New Delhi: India on Monday called off talks between foreign secretaries scheduled for 25 August in Islamabad to show its strong displeasure at Pakistan inviting Kashmiri separatists for consultations to New Delhi ahead of the officials’ meeting.

The move signals that although India wants peace with Pakistan, the new Narendra Modi government will not ignore such provocation by Pakistan, analysts said.

“At a time when serious initiatives were being undertaken by the government of India to move bilateral ties forward, including towards the resumption of a regular dialogue process, the invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan’s high commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan’s sincerity," foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a statement.

He was referring to news reports on Sunday that said Pakistan’s high commissioner to New Delhi, Abdul Basit, had invited Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Shabir Shah to New Delhi for consultations on 19 August.

India “conveyed to the Pakistan high commissioner today (Monday) in clear and unambiguous terms, that Pakistan’s continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable. It was underlined that the Pakistani high commissioner’s meetings with these so called leaders of the Hurriyat undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office," Akbaruddin said.

“The Indian decision is a setback to the efforts by our leadership to promote good neighbourly relations with India," the Pakistan foreign office said in a statement. “It is a longstanding practice that, prior to Pakistan-India talks, meetings with Kashmiri leaders are held to facilitate meaningful discussions on the issue of Kashmir."

If Basit had, in his meeting with foreign secretary Sujatha Singh on Monday, agreed to call off the Hurriyat meeting, the talks could have been salvaged, a person familiar with the development said on condition of anonymity.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who heads the moderate faction within the Hurriyat, described the government’s move as “very unfortunate" and contradicted its stand of wanting to improve ties with Pakistan. “One was hoping to see a new beginning," Farooq said by phone from Kashmir.

Stating that the Hurriyat always supported engagement between India and Pakistan, he said the government should revisit its decision. The Hurriyat wants to be bridge of friendship and not a source of “friction" between India and Pakistan, he said.

The talks slated for 25 August between India’s Sujatha Singh and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry of Pakistan had been billed as talks about talks.

They were to be the first face-to-face talks between the foreign secretaries in almost two years and followed an innovative effort by the Modi government to improve ties with India’s neighbours. Modi had invited the leaders of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations for his swearing-in on 26 May.

The discussions next week were expected to focus on how to take forward a peace dialogue—stalled for more than a year—between India and Pakistan who have fought three of their four wars over Kashmir. They were also to be a build-up for a potential meeting between Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Modi in New York on the sidelines of the UN general assembly session.

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal welcomed the move, saying that the Modi government had sent the right signal that diplomats like Basit had no business engaging Kashmiri separatists.

“When they did this (sent the invitation), which was clearly a provocation, they (Pakistan) should have been prepared for the consequences," he said.

“They should realise that they are dealing with a different government who will not give them the same latitude as the previous government," Sibal said referring to previous instances of Pakistani envoys, top diplomats and political leaders meeting Kashmiri separatists in India. “Pakistani politicians have their political compulsions but diplomats don’t."

Sibal dismissed the argument that Pakistan decided to consult the separatists to deflect some of the political heat it was facing at home.

Sharif has, in recent days, been under two-fold pressure to quit. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the main opposition leader and head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, who alleges that there were irregularities in the May 2013 polls that brought Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) to power, has been pressing Sharif to resign. The second source of pressure on Sharif is the Canada-based populist cleric and political activist Tahir-ul-Qadri. Like Khan, Qadri has also organised a rally to pressure Sharif to quit.

Former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy, said these protests would only “further constrict the space for any forward looking meaningful dialogue with India."

Sharif was also under pressure from the Pakistan army and its powerful chief General Raheel Sharif on a number of issues.

The military in recent months has been frustrated with the government over the prosecution of former army chief and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf for treason, according to a Reuters news agency report.

The Sharif government is also struggling to overcome power shortages, high unemployment and spiralling crime—the legacy of decades of corruption and neglect. Anger over the economy means the protests appeal to many disillusioned young Pakistanis, the Reuters report from Islamabad said.

India was not obliged to “manage the internal problems of Pakistan" for Sharif, Sibal said.

On its part, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) backed the government’s decision to cancel the foreign secretary level talks. “This decision of the government should not be seen in isolation. There were repeated ceasefire violations by the Pakistan side and the last straw was when they decided to meet separatists from Jammu and Kashmir," Meenakshi Lekhi, spokesperson for the BJP, said.

Lekhi was referring to a November 2003 pact between India and Pakistan under which troops stationed at their borders would not fire at each other. India considers the pact a major confidence-building measure and had last year refused to re-start dialogue till Pakistan stopped shelling from its side.

Spokespersons of the Congress could not be reached for a comment. A leader from the party said that its leadership is yet to take a final stand on the development. He declined to be named.

Gyan Varma and Anuja contributed to this story.

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