusively with HT, had sought to underplay it.
“Such meetings have happened before. One shouldn’t create hype around this,” he said, emphasising that Kashmir remained a dispute between India and Pakistan.
But later in the evening, Akbaruddin said the invitation to “so-called leaders of the Hurriyat” raised questions about “Pakistan’s sincerity”.
The MEA said “under the current circumstances”, India felt “no useful purpose” would be served by the foreign secretary going to Islamabad.
Shah termed it “unfortunate”, and said the government was “looking for reasons” to call off the talks. “There must have been domestic compulsions. This is not the first time we met Pakistani officials in Delhi,” Shah told HT.
In 2001, when President Pervez Musharraf had come for the Agra Summit, he met Hurriyat leaders. Delhi objected, but it did not derail the visit. Last November, Sharif's foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz met Hurriyat leaders in Delhi.
But as the Indian official put it: “This is a new government. Modi likes to send out clear messages.”
(With inputs from Aurangzeb Naqshbandi)
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