Days after Shehbaz Sharif signal, India invites Pakistan’s Foreign Minister

Days after Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that his country has learnt its lesson from three wars and wants to live in peace with India, New Delhi has reached out to Islamabad with an invitation to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa, The Indian Express has learnt.

The invitation from External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has been sent through the Indian High Commission in Islamabad for his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to visit Goa in the first week of May for the meeting, it is learnt.

The dates being looked at, as of now, are May 4 and 5. If Pakistan accepts the invite, it will mark the first such visit in nearly 12 years. The last Pakistani Foreign Minister to visit India was Hina Rabbani Khar in July 2011.

Apart from India and Pakistan, the SCO includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Similar invitations have been sent to the foreign ministers of China and Russia along with the Central Asian countries. But India’s invitation to the Pakistan Foreign Minister is particularly significant, given the all-time low in bilateral relations.

Speaking to The Indian Express, a top official said: “In keeping with its ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’, India desires normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. India’s consistent position is that issues, if any, between India and Pakistan should be resolved bilaterally and peacefully, in an atmosphere free of terror and violence. The onus is on Pakistan to create such a conducive environment. It has been made clear that India will not compromise on issues relating to national security and will take firm and decisive steps to deal with all attempts to undermine India’s security and territorial integrity.”

Incidentally, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers have been invited for a G-20 meeting on March 1 and 2, as well, setting the stage for China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang to visit India twice in the next few months.

Ties between India and Pakistan have nosedived over the past eight years. In August 2015, India had extended an invitation to Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz. But the visit was called off after the then External Affairs Minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, asked Aziz to desist from meeting the Hurriyat in India.


Outreach signal pre- G20

The last External Affairs Minister to visit Pakistan was Swaraj in December 2015 for the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad. Subsequently, bilateral ties deteriorated with the terrorist attacks in Pathankot (January 2016), Uri (September 2016) and Pulwama (February 2019). And they hit a nadir with the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K, which led to downgrading of diplomatic ties, suspension of trade and review of arrangements, and a halt on all cross-border bus and train services.

With former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan taking a hard line and India not ready to compromise on terrorism emanating out of Pakistan, the ties remained at a low.

The possibility for change has now emerged with the new government in Islamabad under the Sharifs and Bhuttos. Besides, over the past couple of years, the ceasefire along the LoC has held, religious pilgrimages have proceeded and the Indus Waters Treaty has been observed.

This situation has been punctuated by turbulence, too. In December last year, Jaishankar slammed Pakistan for being the “epicentre of terrorism” and Bhutto criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Ministry of External Affairs called Bhutto’s comments “uncivilised” and a “new low, even for Pakistan”.

But earlier this month, in remarks that were seen as an overture by Delhi, Sharif called for “serious and sincere talks” with Modi on “burning issues like Kashmir”. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s benefactor and close ally, China, lifted the block on India’s bid to list Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba’s deputy chief Abdul Rehman Makki as a “global terrorist”.

These two developments were viewed positively in Delhi as a signal towards re-engagement, sources told The Indian Express. Officially, the Indian establishment has maintained that there are no bilateral engagements although the two countries have been engaging with each other on multilateral platforms — cricket matches in multilateral tournaments have been cited as an example.

In an interview to Al-Arabiya channel last week, Sharif said: “We have had three wars with India, and they have only brought more misery, poverty, and unemployment to the people. We have learnt our lesson, and we want to live in peace with India, provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems.”

Although Sharif also raised the issue of Kashmir and the situation of minorities in India in the interview, Delhi had read the political messaging between the lines. And with India getting its turn to host the SCO summit, the latest invitation is being seen as a potential window of opportunity.

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