Missed opportunity

Updated June 16, 2019


THE high-powered 19th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which brought together key world leaders in Bishkek, ended on Friday with a reiterated pledge to collaborate on security and development — but ironically became yet another missed opportunity for Pakistan and India to move the needle on bilateral talks.

After the SCO summit, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirmed that while Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi shook hands and exchanged pleasantries during their interaction on the sidelines of the event, these were a “courtesy” and not a structured meeting.

Read: PM, Modi have ‘courtesy’ interaction in Bishkek

Mr Qureshi asserted that India has “not come out of its election mindset”, saying it was still confined to the “extreme position” it had taken to keep the BJP vote bank intact. He also added: “India has to make this decision, we are neither in haste, nor troubled. When India prepares itself, it would find us prepared, but we will hold talks on the basis of equality, in a dignified manner.”

There is no doubt that Pakistan has taken a principled and diplomatic position on talks with India.

From the time that Mr Khan took office, Islamabad has been consistent and open in its stance with New Delhi regarding constructive bilateral dialogue through his words and actions — gestures that have repeatedly been rebuffed or ignored by India. In fact, even the prime minister’s vow, “if India takes one step, Pakistan will take two”, his Kartarpur gesture and offer of talks on issues including terrorism were met with a similarly dismissive response.

More recently, Mr Modi literally went out of his way to avoid Pakistani airspace, when his plane took a circuitous route to the SCO in Kyrgyzstan even though he had permission to fly over Pakistan.

Despite the government’s utmost efforts and mature outlook on the relationship, India has maintained its cold attitude towards talks — a sign that Mr Modi’s anti-Pakistan vitriol was not just election rhetoric to secure a BJP victory. Just as troubling is that India this week deprived Sikh pilgrims from Pakistan of the Jorr Mela yatra when it disallowed a train from Pakistan to pick them up at the Attari railway station.

The Modi government’s stiff attitude towards Pakistan is unreasonable and risks embroiling the region in further tensions. An obstructionist and stubborn position on Kashmir and the human rights abuse against protesters is only compounding the problem, which has long-lasting regional implications. India’s policy of avoiding engagement, ignoring the Kashmir issue and hurting people-to-people contact is being witnessed internationally and further inaction will hardly benefit it. As Mr Qureshi has also noted, “India has to make a decision on whether or not to hold bilateral talks with Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues” and “Pakistan sought the dialogue to be based on equality”. The onus to take a step forward now lies on India.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2019