New Delhi: India announced on Thursday that it has accepted Pakistan’s proposal for a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers, even as New Delhi insisted that that the encounter should not interpreted as the start of a dialogue process.
India’s acceptance was based on a request made in a letter dated September 14 from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to his Indian counterpart to reply to the latter’s congratulatory missive.
“I can confirm that on the request of the Pakistani side a meeting between external affairs minister and Pakistan foreign minister will take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at a mutually convenient date and time,” said MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar.
This will be first time that a “meeting” will be held between the foreign ministers of the two countries since Sushma Swaraj travelled to Pakistan for the ‘Heart of Asia’ meeting in 2015.
However, the “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” launched in December 2015 was a stillbirth. The terror attack in Pathankot, which lasted for nearly four days, derailed the start of the talks.
Since then, India had stated that “terror and talks cannot go together”. However, with the two national security advisors keeping in touch, New Delhi had argued that “talks on terror” were acceptable.
In his letter, Khan said that it was important to “peacefully resolve all outstanding issues, including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, to bridge differences and achieve a mutually beneficial outcome”. “Pakistan remains ready to discuss terrorism,” he added.
Modi had earlier written to Khan of his commitment to “pursue meaningful and constructive engagement for the benefit of the people of the region”.
Khan replied that he wished to “propose a meeting between foreign minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi and external affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, before the informal meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers at the sidelines of the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York”.
The last time India and Pakistan came face-to-face was during the annual meeting of SAARC foreign ministers in New York last year on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly. The Indian foreign ministry confirmed Swaraj’s participation for the 2018 edition of the meeting this year.
To tamp down on any domestic criticism and avoid hype, the Indian side repeatedly claimed that this was only a “meeting”.
“I must distinguish between a meeting and a dialogue… This does not indicate any change any policy as far as our policy on cross border terrorism is concerned,” said Kumar.
When pointed out that decision was announced amidst reports of a BSF soldier’s body being mutilated, Kumar said that India was “ascertaining facts on the matter”.
“I can say this barbaric incident, which not only defies logic, defies civilized behaviour but also violates all international norms,” he stated.
The meeting of the foreign ministers would also be taking place after Indian defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman had stated that Indian army, just like their Pakistani counterparts, was also quietly “cutting off” heads of Pakistani soldiers.
To a question pointing out to the incongruity of holding talks when ministers have made belligerent statements, Kumar said that he could not comment on the remarks made by the defence minister.
To a question on how this decision should be interpreted, MEA spokesperson reiterated, “There is nothing much to read into this meeting at this stage”.
He claimed that “agenda” for the foreign minister’s meeting had still not been finalised, but he added that Swaraj will take up the matter of setting up a Kartarpur Sahib corridor.
The issue has become a political hot potato in Punjab, with Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu having tried to steal the thunder by raising it during his Pakistan visit.
When Sidhu met with Swaraj, he was allegedly reprimanded for “messing up” the matter, as per sources closed to the minister.
The Akalis have been also trying to take up flag on opening up a new pilgrimage to Kartarpur Sahih, which had been raised by Ata Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 and Manmohan Singh in 2004.
Kumar confirmed that Akali leader and minister for food processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal wrote to Swaraj on this issue.
“Even now, we have not received any official communication that the Pakistani government is willing to consider this matter. EAM will, therefore, raise this issue in her meeting with the Pakistani Foreign Minister on the side-lines of UNGA,” said MEA spokesperson.
While the Indians stated that the agenda had not been agreed, the Pakistani prime minister had proposed that the two foreign ministers should “explore the way forward, especially the holding of the SAARC Council of Ministers followed by the SAARC summit in Islamabad”.
Khan also suggest that the holding of the SAARC summit in Islamabad “will offer an opportunity for you to visit Pakistan and for us to re-start the stalled dialogue process”.
India, along with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, had refused to attend the scheduled SAARC summit in November 2016 over continued activities of terror groups in Pakistan.
The Indian spokesperson did not state directly if India will again decline to attend SAARC summit in Pakistan. “Our existing policy on the resumption of SAARC process is very consistent. We have not changed in the last few years…,” he added.