India invites Pakistan foreign minister to attend SCO summit

Pakistan is yet to accept the invitation but experts say it will not lead to a thaw in ties as it is part of a multilateral summit.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
The invitation comes weeks after India and Pakistan foreign ministers were engaged in heated exchange [File: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters]

Pakistan has confirmed India’s invitation for foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting scheduled to take place in India in May.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s foreign ministry in a weekly briefing on Thursday said India has invited Bhutto-Zardari to attend the foreign ministers’ meeting of the eight-member regional grouping, but no decision had been made yet.

“Both India and Pakistan are members of the SCO. India is hosting the conference this year and as the chairman, it has sent an invitation to us. The invitation is being reviewed. A decision regarding participation in the meeting will be taken after deliberation,” Baloch told the media.

If Pakistan does accept the invite from India, it will be the first time its foreign minister will visit India in almost 12 years.

Other members of SCO are China, Russia as well four other central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Indian media reported on Wednesday that an invitation was extended to Pakistan to attend the conference in May, which came days after Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s offer to India for talks about outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

Responding to Sharif’s comments, India’s foreign ministry last week said that India desires normal relations in a “conducive atmosphere”. The Himalayan territory of Kashmir is claimed in full by the two nuclear powers, but each only governs parts of it. Since 1947, the South Asian rivals have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the disputed territory.

New Delhi has accused Islamabad of backing the Kashmiri armed rebels fighting either for independence or for the merger with Pakistan.

Islamabad has denied the allegations, saying it only provides diplomatic support to the region’s struggle for the right to self-determination.

Rocky relations

The invitation for Bhutto-Zardari came after he called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “Butcher of Gujarat” during a media talk at United Nations last month, for Modi’s alleged role in attacks on Muslims in Indian Gujarat in 2022.

Modi was the chief minister of the state when attacks on Muslims across Gujarat resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people, most of whom were Muslims. Rights groups put the death toll at 2,000.

Bhutto-Zardari’s comment caused outrage in India, with the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calling for a countrywide protest against Pakistan for the “shameful and insulting” statements by Bhutto-Zardari.

Calling the remarks “uncivilised”, the Indian government said it was a “new low, even for Pakistan”.

The relations between the two nations have cooled since India unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the Constitution in August 2019, which granted special status to the Indian-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan has accused India of perpetrating gross violations of human rights in the Muslim-majority region.

However, in February 2021, the two countries renewed a two-decade-old ceasefire agreement along the 724km-long (450-mile-long) border, which divides Kashmir between the two countries, also known as the Line of Control.

Professor Ajay Darshan Behera, a scholar of international studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, said that too much should not be read into India’s invitation to Pakistan for the SCO summit.

“In multilateral forums such as SCO, host countries have an obligation to invite all member states. There is no way India will not invite Pakistan’s foreign minister because we have differences with them,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Both countries attend multilateral meets where they are members, but the bilaterals have yet to materialise in recent years, more so after the relations between the two countries further deteriorated post the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir.”

Chances of detente ‘low’

Mosharraf Zaidi of Islamabad-based Tabadlab think tank also concurred, saying the invitation to the summit would not lead to any thawing in the relations between the neighbours.

“There has been no ‘invite’ per se. The attendance of an SCO member country foreign minister at an SCO meeting is not an option. These questions will arise again at the time of the SCO summit, in which heads of state or head of government are expected to participate from SCO country,” Zaidi told Al Jazeera.

“Then, like now, the likelihood of detente in Pak-India relations is extremely low. Ultimately, the decision to improve the situation in the region is India’s, and India’s alone,” he added.

The previous SCO leaders’ summit took place in Uzbekistan in September 2022, and was attended by both Sharif and Modi.

Behera, however, said that Pakistan is not in a position to take any initiatives, considering its current economic situation, as well as the lack of consensus within the political class and the military.

“Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recently in his interview said Pakistan has learnt lessons and is willing to engage. But soon thereafter, a statement from Sharif’s office added that issues such as Kashmir and Article 370 must be addressed first.

In light of these confused signals from Pakistan, I don’t think the current regime in India would be publicly interested or want to be seen to be engaging with Pakistan,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera