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India’s absurd move

Updated September 23, 2018

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EVEN by the often bewildering standards of Pakistan-India relations, the latest dust-up is confusing and disappointing.

A day after the spokesperson of the Indian Ministry for External Affairs confirmed a foreign-minister-level meeting between India and Pakistan in New York during the UNGA, India reversed itself in a spectacularly fiery and unfortunate statement by the MEA spokesperson.

The reasons stated by India for cancelling the meeting are self-contradictory and have been criticised inside that country itself by independent analysts and sections of the media. Extraordinary too is the intemperate and undiplomatic language used by India to attack Prime Minister Imran Khan personally.

Mr Khan has answered in a similar vein via his official Twitter account to India’s jibe against him, and it is difficult to see how the two prime ministers will be able to move past the sudden personal animus that appears to have broken out. A moment of hope has been gratuitously extinguished by India.

The immediate challenge now will be to avoid a war of words between the two foreign ministers at the UNGA. While the bilateral meeting stands cancelled, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will participate in multilateral forums where there will likely be intense media focus on them. Similarly, speeches at the UNGA have in recent years been taken as an opportunity by the two countries to verbally attack each other.

For Pakistan, the focus should be on drawing global attention to Indian human rights violations against and oppression of the people of India-held Kashmir, while simultaneously highlighting Indian intransigence in opening talks with Pakistan.

After all, Prime Minister Khan’s recent letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically mentioned that Pakistan remains willing to discuss terrorism-related matters. Foreign Minister Qureshi will need to draw on all his experience to keep the UNGA meetings on track rather than allow them to descend into a shouting match between India and Pakistan.

Beyond the UNGA, it is not clear when the next significant opportunity for resuming public dialogue will be available. Perhaps the approach in the near term should focus on back-channel contacts such as between the countries’ national security advisers.

Prime Minister Khan should move quickly to complete his national security team by announcing his choice for NSA. Military-to-military contacts, particularly in matters pertaining to peace along the Line of Control, should also be maintained.

Unfortunate and bizarre as the eventual Indian response to Pakistan’s offer for dialogue has been, it remains true that talks are the only rational path that the two South Asian rivals can take.

Prime Minister Modi’s BJP is the front runner in next year’s general election in India, so it would behove the party and its leadership to demonstrate sensible leadership instead of engulfing South Asia in deeper uncertainty and even fear.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2018