During the first visit of Pakistan’s top diplomat to archrival India in almost a decade, each side took veiled swipes at the other on bilateral issues but presented a united front on a key regional issue - Afghanistan.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was in Goa, India, Thursday and Friday for the Foreign Ministers Council Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He was Pakistan’s first high-ranking official to visit the neighbor since 2014.
India is current president of the eight-member organization.
In his speech to the forum, Indian Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar said there was no justification for terrorism.
“And it must be stopped in all its forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism,” Jaishankar said.
In his remarks provided by the Foreign Office, Bhutto Zardari said fighting terrorism was a joint responsibility but cautioned to “not get caught up in weaponizing terrorism for diplomatic point scoring.”
He asked the forum to “condemn all forms of terrorism, including state-sponsored terrorism.” Pakistan accuses India of supporting militants in its restive southern province of Balochistan, which New Delhi denies.
In an apparent reference to India’s 2019 decision to take away the special autonomous status of Indian-controlled Kashmir and bring its part of the disputed Himalayan territory under New Delhi’s direct control, Bhutto Zardari said, “Unilateral and illegal measures by states in violation of international law and [United Nations] Security Council resolutions run counter to the SCO objectives.”
Later, when Pakistani journalists asked whether he was referring to India’s action in Kashmir or to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, Bhutto Zardari laughed but did not specify.
Pakistan’s foreign minister asked SCO participants to “resolutely resist the temptation to stoke prejudice and discrimination to derive our identity,” to condemn “incitement to hate, especially on religious grounds,” and to fight “historical revisionism that is leading to violent ultranationalism anywhere in the world.”
Treatment of religious minorities
While Pakistan’s top diplomat did not name India, global human rights watchdogs routinely call out Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government for not sufficiently protecting religious minorities. Incidents of mob violence against Muslims have risen in recent years, some cities named after or by Muslim rulers have been renamed, and lately, chapters on Muslim rulers have been removed from textbooks.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told VOA there was no other member of the SCO that Pakistan would criticize except its archrival.
“So we could assume that if he's taking a subtle swipe at someone within the SCO, it would have to be India,” Kugelman said.
However, in what he called a “silver lining” of the Pakistani foreign minister’s visit, the nuclear-armed rivals presented a similar stance on Afghanistan.
Pakistan is facing near daily attacks from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants, also known as TTP. Islamabad contends TTP leadership is operating from Afghan soil, a charge Kabul denies.
Bhutto Zardari called on the de facto rulers to “uphold their commitments on not allowing the use of Afghan soil for terrorism.”
The Pakistani foreign minister also said the international community should “continue to urge Afghan authorities to adopt universally accepted principles of political inclusivity, and respecting the rights of all Afghans, including girls’ right to education.”
In his remarks earlier, Jaishankar said that “ensuring a truly inclusive and representative government … combating terrorism ... and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities” were his government’s priorities in Afghanistan.
“If you're looking for an example where Pakistan and India would see eye to eye within SCO, it would be the Afghanistan issue and the terrorism risks emanating from there, and concerns about the Taliban not having the ability - or more importantly, the desire - to combat these threats that are so concerning for both India and Pakistan,” said Kugelman.
Indian and Pakistani media closely covered Bhutto Zardari’s visit to India. Kugelman said that while it was in Pakistan's interest to attend a conference in India where its ally, China, played a major role, “we should not think his [Bhutto Zardari's] visit to India will be the first salvo of an attempt to forge reconciliation.”
That became apparent quickly once the conference ended.
At a press briefing with Pakistani journalists in Goa, after the foreign ministers conference, Bhutto Zardari blamed the lack of formal diplomacy with India on New Dehli’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy. He put the onus of creating a “conducive environment” for engagement on New Delhi.
Speaking to local journalists, Jaishankar expressed outrage at Bhutto Zardari’s remarks on terrorism, calling him a “promoter, justifier and spokesperson of a terrorism industry.”
Despite the tensions, Bhutto Zardari praised Jaishankar as a host, telling Pakistani media covering the event, “At no point did he [Jaishankar] make me feel that our bilateral disagreements have any impact on this conference.”