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India cancels talks with Pakistan

New Delhi, Aug. 18: India called off next week’s foreign secretary talks with Pakistan after the neighbouring country’s envoy met a Kashmiri separatist today, New Delhi’s move signalling a break from its past approach to Islamabad.

Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh telephoned Pakistani high commissioner Abdul Basit early this evening to cancel her August 25 talks — a first in two years — with her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary in Islamabad.

Officially, India’s move was triggered by Basit’s decision to go ahead with the meeting with Hurriyat leader Shabbir Shah in Delhi despite India’s objections. Basit is scheduled to meet other Kashmiri leaders, such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, in the capital tomorrow.

Officials involved in preparations for the August 25 meeting, however, told The Telegraph the talks had anyway lost all “meaning” with consensus eluding Indian and Pakistani negotiators on mutually agreeable “outcomes”.

“At a time when serious initiatives were being undertaken by the Government of India to move bilateral ties forward, including towards the resumption of a regular dialogue process, the invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan’s high commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan’s sincerity,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.

“And (it) shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs continue unabated.”

When Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif had met on the margins of Modi’s late May swearing-in, they had asked their foreign secretaries to communicate regularly. In July, the two bureaucrats set up the August 25 meeting over the phone.

Modi’s May invite to Sharif had triggered early bonhomie, leading to an exchange of gifts for their mothers and contrasting starkly with the BJP leader’s pre-election attacks on Pakistan. The cancellation of next week’s talks may presage a freeze in that warmth.

“The Indian decision is a setback to the efforts by our leadership to promote good neighbourly relations,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.

India’s stand represents a break from the past. Although India has always stressed its claim on the whole of Kashmir, successive Pakistani high commissioners have regularly met Kashmiri leaders. Basit hosted Geelani during the April 2 Pakistan Day celebrations.

Pakistani envoys or visiting ministers have in particular regularly met separatist leaders on the eve of key talks with their Indian counterparts. In 2001, visiting President Pervez Musharraf, invited by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had met separatist leaders in Delhi.

“It is a long-standing practice that, prior to Pakistan-India talks, meetings with Kashmiri leaders are held to facilitate meaningful discussions on the issue of Kashmir,” the Pakistani statement said.

Each time, India would protest and ask Pakistan to desist from those meetings. But the meetings — India-Pakistan and separatist-Pakistan — would go on.

“This is new and sets a higher bar (for) what India is telling Pakistan it must agree to if it wants any progress at all on a dialogue,” an Indian official said. “How Pakistan responds, and whether it accepts India’s stance, will determine how the ties go from here.”

But deeper differences had already been eating away at the talks preparations.

Although the talks were partly aimed at gauging the possibility of a Modi-Sharif meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September, Modi has made it clear to the foreign office that he only wants diplomatic engagements that yield results.

India has been seeking non-discriminatory market access in Pakistan for years, pointing to the most-favoured-nation status it gave Pakistan in 1996. New Delhi, officials confirmed, wanted Islamabad to make clear commitments on this demand during the foreign secretary talks but Pakistan refused.

Pakistan too handed India a list of demands — such as easier visa access for pilgrims and families visiting India — but obtained little response.