Astana (Kazakhstan): Eighteen months after their last meeting – in Lahore, under happier circumstances – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came face-to-face with his Pakistani counterpart here on Thursday. All that transpired in this fleeting encounter is that Modi inquired after Sharif’s health. Though this encounter may possibly act as a breaker on the sharp escalation in tensions between the two countries, the gulf that has grown between them is difficult to bridge – as evidenced by the meeting the same day in distant Holland, where Indian and Pakistani officials sat down at the International Court of Justice to discuss the timetable for the ongoing Kulbhushan Jadhav case.
Indian sources said the encounter between the two prime ministers lasted for just a few minutes while they were at the leaders lounge – the gathering place for the principals who are in the Kazakh capital to attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Here, probably under the eyes of other regional leaders, Modi and Sharif, who were not accompanied by their aides, exchanged pleasantries.
“Since it was the first occasion when the two leaders came across each other after Nawaz Sharif’s operation, PM enquired about his health. He also enquired about Nawaz Sharif’s mother and family,” Indian official sources said. It is not known, however, how Sharif replied.
After this exchange, which lasted a few minutes, both prime ministers walked along with the other leaders into the impressive main hall for a cultural programme. Modi and Sharif were seated in the same row for visiting leaders, but at some distance apart. Among the offerings on show for the leaders was a dance troupe from Bengaluru, whose item was an ode to Ganesha, the Hindu god of good beginnings.
After the function, the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, hosted an official banquet. According to official sources, the two South Asian prime ministers did not interact during the dinner, as there was no opportunity due to the seating arrangements.
Sharif’s health was also the pretext for Modi’s last attempt to dial back the increased rhetoric from both sides. A couple of days before the Pakistani prime minister underwent open heart surgery in London in May 2016, Modi had tweeted ‘best wishes’ for a quick recovery. The tweet was notable, coming in the midst of continuing tensions as India and Pakistan grappled with the fallout of the terror attack on the Pathankot Air Force base.
If the presence of the two leaders in the same city meant a meeting could always be on the cards, the day did not start on an auspicious note with the Pakistan foreign office having just accused India of endangering “regional peace” by allegedly targeting civilians during cross-border firing.
Unprovoked #CFVbyIndia at LoC in Kayani Sector with heavy weapons & mortars.4 Civilians injured. Responded by Pakistan Army.
— Dr Mohammad Faisal (@ForeignOfficePk) June 7, 2017
Deliberate targeting of civilians by India is deplorable. Int'l Community & UN should take note. India continues to endanger regional peace
— Dr Mohammad Faisal (@ForeignOfficePk) June 7, 2017
About 12 hours later, on Thursday afternoon, Modi and Sharif landed in Astana within half an hour of each other, amidst speculation about a possible meeting at their first joint appearance on a multilateral forum.
On Friday, the SCO will formally induct India and Pakistan as full members in the first expansion of the grouping which emphasises “good neighbourliness” in its charter.
In Islamabad, there had been buzz for weeks about backchannels with India leading to a possible meeting in Astana. The meeting of the Indian industrialist Sajjan Jindal with Nawaz Sharif in April was claimed to be part of this alleged plan to engineer a thaw through a meeting between the two prime ministers. The Pakistan army’s pique over this ‘secret meeting’ led to a brief war of words over the ‘Dawn Leaks’ issue a few days later.
‘Russian, Chinese pressure for a thaw’
Pakistani journalists accompanying their official delegation were told that Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping were keen for Sharif to use the SCO summit to mend fences with India at the earliest. The three of them had met together on the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Therefore, due to the pressure from Moscow and Beijing, a ‘chance encounter’ was definitely on the cards during the two days when both leaders would be together at various events, Pakistani official sources claimed.
Indian officials had however denied that there was any such advice from Russia and China on New Delhi to reach out to Islamabad. MEA spokesperson Gopal Baglay asserted that there was no pressure from Putin during his interaction with Modi in Moscow last month.
Both sides had also taken pains to emphasise that there was no formal request for a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit. Three day earlier, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj ruled out any possiblility of a meeting between Modi and Sharif, which she reiterated could only take place after Pakistan dismantled the ‘terror infrastructure’ on its soil. “Neither any such meeting is planned from our side, nor from their side,” she asserted. This was re-confirmed by Baglay on Thursday night in Astana.
The first item on both of their itineraries in the Kazakh capital was an appointment with their host, Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan is India’s largest uranium supplier, having already sent two large shipments of yellow cake for India’s nuclear reactors. With connectivity being a major concern, two new weekly direct flights from Astana to Delhi will be started in July. So far, flights from India were routed through Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.
Besides his meeting with Nazarbayev, Sharif also met with the new Uzbekistan president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took over after the death of Islam Karimov who had led the country for 25 years.
As Sharif left the Ramada Palace hotel for the opera house, he was mobbed by Pakistani and Indian media persons. As journalists shouted questions at him about the possibility of a meeting with Modi, he just smiled and raised his hand.
The Opera House event is not the only time that Modi and Sharif will be thrown together in Kazakhstan. On Friday afternoon, both will attend the extended plenary meeting of the SCO leaders which will sign off on the entry of India and Pakistan into the club. They will also go for the official lunch, as well as the opening ceremony of Expo 2017.
Shadow of Kulbhushan Jadhav case
Even as the “brief encounter” may perhaps act as release valve after several months of tension, the ICJ proceedings on the same day are an indication that substantial progress is unlikely in the short term.
Indian and Pakistan officials met with ICJ president Ronny Abraham on Thursday to discuss the timeline for the case about the Indian citizen, Kulbhushan Jadhav, sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court. India had challenged the sentencing of Jadhav for espionage, claiming his trial had bee fatally compromised by the lack of due process and Pakistan’s violation of an international treaty guaranteeing consular access.
Acting on an Indian complaint, the ICJ in May ordered Pakistan to stay the execution of Jadhav till such time the court finally disposes of the case.
While there was no statement from the Indian side, the Pakistani foreign ministry said that its delegation led by Attorney General Ashtar Ausaf had sought an “expedited timetable with a view for an early substantive hearing”.
“The court is not bound by the parties’ views in fixing the time limits. It will therefore consider Pakistan’s request for an expedited schedule together with India’s views, as well as the schedule of the other cases before it, this being a very busy period in the court’s history,” Shashank Kumar, a Geneva-based public international lawyer, told The Wire.
He noted that the court will only fix the date of the hearing once the written phase is completed.
Kumar felt that Pakistan could choose to file a separate “preliminary objection” against the court’s jurisdiction during the written phase. It would mean that court had to first consider the challenge to its jurisdiction, before looking at the ‘merits’ of the case.
The Pakistan foreign office statement said that “the Indian application seeks ‘at least release or acquittal’ of” Jadhav but “as was made clear” by Pakistan’s counsel, Khawar Qureshi, “India can never obtain this from the ICJ.”