New Delhi Senior serving and retired Indian and Pakistani officials participated in a conference organised recently by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IIS) in Oman with the stated aim of encouraging engagement between the two countries, people familiar with the matter said.
The 15th edition of the Southern Asia Security Conference saw the officials from the two sides participating in “off the record” sessions that were held behind closed doors
The 15th edition of the Southern Asia Security Conference saw the officials from the two sides participating in “off the record” sessions that were held behind closed doors. The people cited above made it clear that there were no bilateral meetings between the two sides though there were extensive discussions during the various sessions of the conference.
The conference, which was held in Muscat during September 17-18, saw the participation of an Indian delegation that included the external affairs ministry’s pointperson for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, joint secretary J P Singh, and at least two former officials from the external intelligence setup who continue to be active in tracking Pakistan-related issues, the people said.
The Pakistani side was represented by former foreign secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani, the special representative for Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, and Brig Zulfiqar Ali Bhatty, the director of strategic communications in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Haneef Atmar, the foreign minister in the former Afghan government led by president Ashraf Ghani, also participated in the conference, the people said.
Indian officials did not respond to a request for comment on the participation in the Southern Asia Security Conference, which is usually organised by UK-based IISS in collaboration with the Near East South Asia Center (NESA) of the US National Defense University in Washington.
The conference was held at a time when there are virtually no bilateral contacts between India and Pakistan, with relations having plummeted since New Delhi scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August 2019. At the time, Pakistan downgraded diplomatic ties with India and sent back the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad.
The joint secretary for the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk in the external affairs ministry has participated in past editions of the Southern Asia Security Conference along with serving and retired diplomats and intelligence officials. The conference resumed in 2021 following a hiatus in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
IISS states on its website that its South and Central Asian defence, strategy and diplomacy programme aims to “encourage contact and engagement between the security establishments and strategic communities of India and Pakistan to help resume an India-Pakistan peace process”. It further states that relations between the two countries “hit a 20 year low in 2019 and have been damaged by a decade with no peace dialogue”.
The people said some of the discussions at this year’s conference centred on the possibility of resumption of talks between New Delhi and Islamabad, though some participants thought this was unlikely because Pakistan is expected to go into a national election in 2023 and there will be a leadership change in the Pakistan Army in November.
Issue such as Kashmir, counter terrorism, Pakistan’s support for pro-Khalistan elements and normalisation of trade also came up in the discussions. The participants reportedly noted that the revival of the ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) in 2021 had helped improve the security situation, the people said.