India’s decisions on J&K slammed the door shut on talks, says Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

Pakistan FM holds out little hope for bilateral talks, claims Sharif government had “broken back” of terror groups in Pakistan

May 05, 2023 06:00 pm | Updated May 06, 2023 09:29 am IST - BENAULIM, GOA

Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari leaves after attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers meeting in Goa on May 5, 2023.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari leaves after attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers meeting in Goa on May 5, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

India’s decision to reorganise Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 has made it “difficult” for those in Pakistan who advocated engagement in the past, said Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, adding that the restoration of statehood to the union territory could be “one step”.  However, he said that the action was the “only thing” holding up India-Pakistan talks at present, and that he had not requested any bilateral meeting with his SCO host, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar as a result. He also said that the decision on whether Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif will travel to India in July, to join Russian and Chinese Presidents and other leaders invited by PM Narendra Modi to Delhi for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit is still not made, but Pakistan is committed to the SCO process.

“There is genuine willingness on the Pakistan side, to address all issues and resolve all issues through dialogue. But the actions on August 5 really slammed the door shut on that process,” Mr. Bhutto told The Hindu in an exclusive interview during his visit to Goa to participate in the SCO Council for Foreign Ministers (SCO-FMM). “We would like India, the Indian government to create an environment conducive to talks and as soon as we return to the status quo of August 4 2019, I believe we can engage in a meaningful dialogue.”

Mr. Bhutto is the first Pakistan Foreign Minister to visit India since 2011, although Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony in 2014. Since 2019, after the Pulwama suicide bombing that killed 40 soldiers  in India, and Pakistan’s reaction to the government reorganisation of Jammu Kashmir and the amendment of Article 370, India and Pakistan have no High Commissioners in each other’s capitals, and have snapped all trade and travel links between them. When asked why Pakistan had objected to the moves, which were internal to India and the Indian constitution, and didn’t pertain to Pakistan, Mr. Bhutto said that Pakistan’s objections were to India’s alleged violations of international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions. “Not only the international position on this issue, but the bilateral position on these issues was undermined and undermined unilaterally,” he said. Prior to 2019, however, Pakistan had held that it did not recognise Article 370 that mandates Jammu and Kashmir’s relations with the Centre. 

To India’s contention that there can be no talks without an end to cross border terrorism, and when asked about  the recent attack on an Army vehicle that left five Indian soldiers dead in Poonch, Mr. Bhutto says that he condemns all terrorist acts “from India to the US”, and that no Indian official had blamed Pakistan for the attack in Poonch.  “The new unity government in Pakistan has taken this issue by the horns, we have rejected [Imran] Khan’s policy of appeasement when it comes to this issue”, he claimed, but said actions against LeT chief Hafiz Saeed and JeM chief Masood Azhar, wanted for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and 2001 Parliament attack  respectively, as had been demanded by the Financial Action Task Force, were pending as they are “under trial” and the matter is “sub judice”.  However, he raised the acquittals of suspects accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blasts in India, where Pakistani citizens died, asking why the government had not prosecuted the case further.

Mr. Bhutto also denied that there were any back-channel talks ongoing between India and Pakistan at present, although he conceded that these had been “productive” in the past. 

Mr. Bhutto’s visit to India marked the first time he came face to face to Mr. Jaishankar since both Ministers were at the UN in New York in December 2022, had traded charges and Mr. Bhutto had even made a direct attack on PM Modi for his role as Chief Minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots. When questioned about his comments about PM Modi, Mr. Bhutto said that he didn’t think his comments were a “personal attack”, and that “there’s nothing personal in diplomacy and in politics”, indicating that he wouldn’t apologise for the comments that had sparked considerable outrage in India.

Excerpts from the interview

‘We would like Indian govt. to create an environment conducive for talks’

You are the first Pakistani foreign minister to visit India since 2011. Did you request a bilateral meeting with the Indian External Affairs Minister, before you came to the SCO meeting in Goa?

My visit here is in the context of the SCO and is exclusively for the SCO. As far as Pakistan’s bilateral relations with India, or our position post the August 5 2019 actions in Kashmir, that has not changed. So therefore, in that context, I have not requested for a bilateral meeting with the host country’s minister for External Affairs.

Were you surprised that you were invited at all, given that the last time you and Mr. Jaishankar were in the same city was in. New York (December 2022) where you made personal attacks on Prime Minister Modi?

Well, I don’t think anything I said was personal and there’s nothing personal in diplomacy and in politics. I don’t think that should colour anything. But as far as SCO is concerned, I was not surprised. It is the responsibility of the host country and in conducting their official responsibility they have to invite every member to the SCO. Pakistan is a member and actually became a member at the same time as India did, in 2017.

And does that mean that prime minister Shahbaz Sharif will attended the SCO Summit in July as well?

So…that decision, that decision hasn’t been taken yet.

But he has been invited?

