Pak offers peace talks, says UAE can facilitate

Jan 18, 2023 12:03 AM IST

New Delhi: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has offered to hold talks with India, saying he has asked the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) leadership to help bring the two countries to the table, though Islamabad subsequently made any discussions conditional to New Delhi restoring the special status of Jammu and Kashmir

New Delhi: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has offered to hold talks with India, saying he has asked the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) leadership to help bring the two countries to the table, though Islamabad subsequently made any discussions conditional to New Delhi restoring the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.

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There was no immediate word from Indian officials on Sharif’s remarks. India has maintained that there cannot be any talks with Pakistan under the shadow of terrorist violence.

Sharif made the remarks in an interview to AlArabiya news channel in the UAE, which he visited last week. This is the first time Sharif has made such an offer since he came to power last April at the head of a coalition government.

Hours after the interview was aired, Pakistan appeared to do a flip-flop, with the Prime Minister’s Office in Islamabad saying on Tuesday that Sharif has repeatedly said talks “can only take place after India had reversed its illegal action of August 5, 2019” – a reference to the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

The development comes at a time when Pakistan’s beleaguered government is grappling with an economic downturn, the fallout of unprecedented floods that displaced more than 30 million people, and a revitalised insurgency by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. With the country in danger of defaulting on its external debt, Pakistan recently held talks with the International Monetary Fund to revive a stalled bailout package.

Sharif told the news channel that Pakistan “has learnt its lesson” after three wars with India and wants to “live in peace with India, provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems”. Pakistan also wants to better use its scarce resources to tackle poverty and unemployment instead of buying military hardware, he said.

“My message to the Indian leadership and Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] is that let’s sit down on the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning issues like Kashmir, where flagrant violations of human rights are taking place day in and day out,” he said.

“And two, they usurped whatever semblance of autonomy was given to the Kashmiris in their Constitution – Article 370 – they revoked that in August 2019 and minorities over there are being grossly mishandled. I’m not going to go into details, suffice it to say that this must stop. So that a message can go around the globe that India is ready to have talks and we are more than ready...”

He noted that both countries are “nuclear powers, armed to the teeth” and said: “God forbid a war takes places, who will live to tell what happened. This is not an option.”

Sharif acknowledged he had asked UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to “bring the two countries together”.

“I have requested Mohammed bin Zayed – that he’s a brother of Pakistan and the UAE is a brotherly country. He also has good relations with India, he can play a very important role to bring the two countries on the talking table and I give my word of honour that we will be talking to Indians with sincerity of purpose,” he said.

“But it takes two to tango. Both hands must clap,” he added.

The spokesman for Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s Office said “negotiations are not possible” without India revoking its 2019 actions on Kashmir. “The settlement of the Kashmir dispute must be in accordance with the UN resolutions and the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir,” the spokesman said.

He added that Sharif had also maintained that Pakistan and India must “resolve their bilateral issues, especially the core issue of Jammu & Kashmir, through dialogue and peaceful means”.

There have been reports that the UAE and Saudi Arabia played a quiet role in helping calm tensions between India and Pakistan, especially after the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack that killed 40 Indian troopers and brought the two sides close to war. That attack, and several others on Indian military facilities, were blamed on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, acknowledged in 2021 that his country played a role in bringing together India and Pakistan for talks aimed at cooling down escalation over the Kashmir issue and getting bilateral ties “back to a healthy level”.

Sharif said the two countries should live peacefully instead of wasting time and resources on quarrels. “Let’s be very blunt, even if we are not neighbours by choice, but we are there forever. And it is up to us to live peacefully and progress or quarrel with each other and waste time and resources,” he said.

He added, “Pakistan has learnt its lesson. We had three wars with India and the consequences of those wars [were] more miseries, unemployment, poverty and millions were demoted from their level of satisfaction to a low level of satisfaction.”

Pakistan wants to transform its human resources into “tools to provide prosperity”, he said, adding: “And for that, we need to use our resources to alleviate poverty and unemployment, provide medicines and high-quality education and not waste these resources in getting ammunition and bombs. That’s the message I want to give to Modi.”

Modi made several peace overtures when Sharif’s elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, was the premier during 2013-17. Modi invited Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014 and made a surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 to meet his then Pakistani counterpart. However, ties between the two sides were subsequently derailed by a string of terror attacks.

“The timing of PM Sharif’s statement is interesting. Even if the UAE were to make some fresh effort, India won’t be too keen to talk to a government that is on its way out. Sharif’s message therefore looks to be addressed more towards the Arab rulers underscoring the importance Islamabad attaches to Abu Dhabi as a regional player,” said Baqir Sajjad, foreign affairs correspondent of Dawn.

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