Sushma date with Pak after Imran letter
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj will meet her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York next week, responding to a letter from newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking resumption of dialogue.
The external affairs ministry confirmed that the two foreign ministers would meet on the sidelines of the UNGA but hurried to add: “This is just a meeting, not talks or resumption of dialogue.”
The confirmation of the meeting came against the backdrop of the brutal killing of a BSF jawan by Pakistani troops. BJP managers feared a resumption of dialogue in this atmosphere could be politically harmful.
The proposed meeting, however, will be the first ministerial-level engagement with Pakistan since December 2015 when Sushma had travelled to Islamabad for a Heart of Asia conference. Ties between the two countries turned hostile after the Uri terror attack in 2016 and since then there have been no diplomatic engagements.
“I can confirm that on the request of the Pakistani side, a meeting between the EAM (external affairs minister) and the Pakistani foreign minister will take place on the sidelines of the UNGA at a mutually convenient date and time,” ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said. “This is just a meeting, not talks or resumption of dialogue,” he added, stressing that the meeting “doesn’t signal resumption of bilateral dialogue.”
Imran had in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 14 sought resumption of bilateral talks. Imran had also suggested a meeting between the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting.
The backdrop of the reachout letter by the new Pakistan Prime Minister was traced to his victory speech and Modi’s response. Imran had said Pakistan would respond with two steps to any step by India for normalisation of ties. Modi had replied seeking a “meaningful and constructive” engagement.
On what issues would be discussed during the meeting, the foreign ministry statement said Sushma would raise the issue of access of Indian pilgrims to the Kartarpur Saheb gurudwara in Pakistan. Access to the gurudwara has turned into a raging controversy with Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Congress minister in Punjab, seeking to steal a march on the issue.
Sidhu attended Imran’s swearing-in and came back to claim the new government in Pakistan led by his ex-cricketer “friend” was willing to provide access to pilgrims to Kartarpur Saheb. Sidhu also met Sushma and requested her to take up the matter.
The BJP and its Punjab ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, however, criticised Sidhu for hugging the Pakistan Army chief at Imran’s swearing-in and slammed him for “demeaning” India.
The external affairs ministry statement said Akali Dal leader and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal had written to Sushma urging her to raise with Pakistan access to Kartarpur Saheb.
Visa-free access to Kartarpur Saheb is a long-pending demand of Sikhs and all political parties in Punjab, including the BJP, want to tap into it now that Sidhu has stirred the pot and appears to be getting people’s support.
“Even now we have not received any official communication that the Pakistan government is willing to consider this matter. The EAM will, therefore, raise this issue in her meeting with the Pakistan foreign minister on the sidelines of the UNGA,” the MEA statement said.