India reluctantly accepts Pak offer for engagement

Agrees to Imran’s suggestion for FMs meeting but refuses to attend Saarc summit, Analysts believe prospects of rapprochement are low as BJP gears for elections next year

ISLAMABAD/New Delhi - After a long period of diplomatic disconnection, Pakistan and India have agreed to formally interact at higher official levels – as the prime ministers of the two nuclear neighbours had expressed their desire to lower the tensions between the two neighbours.

The foreign ministers of the arch-rivals – Shah Mahmood Qureshi and India’s Sushma Swaraj – will hold a rare meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly underway in New York, officials in New Delhi and Islamabad said Thursday.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said New Delhi had agreed to a meeting between Sushma and her Pakistani counterpart. The news was confirmed by Pakistan’s Foreign Office.

The announcement comes after Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi calling for a resumption of talks between the nuclear-armed foes.

Khan’s letter was in response to Modi’s own communication to him seeking a “meaningful and constructive” engagement between the two countries, said Pakistan’s Foreign Office.

The Indian official said about the New York meeting, “We have just agreed to the meeting. The agenda is not finalised.”

Kumar however sought to play down hopes of a full resumption in talks between the two countries saying the New York tete-a-tete did not represent a shift in New Delhi’s relations with Islamabad.

“This does not indicate any change in our policy on cross-border terrorism,” the spokesman told reporters in the Indian capital.

He also said that India has rejected PM Imran Khan’s proposal for a Saarc summit in Pakistan saying the atmosphere is not conducive.

Mr Kumar added, “Let’s distinguish between meeting and dialogue. This doesn’t change our stand on terrorism.”

Despite this reluctant acceptance by India to engage with Pakistan, the development is significant as the Sushma-Qureshi meeting would be the first high-level interaction in nearly three years.

Also, the announcement comes as the already-fraught relationship hit fresh roadblocks this week. Amid the continuing tension on the Line of Control, the death of an Indian border guard Wednesday in Kashmir increased the strain.

But prospects of a rapprochement are low as Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is gearing for elections by the middle of next year. The BJP has long advocated a tough stance toward Pakistan.

Navjot Sidhu, an Indian cricketer-turned-politician, earlier came under fire after he was filmed hugging Pakistan’s army chief at the inauguration ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said earlier on Thursday that PM Khan had sent a clear message to his Indian counterpart to resume talks and resolve bilateral issues.

Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammed Faisal said FM Qureshi will leave for the US on September 22 to represent Pakistan at the UNGA. On the sidelines, Qureshi will hold meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov among others.

He said that Prime Minister Khan - in a letter - had responded to Modi in a positive way to resume peace talks.

Faisal said: “PM has responded to PM Modi, in a positive spirit, reciprocating his sentiments. Let’s talk and resolve all issues. We await formal response from India.”

Khan’s letter was in response to Modi’s own communication to him seeking a “meaningful and constructive” engagement between the two countries.

Imran Khan, in his victory speech, had stressed on normal relations between the two nations. “If we want to slash poverty in the region, then we (Pakistan and India) must practice healthy trade ties,” he had said.

He added: “If India comes and takes one step towards us, we will take two steps toward them. Right now, it is one sided where India is constantly just blaming us.”

Afterwards, Modi told Khan that India was ready for a “new era” of ties with Pakistan and called for crafting collective strategy for combating regional challenges.

This week Pakistan said there was no formal communications so far between Islamabad and New Delhi over the opening of Kartarpur Corridor.

Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammed Faisal however, said Pakistan was “open” on this issue.

“So far no formal communication between the two countries has taken place. The matter pertains to the Ministry of Finance but we are open,” he said.

Earlier, former cricketer and Indian minister Navjot Singh Sidhu who had visited Pakistan to attend PM Khan’s oath-taking ceremony last month said Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa had pledged that the Pakistan government will open the Dera Baba Nanak (Kartarpur) corridor on Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

Later, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry also said Pakistan will soon open the Kartarpur border for Sikh pilgrims and allow them to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib without having to obtain a visa. “A system has been formed for the pilgrims entering Pakistan,” he said.


Dr Faisal said Pakistan’s position was very clear on relations with India. “We are ready to talk on all outstanding issues with India. Kashmir dispute remains the cardinal issue among these, which also includes the issue of Sir Creek and Siachen as well as people to people contacts, trade and prisoners,” he added. 

The spokesperson said Pakistan had consistently maintained that the only way forward was through a comprehensive, result oriented, uninterrupted, uninterruptible dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues. “We are also ready to talk about the issue of terrorism, which is a global phenomenon, and calls for global and concerted action,” he maintained.

This year, Pakistan had extended the MunaBao (India)-Khokhrapar (Pakistan) rail link agreement with India for another three years - from February 1, 2018 to January 31, 2021.

The agreement was signed in 2006. The rail link facilitates people-to-people to contact which Pakistan believes is essential for improving relations between both the countries. The Munabao- Khokhrapar train service connects Pakistan’s Sindh and India’s Rajasthan provinces. 

The extension in agreement came amid high tension between Pakistan and India. The two countries have been at loggerheads since the killing of a Kashmiri freedom fighter, Burhan Wani, in July 2016. An attack on Indian forces in September 2016 - that killed 19 soldiers in Uri area of held Kashmir - further heightened the tensions.

Later, India violated the ceasefire along the Line of Control that resulted in deaths on both sides. India also claimed it had carried a ‘surgical strike’ to avenge the Uri attack. Pakistan rejected the Indian assertion.

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