India’s foreign minister issued a strenuous denial to an infuriated opposition in parliament yesterday, after US President Donald Trump said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited him to mediate in the bloody conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir.
While Pakistan has often sought third-party mediation in the decades-old dispute which has cost tens of thousands of lives, the idea is anathema to India, which has always insisted the issue can only be resolved bilaterally.
Trump set off a political storm in India by claiming during a meeting in Washington on Monday with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that Modi had asked him two weeks ago to mediate in the Kashmir dispute.
“I’d like to categorically assure the house that no such request was made by the prime minister to the US president,” Foreign Minister S Jaishankar told the parliament, barely able to make his voice heard over the opposition tumult.
Jaishankar insisted the conflict could only be settled bilaterally and that Pakistan had to end “cross-border terrorism” before any talks.
Trump’s comments touched on one of the most sensitive topics for New Delhi.
Opposition leaders demanded that Modi make a personal statement to parliament to confirm that there was no change in New Delhi’s longstanding policy of only direct talks with Islamabad.
“The entire country was shocked last night to hear US President Donald Trump tell Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan that, at the G20 Summit held recently in Osaka, the Prime Minister of India had requested him to mediate on Kashmir,” said Congress leader Anand Sharma.
Amid the uproar in the upper house Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu adjourned the proceedings followed by his statement, “how is it possible that you don’t believe on your own government and believe on what a foreign leader said.”
Meanwhile, the matter was raised in the lower house Lok Sabha by Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury followed by slogans by other opposition members. Chowdhury said, “India has bowed before the US. We are not weak. The PM must reply.”
Trinamol Congress leader Saugata Roy also sought the prime minister’s reply on the issue, calling it a “highly sensitive” matter.
“This is in contravention of all past positions held by India that Kashmir is a bilateral issue and any bilateral issue with Pakistan would not invite third party mediation and that Kashmir is an integral part of India,” Roy said.
The Pakistani prime minister – on an official visit to the United States – stirred the controversy further by saying Kashmir could only be resolved with outside help.
Pakistan has long pressed for the implementation of decades-old UN resolutions calling for a ballot for the region to decide its future.
India says the United Nations has no role in Kashmir, where separatist militants have been battling Indian forces for years.
Trump’s comments risked further straining political ties with India which are already under pressure over trade.
Some US politicians quickly distanced themselves from Trump’s comments.
Brad Sherman, a Democratic Congressman and member of the House foreign affairs committee, said he apologised to the Indian ambassador in Washington for Trump’s statement.
“Everyone knows PM Modi would never suggest such a thing. Trump’s statement is amateurish and delusional. And embarrassing,” he tweeted.
The State Department also sought to calm the storm.
“While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes #Pakistan and #India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist,” tweeted Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Tension between India and Pakistan has been high since an attack on an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in February claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group prompted India to send warplanes into Pakistan.
Pakistan retaliated by ordering its jets into India’s side of Kashmir the following day, raising the prospect of a wider conflict.