As Islamabad’s envoy demurs, India insists it allowed the Pakistani joint investigation team to visit the Pathankot air base on the ‘basis of reciprocity’ and that the NIA would like to visit Pakistan to take its terror investigations forward
New Delhi: The recent visit to India of Pakistan’s joint investigation team – showcased as an example of the new cooperative spirit between the two neighbours in pursuing cases of cross-border terrorism – has now got mired in counter-claims.
Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, Abdul Basit indicated on Thursday that a return visit by India’s National Investigation Agency was “not an issue of reciprocity”.
“It is very difficult for me to say. I personally feel that this whole investigation is not about a question of reciprocity. It is about extending cooperation between our two countries to get to the bottom of this,” Basit said in answer to a question on Pakistan’s stance on India proposing a visit of NIA team on a reciprocal basis.
When asked if his remarks meant that the NIA’s visit was being ruled out, he added, “I leave it to your imagination”.
He was speaking at an interaction organised by the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) of South Asia in New Delhi.
Within hours, external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup asserted that Basit’s words did not adhere to the “broad” agreement that the JIT visit to India was on the “basis of reciprocity”.
“The ministry would like to clarify that on March 26, 2016, before the visit of the JIT, the Indian High Commission [in Islamabad] formally conveyed to the Pakistani foreign ministry that the terms of reference ‘are broadly agreed to with the proviso that these would be on the basis of reciprocity and followed in accordance with extant legal provisions.’ Subsequently, the JIT visited from March 27 to April 1, 2016,” he said.
The Pakistani envoy’s remarks were the first public assertion of the underlying rumblings in Islamabad over the JIT visit to Delhi and Pathankot – including the airbase where the January 2, 2016 terrorist attack took the lives of eight Indians, including seven armed forces personnel.
On the day that the JIT left India, NIA director general Sharad Kumar had noted that the interaction was held “in accordance with the terms of reference mutually agreed on the basis of reciprocity”.
“The Pakistan JIT was informed that a team of NIA officials would like to visit Pakistan to carry forward the investigation in the Pathankot attack,” he had stated.
Most analysts believe an NIA visit – which would likely include a request for Indian investigators to question the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Masood Azhar – would be a tall order for Islamabad to accept. There are already vocal voices in Pakistan criticising the Nawaz Sharif government’s move to send a JIT to India. Sharif’s critics saw it as an implicit acceptance of the role of Pakistani elements in the terror attack.
Asked whether an NIA team would seek access to the JeM chief, India was non-committal, officially. “I don’t want to comment on any person or organisation who is part of an on-going investigation,” said Swarup.
The spokesman’s circumspection suggests the MEA is more aware of the political complexities involved in getting Pakistan to act against the Pathankot perpetrators than those Indian security officials who showcased the JIT visit as India’s victory.
The recent Pakistani media report about the JIT concluding that Pathankot was a ‘false flag’ operation by the Indians could be read as the product of similar grandstanding by the security establishment on that side.
Late Wednesday night, however, the Pakistan foreign office issued an implicit clarification. “Further investigations are underway,” said the statement, which was a seeming denial of the controversial Pakistan Today report that India had denounced as a “total concoction”.
The JIT had been sent to India in the “context of the cooperative approach being pursued by the government of Pakistan as part of its commitment to effectively fight terrorism in all its forms,” the Pakistani statement had said.
At the same time, it is clear that Islamabad is keen to keep its options open. “The JIT visited the crime scene and also recorded the statements of some witnesses,” the statement noted, adding: “However, the witnesses belonging to the Indian security forces were not produced before it.”
Incidentally, on the eve of the JIT’s visit, Indian official sources had said that only civilian eyewitnesses would be brought before the Pakistani investigators. This was part of the terms of reference mutually agreed by both countries, the sources reiterated.
Status of dialogue
Basit stirred another hornet’s nest in his press interaction when he characterised the current state of the dialogue process between India and Pakistan as “suspended”.
“As far as I know that there is no meeting scheduled between the foreign secretaries,” he said. On further prodding, he said, “I think at present it is suspended. So let’s see if we are able to commence the dialogue process”.
When pressed whether this was based on his own assessment, he admitted, “It is my sense”.
“We would like to have meaningful dialogue, but India is not yet ready. We don’t consider dialogue as a favour given by one country to another country,” he added.
India reacted to the Pakistani high commissioner’s characterisation of the peace process by referring to the statement of Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson on Thursday.
“The High Commissioner also stated that he thought the peace process is suspended. The Ministry notes that in response to a question at his press conference today evening, the Spokesman of the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said, “Your question implies whether the Foreign Secretary level talks will take place or not. I have stated this many times that both countries are in contact with each other and it has been reiterated from both sides that modalities are being worked out. I will again state that negotiations are the best means to resolve the issues. I have read the statement of the Indian Foreign Secretary you are referring to and in that also there was indication that the talks would take place,” said MEA spokesperson Swarup.
Indian sources had been previously stated that the decision on foreign secretary-level talks was not in the horizon, till New Delhi learnt about final report of the JIT investigation.
The Pakistan foreign office spokesperson was, incidentally, reacting to a question about the Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s remarks that terrorism was at the centre of the various dialogue channels opened with Pakistan.
Seeking to put an end to the dissonance, Manzoor Ali Memon, minister (press) in the Pakistani high commission in Delhi told reporters on Thursday night that what Abdul Basit had said was that Pakistan “would like to have a comprehensive and meaningful dialogue with India in order for us to resolve all our problems. But, if India is not yet ready we can always wait.” Pakistan considered the dialogue process to be important. “We can resolve our problems only through a dialogue process,” Memon said, adding: “So it is in our mutual interests to have a dialogue process. It is not a favour by one country to another. So we will wait and see how India evolves its position on the dialogue process itself.”
In his prepared opening remarks at the FCC, Basit said that Kashmir was the core issue at the heart of fractious relationship.
“Let’s be realistic. It is the Jammu & Kashmir dispute that is the root cause of mutual distrust and other bilateral issues. Therefore, its fair and just resolution, as per the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, is imperative. Attempts to put it on the back burner will be counterproductive,” he said.
Without naming India for terror attacks in Pakistan, Basit said that the “recent arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistan irrefutably corroborates what Pakistan has been saying all along. “
“We all are aware of those who seek to create unrest in Pakistan and destabilise the country… In the last one month, our authorities have arrested scores of terror operatives with foreign linkages. The presence of such elements is quite disturbing to say the least,” he said.
India has strenuously dismissed claims by Pakistan that Jadhav is a ‘RAW officer’.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has still not responded to Indian request for consular access to Yadav. “Well, the situation remains what it was. We have sought consular access. We have yet to get consular access,” said Swarup.
Basit also gave no hope that there would be any immediate change in circumstances. “I don’t know when it will happen, but the matter is under consideration”. The Pakistani foreign ministry was a little more concrete in its answer to a similar question on Wednesday: “It may be pertinent to mention that in the case of Pakistan and India, there is an agreement on consular matters. The request would be considered in view of the relevant clauses of the agreement.”
India and Pakistan have an agreement on consular access going back to 1982; this was updated during the fourth round of the composite dialogue in 2008.
Perhaps, the interaction’s most predictable answer was to the question on whether Pakistan agreed with China’s ‘hold’ on the listing of Masood Azhar with the UNSC sanctions committee. “We subscribe to the Chinese viewpoint,” said Basit. Azhar was apparently taken into ‘protective custody’ soon after the Pathankot attack but his legal status is unclear.