No compulsion to participate, says Ministry after its turnaround raises queries

Facing a barrage of questions on its sudden shift in policy on attending talks with the Taliban, the Centre on Friday clarified that its delegation at the second 12-nation ‘Moscow format meeting of consultations on Afghanistan’ would not hold direct talks with the insurgent group there.

“We have said we will be taking part in a meeting on Afghanistan which is hosted by Russia; and we decided that our participation in the talks would be at the non-official level,” the MEA’s official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar told reporters. “But we didn’t say anywhere that there will be talks with the Taliban.”

‘Consistent with policy’

The government said its policy on Afghanistan was “consistent”, despite its decision to send two former diplomats, Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan, to the talks. It would mark the first time an Indian delegation would be at the table with a Taliban delegation from its political office in Doha.

India had refused to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan (1996-2001) and had opposed talks with the Taliban at least until a few years ago, insisting thus far on an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and controlled” process.

The five-member Taliban delegation present at the Moscow hotel venue for the talks included top political envoy Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai and his deputy, Abdul Salam Hanafi. Kabul, for its part, sent a 4-member delegation of its High Peace Council (HPC), which has been tasked with the reconciliation process. Sitting between the two sides, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Valdimir Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov — who are being credited for bringing several regional rivals including India, Pakistan, U.S., Iran, China, and five Central Asian states including Uzbekistan together at one meeting — addressed the delegates.

“Russia, as the meeting organizer, sees its role jointly with the regional partners and friends of Afghanistan gathered around this table to render every possible assistance to launching a constructive inter-Afghan dialogue,” Mr. Lavrov said. “It is clear that on the way to this goal it is necessary to overcome a lot of obstacles, including mutual grievances and mistrust accumulated by the parties,” he said, adding that the purpose of the talks was to create conditions favourable to “direct negotiations between the [Ghani] government, the Taliban Movement and representatives of the country’s broad public and political circles.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government faced questions from Opposition leaders on its surprise decision to attend the meeting, a turnaround from its position on Russia’s September 4 proposal for a meeting, which India had declined. It is understood that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani had during his visit to Delhi later in September, pitched for India to be more flexible on the issue of joining talks that included the Taliban.

The Congress sought to know why India had sent representatives to the talks when they weren’t being led by the Ghani government.

“The INC believes that the Afghan peace process should be Afghan led and Afghan driven and unfortunately the Afghan government is not on the table in Moscow,” Congress leader Manish Tewari told The Hindu. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah asked why the government had not shown the same flexibility with “non mainstream stakeholders” as it had with the Taliban.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah asked if sending a “non-official” delegation to talks including the Taliban was acceptable, then “why not a “non-official” dialogue with non-mainstream stake holders in J&K?” “Why not a “non-official” dialogue centred around J&K’s eroded autonomy & its restoration?” he asked in a tweet.

Asked for the rationale behind the turnaround, the MEA spokesperson denied that the decision had been taken under pressure from either Moscow or Kabul. “There was no compulsion here. Whatever we think will take the process forward, consistent with our policy, we will participate in. And we made it very clear that our participation at the meeting will be at the non-official level,” Mr. Kumar said.

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