8 March 2002
The Times of India
Islamabad meet begins with detour
By SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
Islamabad: India's ban on overflights by Pakistani aircraft took centrestage at the inaugural session of the Saarc information ministers’ meeting here Thursday with both General Pervez Musharraf and Bangladeshi information minister Abdul Moin Khan asking New Delhi to reverse its policy.
‘‘If India’s honourable information minister has the authority, I am prepared to end our ban on overflights, here and now,” Musharraf said. Information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj, who herself arrived in Islamabad early Thursday morning via Dubai taking nearly 20 hours for a journey which should have taken two, sat through these calls impassively. At the end of the meeting — which concluded with an impromptu Musharraf news conference held in response to demands from Indian journalists — the Pakistani president offered her the floor.
‘‘Begum sahiba, if you’d like to say a few words (so that) you don’t say I have overstepped.” Swaraj replied: ‘‘You are the president (of Pakistan). I am only the minister of information and broadcasting. I have no authority to respond, either positively or negatively.”
The flight issue was first raised by the Bangladeshi minister, who told the inaugural session of the inconvenience he underwent in getting to Islamabad from Dhaka because of the ban. Gently chiding India, he requested Swaraj to work for the resumption of overflights. When he took the podium, Musharraf broke away from his prepared text to apologise to the Saarc delegates for the circuitous route they had to take. ‘‘I apologise for the long trip... I myself suffered for 14 hours to get to Kathmandu. All I can say is that this is not my doing.”
Musharraf said that the Saarc format was too restrictive and that it ‘‘needs to be expanded to include regional solutions to bilateral disputes.’’ Asked about the Indo-Pakistan border stand-off, he said, ‘‘Immediately, through mutual understanding, we need to de-escalate. We are open to any dialogue. We are prepared to pull back (our troops from the border) tomorrow if there is reciprocity.’’
Upset at what they saw as Musharraf’s attempt to upstage the Saarc summit by raising bilateral and ‘‘contentious issues’’, the Indian delegation later fielded Swaraj at a news conference for Indian journalists. ‘‘The flight ban, troop pullback — these are bilateral, contentious issues. These should not have been discussed,’’ she said. Asked whether she thought Musharraf’s ‘‘behaviour’’ had been ‘‘appropriate’’, she replied: ‘‘It is his country and he can behave as he likes in his own country. I have no right to make any observation.’’
Though she met Musharraf over a cup of tea with the other Saarc ministers, Swaraj was at pains to emphasise there had been no ‘bilateral’. ‘There was no meeting. It was a joint call-on. No one-to-one. All of us were there exchanging pleasantries.’’
Musharraf struck one further note of dissonance in his response to a question on Daniel Pearl. Asked whether there were any lessons to be learnt from the journalist’s murder, he said, ‘‘He came from Mumbai and he was over-intrusive in areas he shouldn’t have been. Mediapersons should know there are dangers if you get involved in such areas.’’