India’s brutal dismissal of visiting Pakistan minister kills any hopes for thaw in relations

India’s foreign minister has called his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari a “promoter” and “spokesperson” for terrorism, a brutal dismissal at the end of the most high-profile visit between the two countries in more than a decade.

Subhramanyam Jaishankar hosted Mr Bhutto Zardari on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Summit chaired by India in its coastal state of Goa, an exchange that was being closely watched for signs of reconciliation amid deeply entrenched bitter border relations.

Yet at a press conference following the SCO conference, Mr Jaishankar berated Pakistan for supporting terrorism and “committing acts of terrorism”, a charge Islamabad denies.

“As a foreign minister and SCO member state, Mr Bhutto Zardari was treated accordingly,” Mr Jaishankar said.

“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 and they were countered at the SCO meeting as well.”

Mr Bhutto Zardari held a separate press conference with Pakistani journalists in Goa and said Delhi’s decision to scrap the special status of India-administered Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 had undermined the environment for holding talks between the neighbours.

"The onus is on India to create a conducive environment for talks," Mr Bhutto Zardari said.

The fiery exchange of words between ministers quickly shut down the already dim hope of the SCO summit being used as a turning point for India-Pakistan relations.

In the end Mr Jaishankar held talks on the sidelines of the summit with his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang – another country with which India has tense border relations – and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, as well as others, but there was no bilateral with Mr Bhutto Zardari.

When asked what scope remains for India and Pakistan to hold talks to resolve their issues, Mr Jaishankar said: “Victims of terrorism do not sit together with perpetrators of terrorism to discuss terrorism.

“Victims of terrorism defend themselves, counter acts of terrorism, they call it out, they delegitimise it, and that is exactly what is happening. So to come here and preach these hypocritical words as though we are in the same boat...

“They are committing acts of terrorism. I don’t want to jump the gun on what happened today but we are all feeling equally outraged,” he said.

Mr Jaishankar referred in his comments to a militant attack on Friday in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch, where five Indian Army soldiers were killed during a search operation in a forest. It was the second attack in a week after militants ambushed an army truck last week, killing five other soldiers.

India has long accused Pakistan of funding terror in the Indian-administered side of the Kashmir valley by arming and training insurgent groups either fighting for independence in the region or for its integration into Pakistan – a charge Islamabad has consistently denied.

Mr Jaishankar said on the matter of terrorism that “Pakistan’s credibility is depleting faster than even its Forex reserves”, referring to Islamabad’s economic situation.

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, told The Independent, that the behaviour of both countries in Goa was along familiar lines to recent years, more focused on impressing their respective domestic audiences than reaching out to each other.

“Even though backchannel communications have continued, which allowed the reiteration of ceasefire on the line of control (the de facto border) in 2021, the political leadership in both countries has been more concerned about the message they send to their domestic audiences,” Mr Singh said.

“The hopes of any thaw in the relationship are low as both countries will face general elections in the next one year. So this meeting has only confirmed and reinforced what was already known and expected.”

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington DC-based Wilson Centre, said Mr Bhutto Zardari’s visit was always more focused on Pakistan strengthening relations with China and the central Asian members of the SCO grouping, despite the event being based in India.

“The ugly war of words between Jaishankar and Bhutto-Zardari, which was wholly predictable, was a reminder why this summit was never about India-Pakistan reconciliation,” he told The Independent.

“It’s not the time and place for that from either country’s perspective.”

During his address at the SCO conference, Mr Bhutto Zardari made a veiled attack on his Indian counterpart, saying: “Let’s not get caught up in weaponising terrorism for diplomatic point scoring.”

“The collective security of our peoples is our joint responsibility. Terrorism continues to threaten global security,” he said.

India and Pakistan have fought four wars since gaining independence from the British empire, and their chilly relations took a nose-dive in 2019 when the Modi government downgraded the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federally-controlled territories.

Pakistan called the move illegal and called for it to be rolled back, and the two countries have since further reduced their diplomatic ties in tit-for-tat moves.

Responding to Mr Bhutto Zardari, India‘s Mr Jaishankar said the article of the Indian constitution that had given special status and autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir was “history”.

“Wake up and smell the coffee. [Article] 370 is history. The sooner people realise it, the better it is,” he said.