ISLAMABAD - Kashmir came to overshadow a regional conference that ended Thursday as Pakistan and India exchanged diplomatic fire over New Delhi’s use of brutal force in the occupied valley in recent weeks.

The interior ministers of the two countries indirectly criticised each other’s governments on the second day of the Seventh Meeting of Saarc Interior/Home Ministers.

Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh sparked the fire by calling for isolation of countries deemed to be ‘supporting terrorism’ (particularly in Kashmir).

Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan decried “brutal force” (being used by India in Kashmir) against civilians resisting occupation.

Traditionally tense relations between the two nuclear neighbours have been strained further in recent weeks by a flare-up in protests against Indian rule in Occupied Kashmir, in which dozens of innocent people have been killed and thousands injured.

Pakistan provides political and diplomatic support to Kashmiris struggling for the right to self determination, as pledged to them by UN Security Council resolutions.

India on the other hand claims Kashmir to be its legitimate part and accuses Pakistan of providing military support to ‘separatists’.

The home ministers of Bhutan and Sri Lanka; deputy home ministers of Afghanistan and Maldives; and home secretary of Nepal also attended the meeting while Bangladesh was represented by its high commissioner based in Islamabad.

In his address, Rajnath Singh made a direct jibe aimed at the Pakistani government for its strong condemnation of the killing of Kashmiri freedom fighter Burhan Wani by Indian forces.

“There are no good terrorists or bad terrorists,” said Indian home minister, referring to earlier criticism the Indian state has levelled against Pakistan. “There should be no glorification or eulogising of terrorists as martyrs.”

Singh called for “strongest action not only against terrorists or organisations but also against those individuals, organisations and nations.”

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in response, lambasted the “use of excessive force” to suppress protests in held Kashmir, without naming the Indian government.

“Using torture against innocent children and violence against civilians qualifies as terrorism,” he said, adding that there was a need to end an “extremist” mindset and solve regional issues through dialogue instead.

Breaking from the traditions of the Saarc meetings, Nisar - who was mediating the moot as the chairman of the ministerial meeting – gave this response after Indian minister misused the forum to blame Pakistan.

Like the attacks in Pathankot, Kabul, Mumbai and Dhaka, Pakistan too has lost many innocent lives in terrorist acts, the minister said while briefing the reporters at the conclusion of the meeting. “The use of blame game has not benefited anyone for the past six decades,” he added.

“India talked in general terms (about terrorism) without naming any country but all their hints went towards Pakistan,” the minister said telling the reason of his response.

No bilateral meeting between the Indian home minister and his Pakistani counterpart took place on the sidelines of the ministerial conference.

Earlier, the meeting turned an ugly turn when Minister Rajnath Singh along with Indian interior secretary left the meeting before lunch and did not turn up to attend the remaining agenda after coming to know that Nisar was not joining the launch. According to some media reports, they both left for India prior to their scheduled time of departure.

“Indian home minister conveyed to me that he will only join the lunch if you (Nisar) will be there but I had to attend another important meeting,” Nisar said while responding a question and added that his Indian counterpart should have been questioned why he left the meeting in the middle of the agenda.

“Except this one incident, the mood of the meeting remained positive overall and all sides focused the agenda,” he said.

“I had a fear that if some political statement came from a member state then who will answer it because I, as chairman of the meeting, only had the role of facilitator/speaker but I put aside my position and made a statement on behalf of Pakistan,” the minister said.

The minister called the political statement from India and from another country contrary to the traditions of Saarc meetings.

“I want to assure you that if someone tried to cast aspersions on Pakistan, I will leave no stone unturned to answer and I warn that Pakistan should not be condemned in the garb of poetry,” he said.

There were speculations in the media that Nisar could have responded to Indian minister’s aggression on his own, without taking the prime minister on board.

But the minister said that his policy on Kashmir was not contrary to that of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and he had conveyed to the premier regarding all developments.

Nisar said he had made it clear to the participants that terrorism is not limited to Mumbai and Pathankot but no law allowed that innocent citizens should be victimised in the name of terrorism - a reference he gave to the Indian atrocities in Indian Held Kashmir.

“We must review and reassess the word terrorism as it is much used term but often misused,” he said.

The minister drew the attention of Saarc member states not to use brutal force against unarmed civilians who are engaged in a struggle against foreign occupation.

He pointed out that it was important to respect fundamental human rights of the people and not suppress legitimate freedom struggles in the name of fight against terrorism.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan highlighted that instead of engaging in blame game “we should take out time to reflect and sit down together and try to work out the problems and reservations which we might have towards each other.”

He maintained that Pakistan is ready to engage in any dialogue process based on mutual respect and dignity.

It is for those who put conditions and sub conditions for initiating dialogue to reconsider and realign their positions, he pointed towards India without naming it.

He said terrorist activities are not restricted to India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. “Scores of terrorist incidents taking place in Pakistan are equally condemnable if not more.”

He said Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar, Charsadda University attack and Iqbal Park bombing in Lahore could not be ignored.

The minister mentioned the move to exonerate perpetrators of terrorist attacks against the Muslim minority in India. He emphasised that those terrorists must be brought to justice to let the minorities live in peace.

“I just like to point out that Pakistan faces terrorism from across its boarders and blatant intervention in our internal affairs,” he asserted and added that these matters could be resolved only through negotiations and discussion. He said that forums like Saarc were important initiation of dialogue.

Responding to a question suggesting that India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan ganged up on Pakistan in the conference, the minister limited his answer saying the overall atmosphere of the meeting remained positive.

Replying other questions, he said he had the desire that bilateral and political issues should also be included in the agenda of Saarc meeting but withdrew the proposal after a member state objected.

I have asked the participants that Sarrc meeting should not be held hostage to its restrictive agenda, he said.

No blackout of Singh’s statement

Indian government described Indian media reports of a ‘blackout’ of Rajnath Singh’s statement during the Saarc meeting as “misleading”, hours after the home minister reached back in New Delhi.

“…media reports of a ‘blackout’ of our Home Minister’s statement are misleading,” it said in a statement.

“It is the standard Saarc practice that the opening statement by the host country is public and open to the media while the rest of the proceedings are in the camera, which allows for a full and frank discussion of issues,” a government source told Zee News.