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'Kathmandu meet was nearly doomed'

Josy Joseph in New Delhi | January 07, 2004 03:13 IST

While it was clear right from the beginning that the Islamabad edition of the SAARC summit would be a success, it was quiet diplomacy at the last moment that prevented the Kathmandu meet of 2002 from being doomed.

"Kathmandu and Islamabad show the increasing maturity of political leadership in the region," says a diplomat who has been involved in SAARC summits. "Both exhibit readiness of the individual countries, especially India and Pakistan, to set aside their serious bilateral problems to make SAARC an effective gathering."

The SAARC summit: The Complete Coverage

Both India and Pakistan were making the right noises in the run-up to the Islamabad summit. However, holding the Kathmandu summit was a tough task.

Hardly a few weeks before the summit, terrorists stormed the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, and India reacted by blaming Pakistan and ordering its one million troops to the border.

"We thought it is doomed, that the summit will not happen," says the diplomat.

"The customary invitations to the heads of states were being served that time. We almost lost hope," recalls the official.

On December 19, around the time Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was making his statement in the Lok Sabha about the attack, the then SAARC secretary general Nihal Rodrigo landed in New Delhi on a salvage mission.

"He had already met General Pervez Musharraf in the morning and extracted an assurance from the Pakistan president that he would not raise the issue of Kashmir at Kathmandu summit," says the official.

Vajpayee had returned to his residence after a long day in Parliament, where he said India would fight its own war against terror, when Rodrigo arrived and told him about Musharraf's assurance. He sought Vajpayee's help to prevent the meeting from sinking.

Vajpayee assured Rodrigo that he would come to Kathmandu.

But at the summit venue Musharraf's offer of a handshake shook the Indian establishment, forcing Vajpayee to add a paragraph to his already prepared speech, which had been circulated. The additional paragraph was penned in all probability by National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra during a meeting between him and the PM immediately after Musharraf's handshake offer.

That acrimony continued during the entire summit, with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh releasing evidence given to Pakistan against terrorists. "We were forced into it," says another official. But this time Islamabad turned out to be a "much pleasant" experience, he adds.

In Islamabad the two countries agreed not to speak about Kashmir or terrorism, according to another diplomat.

He said the two nations gave "guarantees" to each other through the SAARC secretariat and other intermediaries that they would keep off these issues and would refrain from criticizing each other.


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