External Affairs

On Sartaj Aziz’s Day In, and the Walk That Wasn’t an India-Pak Talk

Yet another India-Pakistan encounter ended with both sides jostling to control the media narrative.

The 100 foot talk. Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, and Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval steal a moment together at the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in Amritsar on Saturday night. Credit: Twitter

The 100 foot talk. Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, and Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval steal a moment together at the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in Amritsar on Saturday night. Credit: Twitter

Amritsar: Yet another India-Pakistan encounter ended with both sides jostling to control the media narrative.

It began on Sunday morning with the ‘leak’ of a photo. The out-of-focus picture taken from a mobile phone showed national security adviser Ajit Doval in mid-stride, seemingly in the middle of making a point while looking at Sartaj Aziz,  the foreign affairs advisor of the Pakistani prime minister.

But while the media latched on to the photo amidst lean pickings about Aziz’s interactions with Indian leaders, there was silence from the Indian side through the larger part of the day.

While its authenticity was not questioned, Indian official sources later dismissed the photograph as misconstruing the extent of the encounter between Doval and Aziz. Sources said that the snapshot exaggerated a ‘courtesy walk’ of about 100 feet as both were leaving the venue at the end of the dinner on the opening night here of the Heart of Asia ministerial conference on Afghanistan.

The ‘off-the-record’ denial was greeted by scepticism largely due to memories of previous incidents in India-Pakistan relations, where the external affairs ministry had at first downplayed the import of an encounter that eventually turned out to be significant.

In November 2015, when the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers met at the sidelines of the Paris climate change conference, India had at first claimed that nothing significant had been discussed and that the conversation was too short for anything substantive. In fact, this explanation was only given after the Pakistanis had released a short video of the huddle between the two PMs. The significance of this ‘chance’ encounter became clear when Indian and Pakistan National Security Advisors met in Bangkok, seven days later.

Naturally, there was a sense of déjà vu when Indian officials strenuously claimed that there was “no meeting” between Doval and Aziz.

In between, there was a widely-circulated rumour in the Pakistani media that the “meeting” went on for 30 minutes.

Finally, six hours after the photo was ‘leaked’, India officially denied that there were any substantive talks. “This is to categorically state that there was no pull aside or bilateral meeting between the two,” said MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup.

At least on the description of the nature of their ‘meeting’, both India and Pakistan were on the same page at the end of the day.

“In my so-called interaction, it was not really substantial. Generally pleasant, friendly, but not structured detailed meeting in which I can say what was outcome,” Sartaj Aziz said at a press conference on his return to Islamabad on Sunday night. He was answering a query on the details of his “meeting” with finance minister Arun Jaitley and NSA Ajit Doval.

“They sort-of welcomed my presence and that I could come (to India for the Heart of Asia meeting) and that’s all we should take notice of right now,” he added.

But, the Doval-Aziz meeting mystery was not the only India-Pakistan drama in town.

Aziz, who arrived in Amritsar on Saturday evening, had missed the outing arranged for the delegation to the Golden temple. So, his plan was to visit Harmandir Saheb on Sunday after reading out his statement at the ministerial summit.

But, the 87-year-old diplomat found himself confined to Hotel Radisson Blu, with India refusing to give a security clearance for the outing.

Indian officials claimed that the visit of foreign delegations to the Golden Temple was organised on Saturday to avoid the huge crush of devotees on December 4 due to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom day. “Apart from difficulties in ensuring security of VVIPs and VIPs, their visit to Golden Temple today would have caused inconvenience to a large number of devotees,” said sources.

When the request for the Sunday trip to the Golden temple came from the Pakistanis, sources said that it was turned down as it wasn’t feasible to organise adequate security for the delegation at a short notice.

When pointed out that Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif did go to the Golden Temple on Sunday, Indian official sources said that “security requirements for the two are contextual and can’t be compared”.

The Pakistanis had also hoped to have a press briefing during their Amritsar stay, but the Indians were determined to ensure that it didn’t take place. As one official put it, the Pakistanis wanted to talk to the media and the media desired to get their side, the Indian authorities’ main job was to keep them apart.

In Aziz’s own words, “their security arrangement was very strange”. “The hotel Radisson that we stayed, nobody was allowed to come, so we chose another hotel to meet the press,” he said.

He couldn’t leave the hotel, but asked Basit to take his place and brief the Pakistani travelling press. “I was not encouraging the Indian media, but we wanted to meet our own journalists who had travelled all the way”.

But, when Basit tried to hold the briefing, he was stopped by Indian security officials who claimed that there was an event booking for a wedding at the second hotel, Aziz said.

Pakistani journalists and officials immediately circulated a video clip as evidence that Indian security personnel had “misbehaved” with the high commissioner.

There was also claims in the Pakistani media that Indian officials deliberately kept Aziz waiting at Amritsar airport for 40 minutes over delay in immigration clearances.

However, Aziz dismissed this report as erroneous. “I was not stopped for 40 minutes. I didn’t have to wait for even one minute… It took us two minutes from the car to the plane, so this news was not correct,” he said.

Aziz had arrived a day earlier than planned to avoid the early morning fog which hangs over the entire region. He attended the official dinner on Saturday, where he sat at a separate table from Prime Minister Modi. As Pakistan’s de-facto foreign minister, he was also part of the joint ministerial call on Modi after dinner. Apparently, Modi enquired about the health of his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif who had undergone a major heart operation this year.

Ultimately, the public diplomacy aspect of Aziz’s visit was about optics – to show that Islamabad was not isolated diplomatically. The Pakistani diplomat pointedly made no reference to Kashmir at the Heart of Asia meeting, despite Pakistan raising the issue at all international fora.

“We wanted to demonstrate that the shadow of bilateral tensions should not fall on multilateral events like India did with SAARC,” he said.

Sources on the Indian side told The Wire that the Pakistani delegation had no reason to complain. “We were gracious hosts. We extended tarmac access, gave additional rooms, provided armoured cars – which were not given to every foreign minister –  and other conveniences, keeping special security requirements in view. This was done despite the last minute change of programme and the advancing of [Aziz’s] arrival in Amritsar by special flight by more than 12 hrs. Fresh flight clearance was issued within minutes. Their HoD could therefore be present in the official dinner and in the call on the PM on December 3. … A rare exception was made to allow arrival and departure by air at Amritsar – which is not a designated port for entry and exit for Pakistani nationals.”

The Heart of Asia declaration named various terrorist groups that are posing a threat to Afghanistan and the region, including the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba – both of which are officially banned in Pakistan but which operate openly, in the case of the former, and through proxies, in the case of the latter.