Stage Set For PM's US Visit, India Seethes As Pakistan Denies Overflight Permission

Foreign secretary VIjay Gokhale has sought to clarify that Kashmir is not likely to occupy central focus during Modi's visit.

New Delhi: With the entire Indian foreign policy leadership preparing to travel to the United States next week, India has proven eager to play down the possibility of terrorism or Kashmir occupying central focus during the Indian prime minister’s week-long sojourn.

At the same time, Pakistan’s refusal to allow the special flight to travel through its airspace continues to rankle New Delhi.

India could consider taking Pakistan to the International Civil Aviation Organization, if it deems that the latter has violated international regulations on overflight approval, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said on Thursday. 

On Wednesday, Pakistan had refused India’s request to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to use its airspace to travel to US via Germany. Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that Islamabad had not accepted the request due to the “current situation in Kashmir”.

India had “regretted” the decision and described it as a deviation from “well-established international practice”.

A day later, Gokhale echoed the words of the ministry’s spokesperson, stating that Pakistan’s actions would be illogical for a “normal country”.

Also read: In Ongoing Battle of Perception, Pak Rakes up Two-Year-Old Case of Missing Officer

“It is rather unfortunate that a country denies overflight to the head of state or head of government of another country. But this is true when it is a normal country. Now, we have made our position very clear. We hope that Pakistan will realise the folly of its actions,” he said at a briefing about Modi’s visit to the United States.

When asked specifically if India could take Pakistan before an ICAO council, he said that currently there was no such proposal, but did not completely rule it out.

“As far as going to any international organisation is concerned, we will take a look at that. So far, there is no intention to do so. But, if they are in violation of regulations of ICAO, that is a possibility that we can certainly consider,” said Gokhale.

This the second time in two weeks that Pakistan has denied an Indian request for overflight. On September 7, Pakistan declined to permit President Ram Nath Kovind to use its airspace for his flight to Iceland.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan gestures as he speaks during a rally in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, on September 13, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Naseer Chaudary

However, Pakistan had allowed Modi to travel to France in August for the G7 summit. This led to a domestic backlash for the Imran Khan government which had to go on backfoot to explain why it provided the approval for the Indian prime minister’s travels, even after New Delhi’s clampdown and overnight change in the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Also read: Pakistan Vows ‘Fullest Possible Response’ to India over Kashmir

After India had conducted military strikes at a terror facility in Balakot in February, Pakistan had closed most of its airspace to international flights to and from India until mid-July. 

It only recently lifted the closure, but had again threatened to repeat the action after India modified Kashmir’s status. So far, Pakistan continues to allow incoming and outgoing commercial air traffic from India.

Modi will be travelling to Houston and New York from September 21 to 27, during which he will hold bilateral meetings with around 20 leaders on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly.

Along with Modi, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and minister of state for external affairs V. Muraleedharan will also have their separate schedules in New York.

Gokhale denied that the heavyweight presence of Modi and two minsters in the US was part of the Indian diplomatic outreach to explain New Delhi’s actions on Kashmir.

Also read: ‘We Have to Hug Each Kashmiri, Create New Paradise,’ Says Modi At Nashik Rally

He claimed that India was taking advantage of the presence of  a large number of leaders in New York for the UNGA to touch base with countries with whom visits could not be scheduled due to paucity of time.

On another question, he said that India would not raise the issue of Article 370 at UN as it was an “internal” matter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs US President Donald Trump during their meeting in 2017. Photo: Reuters

Gokhale also demurred on whether India would project combatting terrorism as the main plank of its foreign policy at UNGA. “We have a lot on the agenda, like development and climate change. Terrorism is one of them, but it won’t be the focus. India’s international platform is about what role we can play and prime minister will present his vision on it”.

The main highlight of Modi’s trip will be the Indian American community gathering, ‘Howdy Modi’ at Houston on September 22. 

Also read: Trump Might Appear at Modi Rally in Houston

In an unprecedented gesture, US President Donald Trump has also announced his presence at the event which would be attended by around 50,000 Indian Americans. While observers had noted that Trump’s presence was part of his re-election campaign to reach out to an important community, Gokhale insisted that the presence of Congressmen and Congresswomen of both parties showed the bipartisan support for the prime minister.

Modi will also hold two separate roundtables with business leaders in Houston and New York. He will also take part in a summit with leaders of Pacific island states and Caribbean nations.

The key outcome expected during the trip is a trade agreement, which is however likely to be limited in scope. Gokhale, however, stated that reinstatement of India’s  designation as a beneficiary developing nation under the key Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) trade programme, has to be a sovereign decision of US.

“GSP is something which is important for our industry and ultimately, it is upto the US to take a call,” he said.

Modi is expected to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, after a gap of five years. The same day, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan will also be taking the podium for the first time.