New Delhi: Two years after a former Pakistan army officer went missing in Nepal, Islamabad has – for the first time in about two years – officially indicated that the role of “hostile agencies” can’t be ruled out in the case, implicitly pointing a finger at India.
The statement from the Pakistan foreign ministry comes in the background of Pakistan’s diplomatic campaign to gather backers to bring a resolution or organise a debate on the situation in Kashmir at the ongoing session of the UN human rights council in Geneva.
The Pakistan foreign ministry has claimed in its opening paragraph that the statement was issued in response to a query “regarding Indian media reports/tweets claiming that Col. Habib is in Indian custody and speculations about a swap with Commander Jadhav”.
However, there have not been any recent reports in the Indian media or on social media platforms that have speculated about the presence and a swap of the retired Pakistani army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Habib Zahir, in the last two months.
In fact, this is the first stand alone statement issued by the Pakistan foreign ministry since the disappearance of the retired Pakistani army officer in 2017. Previously, the Pakistan foreign office spokesperson had usually commented on the case during weekly media briefings, but the last time that it was brought up was in December 28, 2017 – as per the official website.
In New Delhi, the common understanding is that there was no immediate provocation to issue a statement. “These are all games Pakistan plays,” said a senior Indian government official.
On Tuesday, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had described the conditions under which Pakistan gave consular access to Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav as “unsatisfactory”. However, this may not have been the trigger, as India has already stated earlier that Jadhav had seemed to have been “under extreme pressure” during the meeting with senior Indian diplomat.
Pakistan has, of course, been trying to project that India indulges in similar activities on terror and espionage.
After the UN Security Council discussed Kashmir in a closed-door, off-the-record meeting last month, Islamabad had taken the battle for global public opinion on India’s move to change Kashmir’s constitutional status and security restrictions to Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.
In the first couple of days, India and Pakistan sparred verbally. However, the real action was taking place behind the scenes, where Pakistan was working to shore up the requisite numbers to successfully introduce a resolution or induce a debate on Kashmir.
The deadline to submit a draft resolution for consideration by the 47-member council is 1 pm on Thursday (September 19). While Pakistan does not need a certain number of sponsors to submit a draft resolution, Indian officials are quietly confident that Islamabad may not go down the route as such a resolution would get defeated when put to vote.
There is no such deadline for introducing a topic for discussion before the Council. However, if Pakistan does broach Kashmir as an agenda item, India would immediately ask for a procedural vote to check from members if this topic should be discussed.
“Pakistan still doesn’t have the numbers. We don’t think that they want to be seen to be publicly defeated,” said the official.
Therefore, Pakistan bringing up the two-year-old case at this time could be part of the ongoing battle of perception before the international community.
According to Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson Mohammed Faisal, Zahir had gone to Nepal after “one Mr Mark” called him for an interview on April 6, 2017.
Faisal stated that at 1 pm on April 6, Zahir messaged his wife that he had landed at Lumbini airport. After that, his phone was switched off and there has been no contact since then.
The Pakistani spokesperson stressed twice in his statement that Lumbini was “five kilometres from the Indian border”. He said that the UK number of “Mr Mark” was fake and was an internet generated number.
Further, he claimed that the website from which Zahir had been contacted “was found to be operated from India and was subsequently taken down”.
“The Government of Nepal constituted a special team to look into his disappearance but there has not been any progress in the matter so far,” he added.
Faisal also stated that assistance had also been sought from India. “In view of his disappearance from Lumbini, which is five kilometres from the Indian border and the involvement of Indian nationals (who reportedly received him at Lumbini, made his hotel reservations and booked his tickets), Pakistan also repeatedly requested the Government of India to assist in locating him. However, no positive response has been received from the Indian side”.
The Pakistani diplomat noted that that distressed family had also approached the UN Working Group on Enforced Involuntary Disappearances, which is an UN experts group overseen by the UN Human Rights Council.
Faisal reminded that Pakistan maintains that “the involvement of hostile agencies cannot be ruled out”. “The government continues to make all out efforts to locate him and shall not rest until he is home,” he added.