Protesters took to the streets at several places in Pakistan on Wednesday ahead of Indian home minister Rajnath Singh’s arrival in Islamabad for a meeting of SAARC interior ministers.
Singh, the first Indian leader to visit Pakistan since the terror attack on Pathankot airbase in January took ties to a new low, was scheduled to reach around 4 pm on a special flight, officials said.
Civil society groups and religious and hardline organisations staged protests against his visit in Islamabad and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In Islamabad, the express highway was blocked by a large number of workers of the Hurriyat Conference.
A large number of children and rights activists gathered for a protest at Muzaffarabad Press Club, demanding the Pakistan government should not receive Singh.
Several Pakistan-based terror groups, including Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawah and Syed Salahuddin’s Hizbul Mujahideen, have also warned of protests against the visit. These groups accused Singh of having a role in the widespread violence in Jammu and Kashmir triggered by the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani last month.
During the two-day SAARC meet, Singh is expected to raise New Delhi’s concerns about Islamabad’s support for terror groups and the circulation of fake Indian currency and drug trafficking from Pakistan.
India has ruled out a meeting between Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan or other leaders, with officials saying the atmosphere is not conducive to such an interaction.
Sources in Pakistan’s interior ministry also said there are no chances of a meeting between Khan and Singh because of “public pressure”.
The protesters in Islamabad and PoK alleged Indian authorities were continuing to target Kashmiris and the Pakistani government should snap relations with India. Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, while talking to a Pakistan TV news channel, said SAARC countries should be urged to resolve the Kashmir issue.
A gathering of SAARC official ahead of the meeting of ministers discussed the exemption of visas for specific groups of travellers. The existing manual system of issuing visas will be replaced with an online system for receiving applications and a database will be set up in this regard.
Pakistan’s director general for immigration and passports, Usman Bajwa, was elected the new chairman of SAARC Immigration Authorities. Addressing the participants, Bajwa said the introduction of a liberal visa regime among SAARC countries would bring the people of these countries closer to each other.
In recent weeks, India and Pakistan have engaged in a war of words after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif referred to Hizb commander Burhan Wani as a “Kashmiri leader” and described his death as an “extrajudicial killing”. Pakistan has also ramped up efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue but has received little support for its stance from key Western powers.
Back-to-back visits to Pakistan last December by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised hopes of better bilateral relations. During Swaraj’s visit, the two sides also agreed on starting a new Comprehensive Dialogue process but ties went into a tailspin after the Pathankot attack, which was blamed on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed.
The two sides have not had any substantive dialogue since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. That assault was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba and claimed 166 lives.