Pakistan’s foreign minister stutters after calling India ‘friend’

Pakistan’s foreign minister struggled briefly to define his country’s relationship with India at a news conference on Friday.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari settled for “neighbouring countries” after using the word “friends” during a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York.

Mr Zardari was talking about the long-gestating Kashmir issue on the sidelines of the Commission on the Status of Women when he found himself in a spot.

He was asked a question comparing the Palestinian conflict with the situation between India and Pakistan – both nuclear-armed countries and long-time rivals who claim the Kashmir region as their own.

He said Pakistan faces an “uphill task” in getting the UN to focus its attention on Kashmir.

“And whenever the issue of Kashmir is brought up, our friends within, with... our friend... our... our neighbouring, uh, countries, strongly object, vociferously object, and they perpetuate a post-fact narrative where they try to claim that this is not a dispute for the United Nations, that this is not a disputed territory recognised for the international community,” Mr Zardari said.

A video of the minister’s comments has gone viral on social media.

Mr Zardari’s evident reluctance to call India a “friend” comes despite Pakistani prime minister Shehbaz Sharif’s apparently softening stance towards his rival neighbour.

Mr Sharif’s 34-year-old Pakistani foreign minister has in the past made many attempts to put the issue of Jammu and Kashmir under a spotlight, raising it at nearly every UN platform.

He has made harsh comments criticising India in the past, including against the country’s prime minister Narendra Modi, calling him the “butcher of Gujarat”. His remarks have caused a number of heated exchanges between the diplomats of the nuclear neighbours.

Ever since being split into two countries after achieving independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought wars and suffered from a strained relationship. The main bone of contention between them has been a dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, where Delhi has been accused of numerous human-rights violations and Islamabad has been accused of fomenting terror and a proxy war by backing separatist militants.

Each country claims the territory as its own.

The revoking of a seven-decade-long privileged status for Kashmir by India in 2019 further exacerbated tensions.

Mr Zardari said drawing parallels between Kashmir and the Palestinian conflict was “very justified” as there are “many similarities between the plight of the people of Kashmir and the plight of the people of Palestine”.

“I think it’s fair to say that both issues remain unaddressed by the United Nations, and we’d like to see an extra focus not only on Palestine but also on Kashmir,” he said.

In an interview with Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV in January, Mr Sharif called for “serious and sincere talks” with Mr Modi on “burning points like Kashmir”.

On Saturday, however, the Pakistani delegation skipped the meeting of chief justices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that was scheduled to take place in New Delhi, according to The Express Tribune.

“Due to his unavoidable commitments on the scheduled meeting dates, the Honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan will not be able to participate in the SCO meeting,” said a statement by the foreign office.

India has reportedly invited Pakistan’s foreign minister to attend the SCO ministers’ meeting tentatively planned for May this year, and Mr Sharif is expected to attend the subsequent main SCO summit in June.