News Return of Pakistan envoy to India may be delayed

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NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD: Tensions between India and Pakistan over alleged harassment and bullying of diplomats seem set to worsen with Pakistan deciding to pull out of the WTO ministerial which will take place here next week. As first reported by TOI on Saturday, Pakistan commerce minister Pervaiz Malik called off his visit to India to protest against what Pakistan sees as an unprecedented intimidation of its diplomats and their children.

While India did not officially respond to Pakistan’s decision, which put paid to what would have been the first public high-level engagement between the two countries in a long time, Indian officials here said it was Pakistan which needed to check instances of harassment of Indian diplomats in Islamabad . It seems though that the worse is yet to come as India Saturday issued another note verbale, its 12th this year on the issue, saying Indian diplomats had been aggressively followed and harassed.

Diplomatic sources said that Pakistan is likely to delay the return of its envoy Sohail Mahmood to India. He may not come back until the time there was, as a Pakistan media report put it, improvement in bilateral ties. Mahmood is the host for the upcoming Pakistan Day celebration here on March 23 but that apparently is not an issue for Islamabad as, if Mahmood doesn’t indeed return by then, this won’t be the first occasion that the high commissioner would not be present at the event. Mahmood is likely to next week brief the Pakistan PM, Shahid Abbasi, about the standoff after the latter returns from the US.

Indian officials here said they had no idea about the plans of Mahmood but ruled out a repeat of the 2001-2002 diplomatic standoff after the Parliament attack which saw both countries recalling their envoy for a while. Sources here said the Indian government wasn’t contemplating at all any such move to recall its own high commissioner Ajay Bisaria who has himself faced harassment in Islamabad.

Pakistan has accused India of jeopardising the relationship for "short term tactical gains’’ suggesting the recent hostility was initiated by India to mar any possibility of a thaw in the relationship. Islamabad sees as significant the fact that the alleged bullying of Pakistan diplomats started on March 7, days after the agreement which the 2 countries arrived at for release and repatriation of women and senior citizen prisoners. It also alleges that there is a "vacuum’’ in the relationship in the absence of any high-level engagement and that the recent incidents are a fallout of the same.

According to Indian officials though, if Pakistan indeed was serious about engagement with India, it would not have called off the visit by Pakistan’s commerce minister. India holds Pakistan responsible for the bitterness in ties and its litany of complaints goes well back into 2017 or May 2017 to be specific when Pakistan, according to Indian authorities, started blocking access to Indian government websites. The raid on an Indian complex on February 15 this year was the immediate provocation for India to take up the harassment of its diplomats seriously. The honey-trapping of 2 junior Indian officials late last year in Islamabad and Pakistan’s decision to block membership of Indian diplomats for Islamabad Club had earlier exacerbated the situation for India.

Last month, India had invited Pakistan’s Commerce Minister Pervaiz Malik to participate in the informal WTO ministerial meeting in New Delhi on March 19-20. While Pakistan had not formally accepted the invitation, the minister was likely to attend the meeting and meet his Indian counterpart Suresh Prabhu.

The invitation was part of December 2017 secret back-channel negotiations between National Security Advisers Nasser Janjua and Ajit Doval.

A senior official of the Ministry of Commerce in Pakistan said the decision to boycott the meeting was made at the highest level in the backdrop of continuing diplomatic standoff between the two countries. “We have conveyed to India that nobody from Islamabad will attend the WTO meeting in New Delhi. It is not possible to send our commerce minister to India at a time when our diplomats and their families are harassed there,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

He said that India has been conveyed to change its policy toward Pakistan before expecting it to attend summits and meetings there. Last month, India had invited Pakistan’s Commerce Minister Pervaiz Malik to participate in the informal WTO ministerial meeting in New Delhi on March 19-20. While Pakistan had not formally accepted the invitation, the minister was likely to attend the meeting and meet his Indian counterpart Suresh Prabhu.

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