x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

No breakthroughs in India-Pakistan talks

Countries' foreign ministers hold six-hour talks in Islamabad, resuming diplomatic efforts stalled in the aftermath of the 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai.

The Indian foreign minister, SM Krishna (right), leads his delegation as he talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi (second left) during their meeting at the Pakistani foreign ministry in Islamabad.
The Indian foreign minister, SM Krishna (right), leads his delegation as he talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi (second left) during their meeting at the Pakistani foreign ministry in Islamabad.

MUMBAI // The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan emerged beaming last night before a news gathering in Islamabad after a six-hour meeting described as frank, candid and constructive. But behind the smiles and handshakes there appeared to be no clear breakthrough in negotiations, with palpable differences over key bilateral issues remaining.

SM Krishna, India's external affairs minister, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday in an effort to revive peace negotiations that stalled after the 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai. His marathon meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, was the third such top-level encounter between the two countries in six months. "Those of us who have always promoted India-Pakistan friendship are happy that the two countries are again talking," said Qamar Zaman Kaira, Pakistan's information minister. "India and Pakistan do have differences on many issues, but there are plenty of grounds on which they can come together," he said. But despite the bonhomie, terrorism - an issue that has scuttled past peace talks - dominated the negotiations.

Even before Mr Krishna flew into Islamabad, the talks were overshadowed by a startling comment made by GK Pillai, India's home secretary, who said Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) played a "much more significant role" in the Mumbai attacks than was previously thought. His statement was based on the findings of Indian investigators who last month interrogated David Headley, a key Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT) operative, who was arrested in Chicago last year and has pleaded guilty to scouting sites in Indian cities to launch terror attacks. "It was not just a peripheral role... they (ISI) were literally controlling and co-ordinating it from the beginning till the end," Mr Pillai said on the eve of the talks. The Pakistani side was visibly rankled by Mr Pillai's comments. "The remarks are very disappointing, especially coming on the eve of Indo-Pak talks," an unnamed top official in the Pakistan government told the Press Trust of India. Instead of going public, Mr Krishna should have presented the relevant evidence at yesterday's meeting, the official said. Mr Qureshi said his comment was "uncalled for". "India is clearly not sincere about settling disputes with Pakistan. It is futile to [expect] that the Qureshi-Krishna talks ... would lead to any meaningful outcome," The Nation, a Pakistani daily said in an editorial after Mr Pillai's comments were made public. "India wants to ditch the peace process that had reached a point where meaningful discussion on the core issue of Kashmir was on the cards. We are now back to square one!" Nevertheless, armed with this evidence, Mr Krishna demanded sterner action from Pakistan against those accused of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, including the LiT chief, Hafiz Saeed, who India alleges was the architect of the attack. Mr Krishna stressed that it was imperative for Pakistan to act on the "overwhelming evidence", which was of "irrefutable nature". Mr Qureshi said he will take the leads provided from the David Headley interrogations "very seriously". "Pakistan has promised to go after the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attack and, perhaps, that is the biggest confidence building measure that could be taken," Mr Krishna said. The talks were scheduled against the backdrop of a growing number of armed militants from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) attempting to cross into India. The Indian army believes nearly 2,500 militants trained in 34 camps inside PoK are desperately trying to cross the Line of Control, the de-facto border separating Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir, via melting snowcaps. Mr Qureshi rejected allegations that the Pakistani government was encouraging infiltration. "Infiltration is not a policy of the government of Pakistan or any intelligence agency of Pakistan," he said. On Tuesday, Syed Sallahudin, the head of Hizbul Mujahideen and chairman of the United Jihad Council, an umbrella group of nearly a dozen Pakistan-based militant groups, rejected the talks at a large public rally in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-Kashmir. He said Pakistan-based militant groups were determined to continue their jihad or holy war against its neighbour until the "last Indian soldier leaves" the state of Kashmir. Such a "tirade", Mr Krishna stressed, would not "help smoothen" the relations between the two countries. "'Trust deficit' is the latest buzzword parroted in India on Indo-Pak relations with a dreary simplemindedness which has started bordering on the tiresome," said Shankar Roychowdhury, a retired general and former chief of the Indian army. "It is not easy to put down the historical baggage of bitter cynicism regarding Pakistan. [But] dialogue, howsoever interminable and frustrating, is always preferable to artillery fire," he said. Mr Qureshi stressed that he had acceded to Mr Krishna's demand of expediting the trial against seven Pakistani men accused of being involved in orchestrating the Mumbai attack including Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the operations commander of the LiT. Mr Qureshi did not spell out any time-line for the trial's completion. He accused India of fomenting insurgency in Pakistan's south-western province of Balochistan. Mr Krishna tersely rejected the charge, saying there was "not a shred of evidence" provided by Pakistan to prove the charge. Despite the visible acrimony, the two men announced they would meet again in New Delhi. "Our relations are complex but dialogue has to go on," Mr Qureshi said. Mr Krishna nodded in agreement. @Email:achopra@thenational.ae