External Affairs

Pakistan Probe Team Applies for Visas but Access to Pathankot Base Still Uncertain

Security beefed up at Pathankot Air Force Base during PM Narendra Modi's visit following an attack by terrorists on the base. Credit: PTI

File photo of a barricade near the Pathankot Air Force base. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: With Pakistan applying for visas for its Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the Pathankot terror attack, the South Asian rivals have entered a most critical phase in their efforts to maintain the current thaw in relations, as officials begin negotiations over the Pakistani team’s access to the sensitive Indian Air Force station.

“We have today received visa applications for five members of the Pakistan JIT. The modalities of the visit will be discussed now that we have the composition of the team,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup told reporters on Tuesday.

Earlier in the afternoon, Rashtrapati Bhavan released President Pranab Mukherjee’s letter to his Pakistani counterpart, Mamnoon Hussain on the eve of Pakistan Day, March 23, the date that commemorates the 1940 Lahore resolution that laid the foundation for the eventual creation of Pakistan in 1947.

“India remains committed to peaceful, friendly and cooperative relations with Pakistan.  I am of the firm conviction that our cooperation will lead to progress and prosperity in our region,” Mukherjee wrote.

Meanwhile, Swarup added that India will send a “senior minister” to attend the Pakistan Day celebrations organised by the Pakistan High Commission on Wednesday evening. However, he refused to identify the minister being deputed to represent the Indian government.

Last year, minister of state for external affairs, General (retd) V.K. Singh had been the chief guest at the annual event – a clear signal at that time that New Delhi was ready to do business with Islamabad after foreign secretary S. Jaishankar travelled to Islamabad as part of his ‘SAARC Yatra’. However, Singh’s attendance became controversial after he issued a series of tweets after the event which seemed to indicate that his presence there was under duress.

The JIT visa applications have been submitted by Pakistan just four days after the meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in the Nepali lake city of Pokhara. It was that encounter in a hotel conference room which finally ended the stalemate that crept in as a result of the January 2 attack on the air force base by six terrorists allegedly belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Constituted on February 26, the JIT will be led by assistant inspector general of Pakistan Punjab’s counter-terrorism department (CTD) Rai Tahir, the Intelligence Bureau, Lahore’s director general Azim Arshad and Gujranwala CT investigating officer Shahid Tanveer. Besides, there will be two military personnel, Lt Colonel Irfan Mirza from Military Intelligence and Lt Colonel Tanvir Ahmed from Inter-Services Intelligence.

Pakistan Punjab’s CTD had filed a first information report on February 18 under various sections of the Anti-Terrorism Act and Pakistan Penal Code against unknown persons.

The Pakistan JIT will reach India on March 27 and begin their “work” from March 28, Swaraj had announced in Pokhara last Thursday. As per sources, the visit could help India get official information about the status of Masood Azhar, who is in “detention”.

Both sides are mum on the outline of program for the JIT, which will depend on the number of days that the probe team will remain in India. Their length of stay would also be determined by whether they get access to the ‘crime scene’ or are only able to meet with officials of the National Investigation Agency, the Indian body tasked with probing the attack.

India’s defence ministry had not been too keen to have Pakistani security officials “snoop around” the key forward airbase.

“As far as air bases and defence installations are concerned, no one can enter them without permission of the defence ministry,” defence minister Manohar Parrikar had said last month when asked about the access to be given to the Pakistani JIT.

This was in contrast to other sections of the government which wanted to allow the JIT selective access, so that it would allow the investigation process to move forward and lead to the resumption of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.

It is unlikely that Pakistan will be satisfied with just a meeting with NIA officials. Lack of access to the Pathankot base may provide Islamabad an excuse to claim it has gathered insufficient evidence to proceed against JeM chief Masood Azhar, and thereby ensure that the bilateral dialogue is a non-starter.

The new “mature” response from both India and Pakistan would also play out well ahead of  Prime Minister Modi’s trip to United States next week for the Nuclear Security Summit. The US has been keen to see a lessening of tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi.

The success of the JIT’s visit would have a direct bearing on the meeting between Modi and the Pakistani PM, Nawaz Sharif in Washington on the sidelines of the nuclear summit.

As expected, both sides are not publicly confirming the US meet. Swarup only acknowledged that there were “slots” in Modi’s schedule in Washington for bilateral meetings, but “don’t know what they will be filled with yet”.

A green signal from the political leadership will then pave the way for the two foreign secretaries to finally meet after their postponed January 15 date and jointly draw up the calendar for the resumed dialogue.