Optics over outcomes

Will the row between Indian and Pakistani interior ministers hurt the SAARC summit in November?

Optics over outcomes
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s early departure from the SAARC interior ministers meeting in Islamabad after an icy reception and a showdown with his Pakistani counterpart Chaudhry Nisar does not bode well for the already tense India-Pakistan ties, and the upcoming 19th summit of the regional bloc being hosted by Pakistan in November.

The conference, which was part of series of SAARC meetings that precede the summit, was expected to witness a tense India-Pakistan standoff because of the volatile situation in Occupied Kashmir – where India is using excessive force to quell month-long protests that have so far resulted in 60 deaths and injuries to thousands. But few had expected the hostilities to break out in open.

It would not be wrong to say that the two neighbours and archrivals had primed for the face-off at the SAARC platform – all for impressing their respective domestic constituencies, but with little consideration about the message it would be send out about the virtually non-existing regional cooperation.
Singh then left the conference hall and also skipped the lunch

It all started with India deciding to send the high profile Rajnath Singh – a known RSS hawk on Pakistan – for the meeting, although it had the option of dispatching his relatively moderate deputy Kiren Rijiju. Other than India, only Bhutan and Sri Lanka had sent ministers for attending the meeting of the eight-country regional group. Afghanistan and Maldives were represented by their deputy ministers, and Bangladesh and Nepal had sent other officials.

Singh had set the tone of his trip by announcing that he would not hold any bilateral meetings, which are usual on the sidelines of such multilateral gatherings. His visit to Islamabad was important, given that it was the second by an Indian leader since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s famous Lahore stopover last December. Singh is practically the number-two in the Indian hierarchy.


In the Pakistani capital, meanwhile, banners came up protesting Rajnath’s visit. To India’s chagrin, protest demonstrations against his visit were led by Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the UN listed organization Jamaatud Dawa, and Syed Salahuddin, a commander of the Kashmiri militant organization Hizbul Mujahideen. There were other protest gatherings as well, organized by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

Singh was received by a relatively junior official, and when he reached the meeting venue, he had an awkward handshake with his host Chaudhry Nisar.

Optics aside, the real confrontation began when it was Singh’s turn to address the meeting. He criticized Pakistan for supporting the Kashmiri uprising and praising the slain militant commander Burhan Wani, whose killing by Indian security forces around Eid in July had set off the current phase of protests.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee, headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had described Wani’s killing as the “martyrdom of [an] indigenous Kashmiri freedom fighter”, in its last meeting.

“Terrorists should not be glorified as martyrs,” Singh said. “There is no good or bad terrorism. Terrorism is terrorism.” Deeply upset, the Pakistani side and Chaudhry Nisar responded by reminding India about human rights violations in Kashmir, and said a freedom movement should not be discredited as terrorism.

Both Singh and Chaudhry forgot that as per SAARC traditions, they should not have been discussing bilateral problems at the regional forum – one reason why Kashmir is not on SAARC’s agenda.

Singh then left the conference hall and also skipped the lunch hosted by Chaudhry Nisar for the visiting ministers, which incidentally the host too did not attend.

But meetings between interior secretaries and immigration officials that preceded the ministerial event did not face similar problems, thus strengthening the perception that the exchange was motivated by political considerations.

The meeting of the ministers ended with a call for strengthening SAARC conventions on suppression of terrorism and an additional protocol on mutual assistance in criminal matters and on drugs and psychotropic substances.

There are concerns whether the confrontation would affect the summit being hosted by Pakistan in November, and other related meetings. Diplomats say India could lower its representation in SAARC events in Pakistan in the lead up to the summit.

There is no doubt that the incident will heighten tensions over Kashmir. One such indication is the summoning of Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi Mr Abdul Basit to India’s External Affairs Ministry over allegations of cross-LoC infiltration from Pakistani side.

The allegations were instantly rejected by Pakistan’s Foreign Office.

The next event is a meeting between finance ministers on August 24 and 25. It is not clear if the Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will attend it.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad

Email: mamoonarubab@gmail.com

Twitter: @bokhari_mr