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South Asia Tensions: US Asks India To Improve Ties With Neighbours

South Asia Tensions: US Asks India To Improve Ties With Neighbours

ISLAMABAD / WASHINGTON: Amid persisting diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan, the United States has asked New Delhi to take steps to improve relationships with its South Asian neighbours.

“We believe the [Obama’s] visit to India was a very important one, and we believe that India should have good relationships with its neighbours as well and take steps to improve those relationships,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told a weekly press briefing.

She was responding to a question regarding Pakistan’s concerns over some Indo-US agreements signed during the recent visit of President Barack Obama to India. Harf described Washington’s relationship with both Pakistan and India as strong and vital.

The comments come amid growing strain in Indo-Pak relations as New Delhi refuses to hold dialogue with Islamabad for resolving the Jammu and Kashmir dispute which, Islamabad says, is critical to normalisation of relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. Islamabad has also voiced serious concern over New Delhi’s attempts to alter demography of the disputed Himalayan region.

At the press briefing, Harf reaffirmed US position on fostering close relationships with both Pakistan and India. “When it comes to our relationships in the region, look, we have relationships with India and with Pakistan. They are both strong, they are both vital to our strategic interests, and they both stand on their own.”

When questioned about US assessment of religious freedom in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the spokesperson said she would check from the relevant officials but reiterated President Obama’s call for religious freedom.

“Well, you heard the president [Obama] speak about this when he was just there [in New Delhi]. This was part of his message during his trip to India and also part of his message at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning that freedom of religion is a fundamental freedom, that every nation is stronger when people of all faiths are free to practice their religion free from persecution and fear and discrimination.

“So certainly, we encourage all governments around the world to respect and ensure freedom of assembly for individuals who are worshiping or who are doing so for religious reasons, and that is a universal right we think should be adhered to.”

An Indian newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi Abdul Basit meet the new Indian foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, next week to explore the possibility of resumption of bilateral talks.

Although officials said Basit will make a courtesy call on the foreign secretary, there are expectations in some quarters that talks could be revived as the new secretary could suggest ideas to government to re-launch dialogue, The Economic Times reported on Saturday.

In Islamabad, Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam dismissed the report as ‘speculative’ and described as ‘routine’ the meeting between Basit and India’s foreign secretary.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had travelled to New Delhi to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won the elections in April-May, last year.

However, the bonhomie generated by the trip didn’t last long as New Delhi suspended subsequent talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries in August after Pakistan’s high commissioner met with Kashmiri leaders.

Since then border guards from the two countries have frequently exchanged fire along the Line of Control and Working Boundary, dimming hopes for resumption of composite dialogue process which was suspended by New Delhi following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2015.

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