India calls off Pakistan talks after envoy meets Kashmir separatists

India said Pakistan was meddling in its internal affairs, but previous meetings haven't triggered diplomatic rows. Both countries claim sovereignty over Kashmir. 

By , Staff writer

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    The afternoon sun reflects on the dome of the Pakistan High Commission building as Kashmiri separatist leaders arrive for talks with the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. In a blow to efforts to improve often-hostile ties, India on Monday called off talks with Pakistan over a meeting between its ambassador and Kashmiri separatists.
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A meeting between India and Pakistan's foreign secretaries has been canceled over the divisive issue of Kashmir, dashing hopes for reconciliation between the two nuclear-armed rivals. 

India reacted angrily to a decision by a Pakistani diplomat to meet separatists from Indian-administered Kashmir, which has long been a sore point between the two countries. Two of India and Pakistan's three wars since independence have been fought over Kashmir. Each country controls a portion of the territory and both claim it in its entirety.

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Indian media portrayed the consultation with Kashmiri leaders as Pakistan's disregard for India's reasonable wishes, even though such meetings happened regularly under previous Indian leadership. Still, others cast it as an extreme stance by Narenda Modi, India's prime minister, who was elected in May. 

At his inauguration, Mr. Modi invited Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif to New Delhi, raising hopes of détente under Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is seen as having the conservative credentials to reach out to its rival. 

The New York Times recaps the breakdown of talks Monday:

Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi had been specifically warned that the talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries, scheduled for Aug. 25, would be jeopardized if he met with leaders of the separatist group Hurriyat Conference. He described India’s message as “talk to the separatists or talk to us.”

The Pakistani official met with Hurriyat leaders earlier on Monday.

“We were all ready to move into a constructive diplomatic engagement,” Mr. Akbaruddin told NDTV, a television news station. “Alas, since then, what we see as efforts to undermine the dialogue have happened, and this was to interfere with India’s internal affairs by calling in the so-called Hurriyat leaders.”

The Hurriyat Conference is made up of separatist leaders in India-controlled Kashmir. According to the Times, Pakistani envoys met with its representatives in the past and India had gradually become more tolerant of such meetings.

The Indian News Agency Times News Network pinned the blame squarely on Pakistan:

India's decision came just three days after Modi refrained from attacking Pakistan in his Independence Day address and offered a partnership in the battle against poverty in Saarc countries.

Announcing the cancellation of talks, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, "Indian foreign secretary conveyed to the Pakistani high commissioner today, in clear and unambiguous terms, that Pakistan's continued efforts to interfere in India's internal affairs were unacceptable."

...

Although Modi used tough rhetoric against Pakistan during election campaign (when he said "talks are drowned in the sound of guns"), he took a more generous approach to Pakistan after taking over, including a feel-good conversation with Nawaz Sharif on the very first day. 

Siddharth Varadarajan, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University, calls the decision an "overreaction." Writing for Indian television station NDTV, he said such meetings between Kashmir separatists and Pakistani representatives ahead of bilateral meetings were "pro-forma."

Mr. Varadarajan argues that by canceling the meeting, Modi strengthened the hand of Pakistani hardliners who are opposed to an improvement in relations with India:

What makes the Indian decision even more problematic is that New Delhi is fully aware of the domestic criticism Nawaz Sharif faced after his May 26-27 visit to India. Sharif was pilloried for not raising the issue of Kashmir in public and for not meeting the Hurriyat. Though he deliberately avoided meeting separatist Kashmiri leaders during that visit, he presumably chose not to court trouble at home again by cancelling the meeting that routinely takes place between the Hurriyat and the Pakistani High Commissioner on the eve of bilateral talks...

By reacting the way it has, the Modi government has inadvertently strengthened the hands of Pakistan's military and the political ecosystem it supports. 

The Indian National Congress party, bumped from leadership in the May election, lashed out at Modi and his party for the cancellation, The Hindu reports. Leader Manish Tewari said the government has “completely walked itself into a corner” by canceling the talks, calling the meeting between the separatists and the Pakistani envoy a “ritual."

Last week Modi made a rare visit to the disputed territory and vowed to bolster India's security forces there. He also accused Pakistan of fighting a "proxy war," using militants to destabilize India.

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