External Affairs

Date Set for Pakistan’s Pathankot Attack Probe Team to Visit India

Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Pokhara (Nepal): The bilateral dialogue process seems to be back on again, with India and Pakistan announcing that the Pakistan-constituted joint investigation team (JIT) will arrive in India on March 27 to probe the terror attack on the Pathankot Air Force base earlier this year.

After a half-hour of closed door discussions with Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said that it was natural that Pathankot came up during their meeting.

“When both of us meet, it cannot be possible that Pathankot will not come up. So, Pathankot was discussed. and I am happy to say… You were awaiting the dates for JIT. Those have been decided,” Swaraj told reporters in a conference room at the Hotel Pokhara Grande.

The much-anticipated bilateral encounter took place after the conclusion of the meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers in Pokhara on Thursday.

“The atmosphere of this SAARC meeting was different from previous meetings,” said Swaraj, noting that the meet was concluded with a “lot of goodwill”.

“Some matters which were complicated, and were stuck between the two countries, were resolved in a positive manner,” she said in Hindi.

Aziz, a veteran diplomat, echoed Swaraj’s words, appreciating the mature manner in which both countries handled the aftermath of the Pathankot terror attack.

“The way that Pakthankot has been handled, the way JIT is going, I hope that it will result in good results,” Aziz said.

He was referring to the fact that India and Pakistan conspicuously kept open channels of communication in the days following Pathankot, with the national security advisors and foreign secretaries remaining in constant touch.

India is believed to have asked Pakistan about the status of the investigations during today’s discussions, including an update on the “detention” of Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar. Pakistan’s Punjab police had filed an FIR against ‘unknown persons’ based on the information provided by NSA Doval to his Pakistani counterpart, Naseer Khan Janjua.

Sources said the Pakistani side proposed the March 27 date for the arrival of its team during the meeting, leading to a flurry of phone calls from both sides to their capitals. India expected there to be some discussion on the JIT’s dates, but had not anticipated that Pakistan would propose a specific set at this meeting. While the Pakistani foreign secretary spoke to Janjua, Jaishankar made a similar phone call to the PMO to get the green signal.

Aziz was “hopeful” that the “next opportunity” for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan PM Sharif to meet would be in Washington on the sidelines of the National Security Summit, starting March 31, “even though your PM will be there only for a day”.

“We hope to have a meeting.. so that we can cross over the recent hurdles and move forward” he said, “I don’t know if it will be structured dialogue, but there should be talks”.

Aziz then recounted the manner  in which the November 30 meeting between Modi and Sharif in Parishad  led to the NSAs of both countries meeting in Bangkok six days later. After this meeting, Swaraj had travelled to Islamabad in early December for the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. Standing side by side, Aziz and Swaraj had announced then that the foreign secretaries would meet to formally resume the ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’. A fortnight later, Modi stopped at Lahore to meet Sharif on his way back to Delhi from Kabul, Afghanistan on December 25.

“This process was going on, which encountered a roadblock due to Pathankot,” Aziz said in chaste Urdu.

The statements by the two foreign ministers, however, did not mention when the two foreign secretaries will meet to draw the calendar of meetings under the formal dialogue process. It is expected that the visit of the JIT and its deliberations will clear the air for the two foreign secretaries to hold their formal talks.

Now that both countries have agreed on the dates, the next step would be for Pakistan to formally inform India about the composition of the joint investigation team. Based on the composition of team – which will be drawn from various Pakistani security and investigative agencies – India will chalk out their program, which will deal with the issue of access, sources said.

As per reports, the JIT comprises of senior officials from the Pakistani Punjab police’s counter derrorism department, the Intelligence Bureau, Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence.

In an interview to India Today TV’s Karan Thapar last month, Aziz had said access to the “crime scene” is always helpful to investigators. He was responding to a question on defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement that the Pakistani probe team will not be allowed access to the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot.

Incidentally, for a long time Indian officials had been using the phrase Special Investigation Team (SIT) for this high-level Pakistan probe group. It was felt that calling it JIT would lead to confusion that the probe was a bilateral one between India and Pakistan. But since the JIT is a court-notified legal term, Indian officials are careful to stress that it is a “Pakistani JIT”.

In toto, Swaraj and Aziz had three opportunities for discussions in Pokhara – during the gala dinner on Wednesday night, breakfast for foreign ministers on Thursday morning, followed by the delegation-level talks in the evening. Over all, they must have spend over four hours in each other’s company in the lake city of Pokhara. This does not include the deliberations and working lunch for the SAARC council of ministers.

The foreign ministers were up early in the morning to take a short ferry ride to an island on Phewa lake for their open-air breakfast. Just as they hand at dinner, the Nepalese hosts ensured that both the Indian and Pakistani ministers sat together.

As they finished breakfast and were ready to leave, Aziz pulled aside Swaraj by hand, and they talked for some time near the railing on the deck overlooking the lake. The others left them alone. Swaraj seemed to do most of the talking, with Aziz nodding in assent.

Nepali deputy prime minister Kamal Thapa joined them after a few minutes, with Swaraj again seemingly making a proposal to which he shook his head vigorously.