UNITED NATIONS: Pakistan and India had two exploratory meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Thursday but discussed issues which did not focus on bilateral relations.
Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz came face to face at the Saarc and Commonwealth foreign ministers’ meetings, raising hopes that the two seasoned politicians could use these opportunities for reducing tensions between their nations.
They met as planned, and also had “a brief chit-chat” at the Commonwealth meeting, but did not hold formal talks. Diplomatic observers at the United Nations, however, see even this minor gesture as “a step in the right direction”, as one of them said.
Foreign ministers from Saarc and Commonwealth nations meet every year on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss a mutually agreed agenda. This year’s agenda included Commonwealth reforms, the post-2015 development goals and improving cooperation within South Asia.
Both Ms Swaraj and Mr Aziz focused on the agenda in their speeches and did meet each other briefly but only to exchange formal greetings.
Speculations about a separate meeting between the two ministers got a boost earlier this week when India’s permanent representative to the UN Asoke Mukerji told the Indian news agency (PTI) that they might “meet” each other at one of these fora.
“There is a meeting of Saarc Foreign Ministers which is scheduled and I am sure our External Affairs Minister will meet” Aziz in the meeting, Mr Mukerji said in response to a question about the possibility of a meeting between them.
Mr Mukerji said the “second opportunity” for the two leaders to meet would be the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
“India and Pakistan are both members of the Commonwealth. So the two ministers will be meeting in that format as well,” he said. Ms Swaraj last met Mr Aziz on Sept 12 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Dushanbe but like New York, they only exchanged pleasantries during a break.
The UN General Assembly created another opportunity for India-Pakistan talks as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi are both attending the session. But officials on both sides have said that there will be no meeting between the two leaders, which led observers to speculate that Ms Swaraj and Mr Aziz could do the talking on their behalf.
India and Pakistan have been involved in a war of words after New Delhi cancelled a Foreign Secretary-level meeting last month after Pakistan’s envoy in India met Kashmiri leaders ahead of the talks.
The Indians say that the resumption of talks depends on Pakistan’s policy towards Kashmir. Indian think-tank experts and former diplomats close to the ruling BJP say that if Mr Sharif raised the Kashmir issue in his address to the General Assembly on Friday, India will show no desire to resume the talks.
They argue that by omitting Kashmir from his speech, Mr Sharif can not only reduce tensions but can also raise the possibility of a meeting with Mr Modi, perhaps even during this UN General Assembly.
The Pakistanis, however, argue that Mr Sharif will commit a political suicide if he did so.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2014