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‘If India Wants The US To Mediate, We’d Be Happy’

Pakistan foreign minister says Pakistan did not give any dossier on Balochistan to India in Sharm el-Sheikh

‘If India Wants The US To Mediate, We’d Be Happy’
‘If India Wants The US To Mediate, We’d Be Happy’

When you step into the office of the 53-year-old Pakistan foreign minister, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, you can’t but help notice the photographs of deceased prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Qureshi remembers her fondly; in fact, he can’t stop talking about her. “She talked her heart out to me and I will pen down some of her thoughts one day.” It takes me a while to have the suave foreign minister speak on Indo-Pak relations. Excerpts from an interview with Mariana Baabar:

Did Pakistan give a dossier on Balochistan to India in Sharm el-Sheikh?

No, we didn’t. Actually, we flagged the issue on Balochistan. We asked for a positive attitude and asked for non-interference inside Balochistan. I don’t wish to comment more on this issue as we are handling it through our diplomatic channels. But I was shocked at the reaction that came from India after the release of the joint statement from Sharm el-Sheikh.

"We didn’t give a dossier to India on Balochistan in Sharm el-Sheikh. We flagged the issue, asked for non-interference. I’m shocked at the reaction in India."

Does India’s strong presence in Afghanistan worry Pakistan?

We shouldn’t exaggerate India’s role inside Afghanistan. Of course, we have to see that the Indian presence inside Afghanistan is not counter-productive to Pakistan’s interests. For example, we have seen reports of gun-running and other such issues. Believe me, such activities help no one in the long run. Of course, we are aware that India is investing billions on infrastructure, as they have their interests (there). We say to India, we understand your interest, but don’t forget that it’s Pakistan that is Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour and in no manner can India replace us.

India says there’s enough evidence to move against (Lashkar founder) Hafiz Saeed. What’s stopping Islamabad from doing so?

Privately, the Indians have confided in us that cooperation from Pakistan (on terrorism) has been unprecedented. Pakistan has arrested suspects and they are standing trial. We both understand that we cannot fast-forward this process as their trial is in a court of law. As for Hafiz Saeed, our legal team has gone over the evidence that India has sent with a fine-tooth comb. Believe me, it can’t hold up in a court of law. India understands this as it has the same laws there as well. We sincerely want to cooperate on this issue because Mumbai is very important.

But who gains by this stalling (of the Indo-Pak dialogue)? The terrorists disrupted the composite dialogue by doing Mumbai; it’s they who are gaining as the talks remain stalled. In other words, do you want these same terrorists to set the agenda for us?

India’s home minister P. Chidambaram has gone to the US with a dossier, hoping to seek its help in getting Pakistan to act against Hafiz Saeed. What is your reaction?

"We didn’t give a dossier to India on Balochistan in Sharm el-Sheikh. We flagged the issue, asked for non-interference. I’m shocked at the reaction in India."

In the past, India had always gone for and preferred a bilateral approach to problems. It was always allergic to third party mediation. What the Indian home minister is saying today is in contradiction to the stated Indian policies of the past. Only recently, when President (US President Barack) Obama wanted (special envoy for the Af-Pak region) Richard Holbrooke to look into India as well, there was a storm in New Delhi, and Holbrooke had to drop India (from his agenda).

Now, if they want to involve the US, we would be only too happy. We are neither shy nor afraid of meeting and talking with the Indians, either bilaterally or through a third party. Our case is strong. I repeat, Pakistan has no problem with third party mediation where other contentious issues between the two countries can also come up. Sometime back, I said war would be suicidal; if war is not an option, then the only way forward is dialogue. Believe me, lack of dialogue and not starting the composite dialogue will harm India more than Pakistan.

What was your reaction to the heated debate in India on former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah?

I saw the reaction to his book on Jinnah as very, very emotional. This kind of reaction from a mature democracy was quite shocking for me. This is the kind of reaction that one saw after the joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh.

Are the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan meeting before the United Nations General Assembly meet in New York?

We wrote to the new Indian foreign secretary (Nirupama Rao) and invited her for talks. But there was no response from New Delhi. If they don’t meet, don’t prepare a report for the foreign ministers as was agreed upon by the two prime ministers (in Sharm el-Sheikh), then where do we go from here? This way we are fast losing the peace constituency.

What was your impression of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the meeting you had with him in India before the Mumbai attack?

The meeting left me very impressed. I spoke at length on the water issue and how it was becoming a new dispute between the two countries. I suggested a working group before matters worsened. Manmohan Singh gave me a very patient hearing. I still remember his words, “Foreign minister, I am so happy to meet a young politician who is also so far-sighted.”

And your impression of then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee?

We sat in this very room, on these sofas, engaged in a long one-on-one (May 20, 2008), with everyone downstairs waiting for the press conference, wondering what was taking us so long. I told Mukherjee that he was a very senior politician and I too was a politician. I told him that Pakistan’s political environment today was very conducive to normalisation of relations with India. If you don’t move forward today, then you will be missing a historic opportunity.

"What Chidambaram is saying contradicts past Indian policy. Pakistan has no problem with third party mediation; past contentious issues can also come up there."

I prepared a four-point agenda for him and, throughout my talk, Mukherjee appeared receptive. I brought up Siachen glacier. I told him that he represented the Congress, whose prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had nearly signed on the dotted lines with Benazir Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party I represent. What are we gaining with the status quo? This will be a big breakthrough.

Then I brought up Sir Creek, which was stuck in mere technicalities. I said that a lot of work had been done before us. I asked him that if India agreed to Pakistan’s point of view, then how much (of area) would it lose in this huge Indian Ocean? It is like a pinch of salt in a sack of flour. Look at the political mileage and the diplomatic space that we could gain. Mukherjee’s reply was “yes”.

I told him that if we were to come to an agreement, I could tell the Pakistani establishment that we have moved on two core issues. We could earn a few brownie points. I also proposed movement on bilateral trade, with Pakistan no longer shying away from opening up its borders at Wagah. saarc could only come alive if the two large nations started trade. Mukerjee appeared keen on this.

I proposed a more liberal regime where certain categories like journalists, lawyers, businessmen and academics would not need visas. We could start exchanging newspapers, magazines and films. Mukherjee appeared positive.

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