Pakistan's High Commissioner Abdul Basit (file photo: The Hindu)
The Indian government has called off Foreign Secretary talks with Pakistan scheduled in Islamabad next week, after the Pakistan High Commissioner met a Kashmiri separatist leader in New Delhi. The unusually strong response from the Indian side came after High Commissioner Abdul Basit met Sabir Shah, a leader of the Hurriyat Conference, on Monday, despite a blunt warning from India's Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh that Pakistan had to choose between “India or separatists” for talks.
Singh said Pakistan was interfering in India’s internal affairs by holding talks with Kashmiri separatists, which was “unacceptable”. The meeting had undermined "the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office,” said Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry.
Reacting to the cancellation, Pakistan’s Foreign office said, “The Indian decision is a setback to the efforts by our leadership to promote good neighbourly relations with India.”
“It is a long-standing practice that prior to Pakistan-India talks, meetings with Kashmiri leaders are held to facilitate meaningful discussions on the issue of Kashmir,” the Foreign Office said.
India has chosen to act tough to ensure that any talks with Pakistan are held on its own terms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had created a positive environment for regional peace in May by inviting the leaders of India’s South Asian neighbours, including Pakistan, to attend his swearing-in ceremony.
Yet allowing the Foreign Secretary talks to go ahead after the High Commissioner met separatists would have been politically difficult as this would have branded Modi as soft on Pakistan.
The ruling BJP called Basti’s meeting as “most unfortunate” and an example of “old tactics”. Meanwhile, the right-wing VHP had earlier appealed to the Modi administration to take strong steps and send a clear message to the High Commissioner to immediately withdraw his invitation to the separatists.
This development came on the same day that Pakistani Rangers targeted Border Security Force forward positions and residential areas along the international border in Arnia and RS Pura sectors, injuring a civilian and cattle.
The increasing number of ceasefire violations along the border with Pakistan are being seen as an attempt by that country’s defence establishment to scuttle bilateral talks.
With vested interests on both sides, both Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif need to show some quick results to keep their domestic naysayers at bay. Meeting the separatists was unnecessary, and so was the cancellation of the Foreign Secretary talks.
The challenge will be to keep the momentum going on resolving the key issues between the two neighbours, before the goodwill generated by the May ceremony dissipates. Both sides should decide a date for their foreign secretaries to meet and follow it through with scheduling a bilateral summit of both prime ministers.