SCO Overshadowed by India-Pak Barbs, Jaishankar Says Bilawal is ‘Spokesperson of Terrorism Industry’
New Delhi: Starting from the verbal one-upmanship at the kick-off of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting to the strong rhetoric at the post-event press conferences, the two South Asian rivals India and Pakistan have deployed volleys to accuse each other of supporting terrorism and taking hypocritical postures.
At the start of the SCO meeting, External affairs minister S. Jaishankar raised “cross-border terrorism”, and Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari responded by claiming that countries should go beyond “weaponising terrorism for diplomatic point scoring”.
The temperatures rose significantly as the day passed with questions posed at the separate press conferences of Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari reflecting the tense atmosphere.
Meanwhile, reports also came in that five army soldiers were killed during an anti-terror operation in Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajouri district on Friday morning.
“As a foreign minister of an SCO member state, Mr Bhutto Zardari was treated accordingly. As a promoter, justifier and, I am sorry to say, spokesperson of a terrorism industry which is the mainstay of Pakistan, his positions were called out, including at the SCO meetings itself,” he said.
Bhutto Zardari’s visit to India was a rare trip across the border since high-level contact between the two South Asian countries had come down drastically. But, it was made clear even before he arrived on Indian soil that there would be no bilateral encounter and that the journey was only for the SCO meeting.
Today’s highly charged barbs also mean that it is highly unlikely that Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will visit India for the leaders’ summit in July.
At the official dinner on Thursday evening, Jaishankar shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and sat at the same table with other foreign ministers. But, it was out of the range of any photographic lens and even the Pakistani side refused to give it any importance, describing it as routine courtesy.
The host usually stands outside the venue of the meeting to greet his main guests with a handshake, as Jaishankar did at the G-20 foreign ministers meeting. But, this time, Jaishankar only greeted all his SCO counterparts with a ‘namaste’, which meant that he did not have to shake hands with the Pakistan FM in front of the cameras. As expected, bilateral relations remain frozen and there is no appetite for demonstrating any breakthrough in bilateral ties.
During his opening statement, Jaishankar said that even with the world facing other global challenges, it would be harmful to security interests to divert attention from the “menace” of terrorism.
“We firmly believe that there can be no justification for terrorism and it must be stopped in all its forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism,” he said. While Jaishankar didn’t take any names, the reference to cross-border terrorism is always a code phrase, in Indian diplomatic parlance, for Pakistan’s sheltering of terror groups targeting India.
“The channel of finances for terrorist activities must be seized and blocked without distinction. Members need not be reminded that combating terrorism is one of the original mandates of the SCO,” he added.
While Jaishankar’s opening statement was streamed live by the MEA, the rest of the session was closed to the media. However, the Pakistan foreign ministry live-tweeted Bilawal’s speech, as well as, released the text.
Stating that terrorism threatens global security, the Pakistan foreign minister asserted, “Let’s not get caught up in weaponising terrorism for diplomatic point scoring”.
He reminded that his mother, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, had been killed in a bomb blast, with questions still alive on who was behind it.
“When I speak on this topic, I do so not only as the Foreign Minister of Pakistan whose people have suffered the most in terms of number of attacks and number of casualties. I also speak as the son whose mother was assassinated at the hands of terrorists. I feel the pain of this loss, empathize with victims across the world a way most can’t,” he said.
At the post-meeting press conference, Jaishankar was scathing in response to Bilawal’s words, asserting that it was double standards to “come here preach these hypocritical words, as though we are on the same boat…I mean they are committing acts of terrorism”.
Referring to the killing of five army soldiers in Kashmir, he commented, “I don’t want to jump the gun on what happened today, but we are all feeling equally outraged”.
Ruling out talks with Pakistan, he said that “victims of terrorism do not sit together with perpetrators of terrorism to discuss terrorism”.
Jaishankar added that victims of terrorism “defend themselves” and “delegitimise” the perpetrators.
“On this matter, the terrorism matter, I would say that Pakistan’s credibility is depleting even faster than its forex reserves,” said the external affairs minister, taking a swipe at the economic crisis enveloping the country.
He also took aim at the phrase “weaponising terrorism” used by Bhutto Zardari, stating that it was a reflection of a certain mindset. He said that the term ‘weaponising’ is usually used with terms like water or aid to show that a routine resource had been used as a pressure tactic. Jaishankar argued that by using that double-worded phrase, Bilawal was indicating that terrorism was also a legitimate tactic.
Jaishankar’s press conference took place late in the evening after the Pakistan foreign minister had already left Goa.
Bhutto Zardari’s press conference
Before his departure, the Pakistan foreign minister held a separate press conference for travelling Pakistani media.
In it, he said some good words about Jaishankar, praising him for not letting bilateral conflict impact the SCO meeting. He also dismissed any criticism about not publicly shaking hands with Jaishankar and pointed out that Jaishankar was greeting every minister with a namaste and thus had not singled him out. He even said that folding hands was a normal manner of greeting in Pakistan’s Sindh province, the political fiefdom of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
“It was a moment of happiness for me that we were greeting each other the same way,” he said.
Stating that he had no issues in publicly shaking hands with Jaishankar on camera, he also admitted that the Indian minister was “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” with regards to greeting him politely.
“Whenever we meet, for dinner or anything, there are handshakes and pleasantries exchanged. We are civil, not uncivilised and fighting doesn’t start immediately as soon as we spot each other. When we are working in our professional capacity he has to present his country’s stance and I mine,” he also said.
Bhutto Zardari said that it was Pakistan’s “principled position” that India’s actions for diluting Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status in August 2019 had “really undermined the environment and now the onus is on India that they create the conducive environment in which talks can be held”.
To a question on India hosting a G20 meeting in Srinagar, he said that it showed India’s “pettiness” and a “show of arrogance to the world that to hell with international law, UNSC resolutions and bilateral agreements, India will hold its events in Kashmir”.
“Obviously we condemn it and at the time we will give such a response that it will be remembered,” said Bilawal.
Bhutto Zardari also said that those who had advocated for talks have also had their space restricted due to India’s move to read down Article 370.
Responding to media questions on Bilawal’s remarks on restoring Kashmir’s status for talks, Jaishankar said, “Article 370 is history. Wake up and smell the coffee”.
He also dismissed Pakistan’s concerns on the G-20 meeting, stating that he was not going to debate on it “with a country which nothing to do with the G20”. “Jammu and Kashmir was, is, and will always be a part of India. The G20 meetings are held in all the Indian states and union territories so it is natural to be held there”.
Earlier during the SCO meeting, the Pakistan FM had said, “We must stop conflating non-state actors with state actors. Condemn all forms of terrorism including state-sponsored terrorism”.
He stated that given many SCO members face the menace of terrorism, the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) “needs to be further strengthened to effectively address the growing threats to peace and security in the SCO space”.
He also praised the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a “force multiplier for regional connectivity”, raising hackles among Indian officials.
Later, Jaishankar said that in the context of the CPEC, it was made clear that connectivity projects cannot violate the territorial integrity of states.
“On the China-Pakistan economic corridor, I think it was made very clear, not once, but twice at the SCO meeting that connectivity is good for progress, but connectivity cannot violate the sovereignty and integrity of states. So, this has been our long-standing position and nobody should have doubt about it,” he said.
New Delhi has long objected to the CPEC, which is a flagship initiative of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as it begins in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of territory claimed by India.
This article, first published at 5.10 pm on May 5, 2o23, was republished at 10.15 pm on the same day with updates on the post-meet press conferences.