Of course

You said you didn’t ask for a bilateral discussion with Mr. Jaishankar. But since 2019, India and Pakistan, have no High Commissioners. They have no trade between them. They have no direct travel links between them. The question really, if not political ties, can the two countries have talks on other issues? In 2020, Prime Minister Modi did hold a SAARC virtual meeting on Covid and health, and talks over the Kartarpur Corridor also happened.

The only thing that makes it difficult are the illegal actions of August 5, 2019. There is genuine willingness on the Pakistan side, to address all issues and resolve all issues through dialogue. But the actions on August 5 really slammed the door shut on that process. We would like India, the Indian government to create an environment conducive to talks and as soon as we return to the status quo of August 4 2019, I believe we can engage in a meaningful dialogue.

But over the decades, Pakistan has consistently rejected article 370. Pakistan has said this is a part of the Indian constitution, that this has nothing to do with the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Why then do you think that the door is slammed shut?

I think that this slammed the door shut less because India violated its own constitution, but more because India violated international law, United Nations Security Council resolutions. Not only the international position on this issue, but the bilateral position on these issues was undermined and undermined unilaterally in quite an aggressive and obnoxious manner, in a way that has not been done throughout the history of India and throughout the history of this conflict. I believe that Pakistan’s position is legitimate as far as trade is concerned. India had shot up taxes on our imports 200% and Cross LoC transport facilities were shut by India. So a good first step would be for them to reverse some of their own actions

…On trade. Do you think that trade is something where there could be talks?

Trade or anything else can be something that, again, would be a result of a dialogue. And as far as Pakistan’s position is concerned, vis a vis a meaningful dialogue, that at the moment remains unchanged.

Specifically, when you say August 4 status quo, what is it that you’re speaking about -giving Jammu and Kashmir back its statehood?

That would be a start. But the fact is, it was India that took this issue to the United Nations. Surely, India is one of the largest democracies in the world.

…But, that was long ago…

There’s no expiry date on United Nations Security Council resolutions or an international law, and surely a country that calls itself the largest democracy in the world, would not shy away from a referendum for the public will of the people of Kashmir. As far as when I refer to the status quo…I mean, specifically, the actions that took place on August 5, that made it very difficult for Pakistan. Even those in Pakistan, who have long advocated for peace, have long advocated for engagement with India, have long advocated for normalization of relations with India- You know my mother’s advocacy and efforts on this issue throughout her life, that is exactly what we grew up believing. But even for people like us, who within the Pakistani context, have passionately, against the political headwinds fought for this cause- the actions of August 5 have made it incredibly difficult.

Yet Pakistan is isolated in that no other part of the international community is using August 5 as a reason not to engage with India- not the UN bodies, not the OIC countries.

Don’t you see the OIC statements of condemnation on that issue?

It hasn’t stopped engagement with India.

I can’t speak for other people’s foreign policy or how they decide to react to violations of international law and UN Security Council resolutions. But I can articulate Pakistan’s position. I do believe, given the events in Ukraine, there’s a newfound appreciation for United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law, particularly in the West.

One area where India and Pakistan have been talking so far has been the Indus water treaty. What is Pakistan’s response to India’s specific request to reopen the Indus Water Treaty?

Look.. water is a fundamental human right. Pakistan firmly believes that water should not be weaponised, that water should not be politicised. As far as the Indus water treaty is concerned is concerned, it’s used as the gold standard the world over. Everyone refers to the Indian Indus water treaty is the gold standard with these sort of arrangements. Pakistan has concern over a couple of hydropower projects and through the existing treaty, we would like to resolve these concerns.

External affairs minister Jaishankar has said that until Pakistan stops cross border terror, there can be no talks. Not two weeks ago, there was an attack on an army truck that lost many lives, in Poonch. Have the two countries reached out in any way over this?

As far as that incident in which is concerned, I don’t think Pakistan has been blamed in any way by the Indian government or the Indian authorities. As far as terrorism is concerned, I condemn terrorism, Pakistan condemns terrorism. And I am personally a victim of terrorism. I empathize not only with every Pakistani who has suffered ,but any citizen across the world from India to the United States who have suffered at the hands of terrorists. If we look at the SCO countries, and just chalk out the number of casualties as a result of terrorism, then Pakistan has suffered the most. The new unity government in Pakistan has taken this issue by the horns, we have rejected [Imran] Khan’s policy of appeasement when it comes to this issue. We believe legitimate concerns must and should be addressed. But, we also have legitimate concerns. Those who speak about talks and cross border terror not going hand in hand will have to respond as to what Kulbhushan Jadhav was doing on Pakistani soil. He is a state actor and a navy commander involved in terrorist activities in my country. The Samjhauta express case where Pakistanis are still waiting for justice…. In New York, there was the Lahore attack dossier that I presented before the United Nations. So we have genuine concerns as well that that do need to be addressed.

It was Pakistan that was on the Financial Action Task Force’s greylist for years. Not any other country, not India….

