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Sushma Swaraj exits SAARC meet early, Pakistan sees a snub

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi saw Sushma Swaraj’s exit as a snub.

india Updated: Sep 28, 2018 22:36 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Sushma Swaraj,SAARC meeting,India
Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj during a meeting on climate change at the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2018.(PTI)

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj left an informal meeting of ministers of Saarc countries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly after highlighting terrorism in her speech, with Pakistan seeing the exit as a snub.

The ministers of Bangladesh and Afghanistan left Thursday’s meeting before Swaraj, who also referred to the lack of progress in regional cooperation in her address. They all left for their next meetings.

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi saw Swaraj’s exit as a snub. “She left midway,” he told reporters when asked if he and Swaraj spoke. Speaking in Urdu, he attempted to mask his disappointment by saying: “She was probably not feeling well.”

An Indian official wondered why Qureshi had made such a fuss and said: “As it happens in such meetings, (the external affairs minister) left after her speech for her next meeting. The ministers of Bangladesh and Afghanistan had left before her.”

The official added, “Besides, the Indian delegation, led by the FS (foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale), stayed for the discussion.”

Another Indian official said people leave such meetings all the time, sometimes even the chair.

In her speech, Swaraj spoke of the most significant threat for members of Saarc: “Terrorism remains the single largest threat to peace and stability in our region, and indeed in the world. It is necessary that we eliminate the scourge of terrorism in all its forms, without any discrimination, and end the ecosystem of its support.”

She said, “Regional cooperation can only be successful if it meets the expectations of the people…The world is moving ahead to become more integrated and connected, where movement of goods and people is becoming easier with each passing day.” She added, “Saarc needs to deliver on its commitments or risk being left behind.”

Pakistan has been upset about India cancelling a meeting of foreign ministers that had been sought by Prime Minister Imran Khan. It was scheduled to be held on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York, and would have been India’s first high-level contact with the Khan government. India cited the killing of security personnel in Kashmir by Pakistan-based terrorists and the glorification of slain militant commander Burhan Wani by Pakistan for calling off the meeting.

Qureshi had seemed prepared for a showdown on Thursday. In his remarks to reporters waiting outside the venue of the Saarc meet, he attacked India without naming it. He said there is just one ‘rukawat’ (obstacle) and ‘ek mulk ka rawaiyya’ (one county’s attitude) standing in the way of progress on Saarc. “When I judged from today’s meeting,” he said, “was that most of the members present there understand the significance and value of (Saarc) and they want to move on.” They want to convene the Saarc summit, which Pakistan is scheduled to host, he said.

Asked if there is support for holding the summit, Qureshi said, “I can’t speak for them but I can deduce from their body language (their) disappointment.”

Indian officials found the reference to “body language” interesting. “How can you take this seriously,” said one of them. “It is the same as the handshake with Trump that he turned into a meeting?” US officials have said Qureshi mischaracterised an encounter with President Donald Trump at a recent luncheon in New York as a meeting.

Qureshi brought up the issue of the next Saarc summit and the Indian delegation reiterated its position, as laid out by Swaraj in her remarks. “I would like to stress that meetings, including high-level ones, can only be effective if expressions of resolve are translated into concrete action on the ground,” she said. Who will “determine” an atmosphere conducive to the next summit, Qureshi told reporters.

The Saarc summit to be held in Islamabad in 2016 was cancelled after India decided to stay away following a string of terror attacks blamed on Pakistan-based terrorists. It has been pointed out that a Saarc Summit currently looks implausible for other reasons. Bangladesh is going to the polls and will not have a government in place for a summit. The Maldives is transitioning to a new government and its permanent representative to the UN led the country’s delegation to the Saarc meeting.

First Published: Sep 28, 2018 22:36 IST