The last time India asked for a similar reduction of staff was on December 27, 2001, exactly two weeks after the Jaish-e-Mohammad staged an attack on the Indian Parliament. As was the case in 2001, the government said in a statement that Pakistani officials here maintained contacts with terrorist organisations. The downgrade decision may be read as a signal that India does not see much point in maintaining diplomatic pretences in the face of what it sees as hostile activities by Pakistani officials on Indian soil and physical abuse of its staff in Pakistan.
Official sources here said following the government’s decision, India and Pakistan will both reduce the strength of their respective missions to 55 in the next 7 days. The mutually agreed strength until now has been 110. The government summoned Pakistan charge d’affaires Syed Haider Shah and told him that Pakistani officials had been engaged in acts of espionage and “maintained dealings” with terrorist organisations despite India’s repeated concerns about their activities. The government recalled activities of the two officials “caught red-handed” and expelled on May 31 as one example in that regard.
The attack on the Indian Parliament had led to a nine-month-long military mobilisation on the border with Pakistan. The Pakistan foreign office said it “rejects and strongly condemns the baseless allegations made by the ministry of external affairs as a pretext to seek 50% reduction in staff strength of the high commission for Pakistan in New Delhi”.
“Pakistan also rejects the insinuations of intimidation of Indian high commission officials in Islamabad. The Indian government’s smear campaign against Pakistan cannot obfuscate the illegal activities in which the Indian high commission officials were found involved in. The MEA’s statement is another effort to distort facts and deny the culpability of these Indian high commission officials in criminal offences,” it said.
Bilateral ties were already downgraded with Pakistan having asked Indian high commissioner Ajay Bisaria to return after India’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Sources said the situation had become untenable after the way in which Islamabad responded, as reported by TOI on June 15, by harassing and intimidating Indian officials. The situation came to a head the same day with the ISI abducting two Indian officials at gunpoint.
“While their officials indulged in actions that are not in conformity with their privileged status in the high commission, Pakistan has in parallel engaged in a sustained campaign to intimidate the officials of the Indian high commission in Islamabad from carrying on their legitimate diplomatic functions,” said the government in a statement. The recent abduction at gunpoint of two Indian officials and their severe ill-treatment, it said, underlined the extent to which Pakistan had gone in that direction. The two officials returned to India on Monday (June 22) and have provided graphic details of the barbaric treatment they experienced at the hands of Pakistani agencies, said the statement.
India said the behaviour of Pakistan and its officials was not in conformity with the Vienna Convention and bilateral agreements on the treatment of diplomatic and consular officials. On the contrary, said the government, it was an intrinsic element of a larger policy of supporting cross-border violence and terrorism.
While announcing the decision for reduction of staff in respective missions in 2001, then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh had said that Pakistani officials had been involved in activities related to espionage and also in “direct dealings with terrorist organisations”. The government had then given only 48 hours for the officials to return. Days earlier, it had also recalled its high commissioner from Islamabad. The situation then was a lot more tense though with the government simultaneously announcing that Pakistan would not be allowed to use Indian airspace.
In his announcement, Singh had further said Pakistan had failed to fully appreciate India’s concerns over Islamabad’s continued sponsorship of cross-border terrorism and its use of terror as an instrument of state policy.
Sources said the reduction in staff made sense otherwise too as there was not much diplomatic or consular work in any case, except for facilitating religious tourism. “Also, unlike Pakistani staff here, our officials there are faced with serious security threat,” said an official.
While Islamabad remains a family station in that Indian officials are allowed to live there with their spouses, they are not allowed by India to send their children to school. This decision was taken after the Peshawar school massacre of December 16, 2014. In these circumstances, most Indian officials posted there have chosen to not take their families along.