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‘Red line’ defence on govt flip-flop

New Delhi, Aug. 19: The Narendra Modi government had laid down on its very first day in office the “red line” it yesterday accused Islamabad of violating after its envoy met a Kashmiri separatist, senior officials said a day after India cancelled foreign secretary talks with Pakistan.

Separatist and moderate leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference had wanted to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he visited Delhi for Modi’s May 26 swearing-in.

But the Kashmiri leaders and Pakistan’s high commission — which wanted to host the meetings — were unambiguously told that India would not welcome any dialogue between them, officials said.

Sharif and the Pakistan high commission accepted India’s position — and did not formally invite the Kashmiri leaders for a meeting in Delhi during Sharif’s two-day visit.

“We drew the red line on this the very first day and Pakistan’s response then suggested they were willing to accept it,” an official said. “That’s why we believe yesterday’s act was no coincidence, no misunderstanding, but a deliberate provocation.”

The articulation of a new red line — previous governments, including that of the BJP have allowed Pakistani leaders to meet Kashmiri separatists — will likely form part of the Modi government’s ammunition in countering criticism of an “incoherent” policy on Islamabad. The Congress has accused the government of an inconsistent policy on Pakistan, asking why the talks were initiated in the first place.

Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh was scheduled to meet her Pakistan counterpart Aizaz Chaudhry in Islamabad on August 25 for the first talks between the neighbours’ top diplomats in over two years.

But yesterday, Pakistani high commissioner Abdul Basit met separatist leader Shabbir Shah. The envoy today met three other Kashmiri leaders, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik.

The Pakistan mission’s announcement of the meetings had triggered a warning from the foreign office last week. Yesterday, Singh telephoned Basit to cancel the Islamabad talks within minutes of Shah leaving the mission compound.

Pakistan called the cancellation of the talks a “setback”, and questioned the reasoning behind India’s decision, referring to the “long-standing practice” of “meetings with Kashmiri leaders” prior to talks between Delhi and Islamabad.

Under successive Indian Prime Ministers cutting across political blocs — I.K. Gujral of the United Front, Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP and Manmohan Singh of the Congress — Pakistan Presidents, Prime Ministers, ministers and diplomats have routinely held talks with Kashmiri separatist leaders.

“This government made its position on this practice clear from the start,” the official said.