I don’t know what list India is on or not. But I’m proud of the fact that Pakistan is the only country in the world to have simultaneously completed not one, but two FATF tasklists, and that too before the timeframe that they had for us. That speaks to how seriously Pakistan is taking this issue, to counter terrorist financing and money laundering and has an arrest record speaks for itself on that front. As far as our domestic terrorist problem is concerned- you’ve witnessed first-hand from when we last met in Pakistan (2014). In those days, I was leading a campaign from the opposition against efforts at appeasement and in favour of taking these terrorists head on. Ultimately, we did do that as a country. And as a result we restored a relative calm or relative peace. We have broken the backs of the terrorist groups as far as their capacity to conduct attacks and to recruit. But unfortunately, we saw the fall of Kabul and Mr. Khan’s policy of repeating appeasement, which has resulted in a resurgence of these incidences in Pakistan.

You say your government is taking a different position from the past. Why it is so difficult to bring two men to a trial to justice as the FATF itself had demanded? And that’s Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar e Toiba and Masood Azhar of the Jaish e Mohammad, both wanted for major attacks- the parliament attack and the Mumbai attacks.

I obviously can’t speak for cases that are ongoing and sub judice, and those trials are ongoing, I do have the right to ask what happened to the Samjhauta Express attacks where people were freed. No one was convicted.

With all due respect, Minister, that is ‘whataboutery’….

You’re referring to those trials in ongoing cases. If the Mumbai trial is slow, it is because India has failed to produce witnesses before the courts in Pakistan. I am asking you an equivalent question, but a terrorist attack that took place on Indian soil that resulted in the deaths of Pakistanis where all the accused walked free. This attack took place in 2007. What is the excuse of every Indian government that has come in from that date, particularly if they choose to use trials that are ongoing, that are sub judice as example of Pakistan’s failure to prosecute, but refuse to accept that they have been unable to prosecute anyone in their own terrorist attacks?

To turn to Pakistan’s other problems- The IMF spring session is over it seems quite clear that that Pakistan is not receiving the bailout that they had hoped for…

As far as the IMF is concerned, I don’t think there’s any question of us not being part of the program, we are taking the difficult, yet necessary decisions in order to be part of that program. Pakistan is facing a unique sort of situation which I have described as a perfect storm. We have the COVID pandemic, once in 100 year sort of crisis that we all went through together, every economy on the planet is suffering suffered and is still suffering. We add to that the fall of Kabul that may have less implications for other countries, but direct security and economic implications for Pakistan. Then the war between Russia and Ukraine, which has economic consequences for the whole world, the West, for India and for Pakistan. Everybody is suffering from inflation, etc, the knock on effects of that conflict. To top it all off, we’ve got climate catastrophe after climate catastrophe. No country is immune, everybody is being impacted. But during Pakistan’s floods last year, one-third of our landmass was underwater, and one in seven Pakistanis became climate refugees overnight. These are collective challenges for all of humanity, not of any one nation. And we can only meet these challenges together. So forums such as the SCO where all member states work collectively, on economy, on security, on regional integration - can perhaps rise to meet the challenges that we are facing.

At the SCO last year, Pakistan PM Sharif made a plea for recognition and engagement with the Taliban government . How do you respond to the fact that no country has accepted that so far.

I must clarify again, we’ve never called for any recognition. As far as engagement is concerned, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif called for that and that is Pakistan’s position. We have serious reservations about Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and we have condemned along with the rest of the Muslim world, the decision on women’s education and women’s rights. But we don’t believe that the solution to these problems is disengagement. And I believe that if we are able to achieve international consensus, isolate the security concerns coming out of Afghanistan from polarized partisan geopolitics, then we can work together to build a stable, prosperous Afghanistan.

From 2003 to 2008 India and Pakistan had a back channel in place that spoke about making borders irrelevant between. More recently, there was a back channel- that seemed to lead to the LoC ceasefire and managed the situation after an Indian missile accidentally landed in Pakistan. The US, UAE have referred to its existence. What can you tell us about back channel talks at present?

So as far as for now, we don’t have any back channel. There have been productive back channels in the past, pre August 2019. As far as the missile incident goes, that’s not something we’re willing to sweep under the rug. That’s a serious lapse - of a missile falling into hostile territory. I don’t think there’s been such an example anywhere across the world. It’s really irresponsible behaviour from a nuclear armed country. India’s response has been unsatisfactory. They’ve called it a mistake. We’ve demanded an impartial inquiry into the incident, which is which hasn’t happened yet. If we are to be responsible nuclear powers, there’s no “Oops” button.

You referred to your mother. So I’m going to ask you as a son and a grandson of leaders who have at least attempted to engage India (former Pakistan PMs Benazir Bhutto and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto), even if they were not very successful. Would you like to engage with India at some point and discuss all these issues?

I’ve explained why that’s been made so difficult now. I absolutely believe particularly, because I come from a younger generation, that our destiny is peace and we will achieve that destiny, ultimately, if not today, then tomorrow or someday. And as I mentioned, the challenges that we face, be it poverty, be it climate, even terrorism, these are collective challenges that we can only meet or meet successfully, if we come together. There’s so much more potential for us to unlock between two countries. And yes, a few generations before us have tried. And just because we have not yet been successful, it does not mean that we will not ever be successful. 

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