External Affairs

Ready to Discuss Anything with India, Says Sartaj Aziz

Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz at the SAARC ministerial dinner in Pokhara, Nepal on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz at the SAARC ministerial dinner in Pokhara, Nepal on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Pokhara (Nepal): Pakistan is willing to discuss “anything” that India will bring up, including investigations into the Pathankot terror attack, Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs advisor to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said about his scheduled meeting with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj on the sidelines of the SAARC ministerial meeting.

“The meeting is to hand over the invitation for the SAARC summit (to be held in Pakistan later this year). And anything she wants to discuss we will discuss,” Aziz said to the crowd of Indian reporters on arrival at the lobby of the Pokhara Grande hotel on Wednesday.

This was as clear a statement as possible from the Pakistani side that the meeting was not a mere formality.

When asked a straight question if the Pathankot probe would be on the table, the 87-year-old diplomat said, “We will be talking of all subjects. Don’t worry.”

If India, as expected, raises the matter of the probe into Pathankot, Pakistan will also likely bring up the Kashmir issue. “Concerns are on both side,” Aziz noted.

It is learnt that India will seek to learn the latest position about the investigations by the Pakistani side. Aziz would, of course, tell Swaraj that the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries should meet at the earliest possible time.

Asked when the Pakistani team constituted as part of a joint investigation with India to probe Pathankot attack will visit, he replied, “Very soon. Inshallah”. New Delhi has repeatedly told Pakistan that an early visit of the team was necessary to get the ball rolling for the two foreign secretaries to meet and start the ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’ – the new name given to the ‘composite dialogue’ process.

So far, the plan is for Aziz and Swaraj to have a separate meeting right after the concluding session of the ministerial meeting at about 4 p.m. on Thursday.

This will be the first formal meeting between the two sides following the January 2 attack by six terrorists on the Indian air force base at Pathankot, which left seven soldiers dead. India has blamed the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack.

Pakistan had filed a first information report about the Pathankot attack on February 18, but had not named any persons. Indian officials have stressed that Pakistan has not conveyed any information to them officially through diplomatic channels about the status of Masood Azhar or the investigations by its JIT.

However, a joint statement released by the US and Pakistan after their strategic dialogue on March 1 mentioned that “steps” taken by Islamabad in the Pathankot investigation include the “detention of Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Maulana Masood Azhar.”

Informal interactions

On the eve of their formal meeting, the two ministers had ample time to exchange views during the official dinner for the SAARC ministerial summit at the nearby Shangri La resort.

As Swaraj was greeting the assemblage of Nepali politicians, Saarc delegates and ambassadors, she saw the wife of the Bangladeshi foreign minister Abul Hassan Mohammed and called out “boudi”.

A little later, Maldivian foreign minister Dunya Maumoon walked up and spoke to her. “Yes, we will have a chat,” Swaraj responded, her hand on Maumoon’s shoulder.

After making the rounds, Swaraj was the first to be seated at the high table. A little later, Sartaj Aziz walked in. As soon as she saw him, Swaraj got up from her chair and greeted him. They stood for a few seconds, shaking hands, before they took up their seats – right next to each other.

For most of the dinner, which lasted around 90 minutes, the two ministers were mainly in deep conversation with each other, often neglecting their neighbours. With wide hand gestures, Aziz did most of the talking while Swaraj nodded, with a observation here or there.

“Small talk,” was how Aziz later characterised his conversation to the media after the dinner.

In another table, all the South Asian foreign secretaries sat together. Unlike Tuesday’s dinner, India’s S Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary also found themselves next to each other, mirroring their political bosses.

The top Indian and Pakistani diplomats have had fleeting encounters so far – at the dinner on Tuesday night, an animated 40 second chat at the breakfast buffet counter – “looks like a riveting discussion about omelette toppings”, a witty analyst (who also happens to be Jaishankar’s son) tweeted in response to a reporter’s photograph of that moment– and during breaks at the SAARC standing committee today.

Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, seemed to have come to a standstill for a few hours on Wednesday. The route from the airport to the summit venue was lined by copper pitchers, welcomes arches, smartly-dressed armed police, and flag-waving members of various local ethnic groups corralled to greet the arriving ministers.

While most visiting foreign ministers took a special flight from Kathmandu, Sushma Swaraj arrived at Pokhara airport in the Indian military’s Mi-17 chopper from Gorakhpur at about 4 pm, opting for this route as Pokhara airport’s tiny runway was too short for her Embraer jet to attempt a landing.