The upcoming Indo-Pak NSA-level talks appeared to be virtually off today with the two countries locked in a confrontation over Kashmiri separatists leading to a blame game.
India made it abundantly clear that a meeting between separatists and Pakistan's NSA Sartaj Aziz, who is scheduled to arrive here on Sunday for the talks with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval, was unacceptable.
Even as it appeared that the prospects of talks have dimmed, Pakistan tonight said that hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani would be meeting its National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz at 9.30 AM on Monday, apparently ahead of his scheduled discussions with Ajit Doval. The scheduling of the Geelani-Aziz meeting introduced a new twist into the drama.
Geelani was among the separatist leaders briefly detained in Srinagar yesterday and it would be a surprise if he is allowed to travel here for the meeting.
External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said, "India has advised Pakistan that it would not be appropriate for Sartaz Aziz to meet with Hurriyat representatives in India. Such a meeting would not be in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Ufa understanding to jointly work to combat terrorism."
Pakistan immediately rejected India's "advice", saying it will not "depart from an established practice" of interacting with Hurriyat.
This was conveyed to Indian High Commissioner T C A Raghavan in Islamabad by Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, who also made it clear that any pre-conditions for the talks were not acceptable to Pakistan.
"Pakistani leadership has always interacted with the Kashmir/Hurriyat leadership, during their visits to India. Pakistan sees no reason to depart from this established past practice," a Pakistan Foreign Office statement said, adding the decision was taken after Foreign Office consolations.
India hit back describing the invitation to Hurriyat representatives as a "provocative action" and accused Pakistan of trying to evade its commitment to engage in a substantive discussion on terrorism.
With the two sides sticking to their positions, the likelihood of talks between the NSAs on Sunday and Monday appear to be extremely remote. But neither side was formally calling off the talks.
Significantly, Pakistan's reaction to Indian advice came after a crucial meeting of civilian and military leadership here chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson in New Delhi said: "Responding to the 'advice' of Government of India, the Pak Foreign Secretary conveyed to the Indian High Commissioner that it would not be possible for Pakistan to accept this advice."
Pakistan said that Kashmir is a disputed territory as per the UN Security Council resolutions which remain unimplemented.
"The Hurriyat leaders are true representatives of the people of Indian occupied Kashmir. Pakistan regards them as genuine stakeholders in the efforts to find a lasting solution of the Kashmir dispute," it said.
The statement said that India's insistence to introduce conditionalities and restrict the agenda for the dialogue demonstrates a lack of seriousness on India's part to meaningfully engage with Pakistan.
It said that for its part, Pakistan remains willing to attend the NSAs meeting without any pre-conditions.
Pak Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said that ball of talks is now in India's court.
"We have send the ball of talks in the Indian court. Let us see if it plays with us or runs away with the ball," he said.
Former foreign minister and senior leader of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that it seemed India was not ready for talks with Pakistan.
He told media that he did not believe that Pakistan at Ufa had made any commitment to avoid meeting with the Hurriyat leaders.
"Indian is not ready for talks and that is why it is putting conditions," he said.
He said talks are the only way to resolve issues between Pakistan and India.
Hardened positions on both sides have cast a shadow on the talks but neither side has called them off so far.
The two NSAs are scheduled to meet in New Delhi for talks on terrorism-related issues for the first time on August 23, as decided in a meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif last month in Ufa, Russia.
The invitation by the Pakistan High Commission here to hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and other separatist leaders including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq on Sunday to meet Aziz has upset New Delhi but Pakistan has stuck to the line that such meetings were "routine".
Pakistan Foreign office had already said in Islamabad that consultations with Hurriyat leaders were a "routine matter" and a "long standing practice".
The Pakistani invitation, which is seen as yet another "provocation" by Indian side, comes after persistent ceasefire violations as well as two attacks in recent weeks in Gurdaspur and Udhampur.
Last year, India had unilaterally called off Foreign Secretary-level talks after the Pakistan High Commissioner here had held "consultations" with the Kashmiri separatist leaders on the eve of FS-level meeting in Islamabad.
Significantly, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit had last week said his country will not "abandon" the Kashmiris' "legitimate struggle for freedom", stressing that to have normal and cooperative relationship with India it was necessary to settle the decades-old dispute.