India, Pakistan foreign ministers trade heated barbs on ‘terror’

Pakistani minister calls India’s Modi the ‘butcher of Gujarat’ after his counterpart accuses Pakistan of being an ‘epicentre of terrorism’.

India Pakistan FMs
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, left, and his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari [File: AP]

Pakistan’s foreign minister has called India’s prime minister the “butcher of Gujarat” after his counterpart accused his country of being the “epicentre of terrorism” as the nuclear-armed neighbours engage in a war of words at the United Nations.

The heated exchange between Pakistan’s Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar came after the UN Security Council adopted a statement on Thursday, warning of the increasing dangers of terrorism.

The South Asian rivals have strained political ties, especially over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which was split between the two in 1947. Since then, they have fought three wars and had several skirmishes along their tense border.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of harbouring armed fighters who launch attacks on its soil, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 175 people dead, including nine attackers.

The Mumbai attackers were allegedly members of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba armed group. Indian investigators say their actions were directed over the phone by handlers in Pakistan.

Heated accusations

Talking to reporters after the UN meeting, Jaishankar called Pakistan the “epicentre of terrorism”.

“My advice is to clean up your act and try to be good neighbour,” he said.

“Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Pakistan, said that if you keep snakes in your back yard you can’t expect them to bite only your neighbours, eventually they will bite the people who keep them in the back yard,” he added.

Earlier, Jaishankar, without naming Pakistan, told the UN Security Council that “India faced the horrors of cross-border terrorism long before the world took serious note of it” and has “fought terrorism resolutely, bravely and with a zero-tolerance approach”.

When Bhutto-Zardari was asked to respond to Jaishankar’s allegation, he said the Indians continue to say “Muslim and terrorist together”, whether in Pakistan or in India.

Pakistan’s top diplomat said Jaishankar should remember that “Osama bin Laden is dead, [but] the butcher of Gujarat lives and he is the prime minister of India”.

India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat when religious riots in 2002 killed nearly 2,000 people – most of them Muslims.

Modi was accused of turning a blind eye to the violence. Until his election as prime minister in 2014, he was denied entry to the United States.

Bhutto-Zardari said his country had lost far more lives to terrorism and that he, himself, was a victim, referring to his mother and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2007. Bhutto was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim-majority country in 1988.

“As a Muslim, as a Pakistani, as a victim of terrorism, I believe it is time that we move away from some of the Islamophobic narrative framing of this issue that took place after the awful attacks of September 11, 2001, because what we witnessed from that date up until now is that terrorism, of course, knows no religion, knows no boundaries,” Bhutto-Zardari said.

“Why would we want our own people to suffer? We absolutely do not,” he added.

In a statement on Friday, Arindam Bagchi, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, called Pakistan minister’s remarks a  “new low”.

“The Foreign Minister of Pakistan has obviously forgotten this day in 1971, which was a direct result of the genocide unleashed by Pakistani rulers against ethnic Bengalis and Hindus. Unfortunately, Pakistan does not seem to have changed much in the treatment of its minorities. It certainly lacks credentials to cast aspersions at India,” said the statement, referring to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

The statement said Bhutto-Zardari’s “uncivilised outburst seems to be a result of Pakistan’s increasing inability to use terrorists and their proxies”.

“Pakistan FM’s frustration would be better directed towards the masterminds of terrorist enterprises in his own country, who have made terrorism a part of their state policy. Pakistan needs to change its own mindset or remain a pariah,” it said.

Experts decode the barbs

Abdul Basit, research fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Al Jazeera the “debate on terrorism cannot be reduced to Pakistan-bashing on platforms like the UN”.

“In bringing the attention back to counterterrorism challenges, India is focusing heavily on Pakistan as the main sponsor of terrorism in South Asia, which has been one of the usual tactics by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” he said.

Qandil Abbas, professor of international relations at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, said Bhutto-Zardari’s comments “should be seen from the lens of recent differences between India and Pakistan, which emerged after India revoked … autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir”.

“Pakistan was expecting that the Indian decision will be condemned and international community will support the stance presented by Pakistan. However, it was not to be,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Additionally, despite Pakistan’s partnership with America and the Western bloc the in so-called ‘war on terror’, India continued to receive more importance,” he added.

Abbas said public opinion in Pakistan is shifting away from the US and more in support of China and Russia. “Media commentary [in Pakistan] also shows there’s a clear criticism of pro-US or pro-Western policies,” he said.

“This is the scenario in which the [Pakistani] foreign minister has given the statements in New York, where Pakistan is taking a rather harsh stance towards India. It wants the global community and US policymakers to adopt a balanced approach towards South Asia instead of leaning towards India.”

Dhananjay Tripathi, who teaches international relations at New Delhi’s South Asian University, told Al Jazeera the “war of words” between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan at the UN is not good for diplomacy.

“There is already a deadlock in the diplomatic relations between the two countries as nothing is going on. This [exchange] will only deteriorate it further,” he said.

Tripathi said the two sides should think about resuming dialogue between them.

“No way they can say that this kind of situation will prevail forever. They have to talk. Not engaging is not a solution for both the countries,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies