India has chosen Amritsar as the venue for the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference to stress the importance of connectivity, with a planned visit to the Wagah border intended to underline Pakistan’s refusal to allow transit trade to Afghanistan.
New Delhi: When the Pakistani prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz, landed at Amritsar on Saturday evening, there was already a sharp winter chill in the air. Even as Aziz took part in the pre-summit events, there was no visible thaw, with both the Indian and Pakistani governments going an extra step to keep away any bilateral encounters, however, fleeting, from the public eye.
Last December, Aziz had the chance to play host for the ministerial summit of the ‘Heart of Asia’ process. That event is mainly remembered in Delhi for the decision Aziz and his Indian counterpart, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, took to re-start the bilateral peace process with the launch of what was to be called a comprehensive bilateral dialogue (CBD).
His trip to India a year later is a stark reminder of how 2016 has been ye another ‘lost year’ for the subcontinent, when nothing moves. The January 2 attack on the Indian air force base on Pathankot started a chain of events which ensured the CBD was still-born – with the planned meeting of the two foreign secretaries to formally launch the process never taking place.
With Swaraj absent from Amritsar – she is awaiting a kidney transplant – one of the first steps by the senior Pakistani official was to send a bouquet of flowers to her residence in Delhi. Finance minister Arun Jaitley is sitting in her stead at the multilateral summit.
After landing in Amritsar, Aziz went straight to the dinner hosted by the Indian prime minister at a resort spread over 12 acres, constructed to look like a typical Punjabi village. He was one of six ministers who were taking part in the ministerial summit of the Heart of Asia or Istanbul process, which consists of 14 participating member-states.
At the dinner table, Narendra Modi was seated between Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif, while Sartaj Aziz sat at a separate table.
After the meal, there was a formal call-on by all five foreign ministers. Obviously, as Modi received them one-by-one, Aziz also shook hands with the Indian prime minister.
The ministry of external affairs gave an official read-out about the meeting, where Modi talked of the need to tackle terrorism in and around Afghanistan.
“Pointing out that his several interactions with both the common people of Afghanistan and the country’s leadership had convinced him that the people of Afghanistan were tired of the continuing violence and terrorism, [the] PM stressed the need to end terrorism and violence for fostering stability, security and development in Afghanistan and our region,” said MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup.
Modi asserted that it was the “collective responsibility of all of us in the region to work together to help Afghanistan out of its current difficulties”.
The MEA spokesperson, however, did not mention the separate statements made by the various ministers, including Aziz.
Instead, Swarup said that the “FMs share the PM’s view that Afghanistan’s stability, security and prosperity are integral to the region’s.” They also “greatly appreciated the continued commitment and engagement of India and its leadership for these ends”.
Pakistan has, of course, been wary of the Indian presence in Afghanistan, which Islamabad believes is part of New Delhi’s broader encirclement strategy. Therefore, it is not clear if Aziz actively endorsed India’s “leadership” in Afghanistan’s search for stability, or remained diplomatically quiet.
Just like Kremlinology, the opaque curtain behind which India-Pakistanis relations are conducted fuels a cottage industry in the interpretation of small gestures.
That’s why when it was confirmed on Saturday afternoon that Aziz, the 87-year-old Pakistani diplomat, would be arriving in Amritsar a day earlier – speculation went sky-high.
The earlier plan was for Aziz to spend just a few hours on Sunday at the ministerial summit. He may have got a handshake with the Indian PM when the latter greeted the delegates at the conference, but that could have been the extent of their contact.
Officially, the Indian hosts’ explanation for Aziz changing his mind on an overnight stay was to avoid the possibility of delay due to the early morning winter fog. Then, there was also another explanation forwarded – that the veteran Pakistani diplomat wanted to participate in the official dinner on Saturday evening, hosted by Prime Minister Modi.
The rhetoric in the run-up to the ‘Heart of Asia’ summit had not been encouraging for a substantive Indo-Pak encounter on the sidelines.
Pakistan had already made clear that it will not ask for a bilateral meeting, stating that India would have to make the request. However, Indian statements seemed to indicate that talks were not on the table.
“India has always been open to talks, but obviously it cannot be that talks take place in an atmosphere of continued terrorism. India will never accept continued terrorism as the new normal of the bilateral relationship. Let me make that very clear,” Vikas Swarup said on December 3.
His remarks were prefaced by accusations against Pakistan for being complicit in the recent attack on the Indian army installation in Nagrota, Kashmir.
“This has been a calculated strategy on the part of Pakistan for many years. The attack on the Indian parliament, the Kaluchak massacre, the 2005 Delhi bombings, the attack on the CRPF camp in Rampur in 2008, of course we all know the Mumbai terror attack, the attack on the Pathankot Airbase and the attack on the Army Camp in Uri, are all reminders of the continuing complicity of Pakistan in sponsoring cross-border terrorism of which Nagrota is the latest example”.
Earlier on Friday, the new Pakistani army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, also added his bit to the war of words. “Each violation of any kind must be responded to with full force in the most effective manner,” he said during a visit to forward posts along the Line of Control, which has seen unusually heavy cross-border firing in recent weeks.
In contrast to the fleeting nature of the Indian-Pakistani encounter, Modi opened his arms to embrace Afghan President Ashraf Ghani literally – their fourth meeting this year.
Ghani also got a personal guided tour of the shimmering Golden Temple, albeit escorted by a cordon of security personnel while curious devotees peered in from the sides.
The Holy city was chosen by India to highlight the connectivity issue to the ‘Heart of Asia’ delegations, especially its key location on the Grand Trunk Road which links Kabul and Chittagong on both ends of the subcontinent.
Appropriately, the 40-odd delegations will be taken to the Integrated Check Post (ICP) in Wagah, Attari on Sunday evening. The visit to the ICP will, of course, highlight New Delhi and Kabul’s long-standing grievance with Pakistan, which does not allow full transit trade through its territory.
Meanwhile, senior officials continued to negotiate the final declaration ahead of the formal inauguration of the summit on Sunday . Sources said that the main hurdle was the framing of the terrorism challenge, with Pakistan objecting to the use of language which pointed fingers at Islamabad, like ‘cross-border terrorism’.
A Regional Counter-Terrorism Framework, drafted by Afghanistan, is expected to be adopted by all the members.