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New Delhi: Talks between India and Pakistan set for the weekend seemed on Friday to be on the verge of being called off, with both countries engaged in a war of words over plans by Pakistan’s national security advisor (NSA) Sartaj Aziz to meet Kashmiri separatists on his visit to New Delhi.

The exchange of words became sharper after India, in a statement, slammed Pakistan for making attempts to change the agenda of the talks between Aziz and Ajit Doval, India’s NSA, by proposing its own agenda that was at “complete variance with what the two Prime Ministers had agreed upon in Ufa".

The reference was to a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa last month.

“India remains committed to discussing issues with Pakistan peacefully and bilaterally. In fact, we took the initiative to engage at Ufa. But, unilateral imposition of new conditions and distortion of the agreed agenda cannot be the basis for going forward," the statement said.

In an indirect reference to the Pakistani army, which drives foreign policy when it comes to India, Afghanistan and the US, the Indian statement said: “The people of both countries can legitimately ask today what is the force that compels Pakistan to disregard the agreements reached by two elected leaders and sabotage their implementation."

Pakistan, the Indian foreign ministry statement said, took 22 days to respond to the Indian proposal to meet in New Delhi.

“It then proposed an agenda that was at complete variance with what the two prime ministers had agreed upon in Ufa. Together, these two actions indicated its reluctance to go forward with sincerity on the agreed process. Even more significantly, without confirming either the programme or the agenda, the Pakistani High Commissioner invited Hurriyat representatives to consult with the visiting NSA. This provocative action was completely in consonance with Pakistan’s desire to evade its commitment at Ufa to engage in a substantive discussion on terrorism," it said.

The Ufa understanding, the Indian statement said, “was very clear"— the only agenda was discussion on terrorism. “The insistence on meeting Hurriyat as a precondition is also a complete departure from the Ufa understanding. India has always held the position that there are only two stake holders in our relationship, not three," it said.

This strongly worded statement was in response to Pakistan rejecting India’s “advice" given early Friday morning that it would not be appropriate for Aziz to meet Kashmiri separatists in New Delhi.

Following this, an NDTV television report, quoting unidentified Pakistani people, said the NSA-level talks were “as good as off".

The Pakistani statement said “the (Pakistani) foreign secretary conveyed to the Indian high commissioner that it will not be possible for Pakistan to accept this advice".

“Pakistan sees no reason to depart from this established past practice. The Hurriyat leaders are true representatives of the Kashmiri people of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan regards them as genuine stakeholders in the efforts to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir dispute," the statement from the Pakistani foreign office said.

“Pakistan will call off talks if India blocks Hurriyat meeting," a senior Pakistani official was quoted as saying by The Express Tribune newspaper on its website. “We cannot be seen as engaging with India if they stop Hurriyat leaders from meeting us."

According to India, Jammu and Kashmir has an elected government in place. The most recent elections were held last year and the state has a government headed by the regional Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party. India’s stand is that this coalition government, and not the Hurriyat, which has repeatedly refused to take part in elections, represents the people of the region.

The statement from the Pakistani foreign office said: “Pakistan has proposed and conveyed to India a comprehensive agenda reflecting the broad understanding reached between the leaders in Ufa that all outstanding issues, including Kashmir and other disputes, as well as terrorism issues and other CBMs (confidence-building measures), will be discussed between the two countries.

“India’s insistence on introducing conditionalities and restricting the agenda for the dialogue demonstrates a lack of seriousness on India’s part to meaningfully engage with Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan remains willing to attend the NSA meeting without any preconditions," it added.

The statement followed a high-level meeting in Islamabad chaired by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and attended by army chief Raheel Sharif, according to a report in The Express Tribune.

On Thursday, the Indian government placed some key Kashmiri separatists under house arrest for a few hours, a move that officials in New Delhi said was a signal that this could be repeated on Saturday to prevent the separatists from reaching the Indian capital to meet Aziz.

For India, the talks on 23-24 August will focus on terrorism alone, while Pakistan is hoping that it will lead to the commencement of a broader dialogue covering all issues, including Kashmir.

With a reference to Kashmir — which Pakistan considers its primary dispute with India — missing from the Ufa joint statement, the Pakistan government was likely under pressure to convince its domestic audience that it was still committed to its Kashmir cause. Within days of the Ufa summit, Aziz said “no dialogue will take place with India unless the Kashmir issue is included in the agenda".

Adding to the irritants, there have been almost daily violations of a 2003 ceasefire pact between India and Pakistan. The two countries have summoned each other’s envoys to register protests against what they claimed were violations of the ceasefire pact by the other. Another provocation for India has been the spike in terrorist activity that the Indian government blames Pakistan for fomenting. On 27 July, three suspected Islamist militants dressed in army uniforms targeted a police station in Gurdaspur in Punjab, killing at least seven people, including police officers.

“By the look of things, the talks don’t seem to be heading anywhere. There is no meeting of minds and it seems to me futile to have talks when the two sides have divergent agendas," said India’s former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

Tanya Rizvi contributed to this story.

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