Karachi: Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif became the first head of the government to attend a Diwali function, organised by Hindus in Karachi on Wednesday.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan speaking on Thursday at a public gathering organised by the party to celebrate Diwali in Umerkot, pledged to protect Pakistani Hindus in the country and said they will not be left alone like Muslims marginalised by Shiv Sena in India.
“Under a PTI government, a new Pakistan will emerge where police will not be used to harass anyone, justice will prevail and equal rights of provinces will be ensured,” Imran reportedly said.
Similar words were echoed by Nawaz Sharif, who called for all Muslims to accept Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and other minorities living in the country as equals and pointed out that they had all participated in the building of Pakistan.
The prime minister also called on the Hindu community to invite him more to their festivals and urged all to take part and attend such occasions as it propagates unity.
An editorial “Embracing diversity” in the News International suggested that the speech “goes far beyond a simple address on a holy occasion”.
“For one it acts to mainstream minority groups in the country and draw them into the social fabric of a divided nation.”
The editorial from News International went on to say that the next logical step from this point would be to ensure that those who commit crimes against minority groups are penalised under the law for their offences. “The fact that they have in the past too often escaped scot-free can only encourage such atrocities. In the name of religion, villages have been burnt, people beaten to death and women abducted.”
While welcoming his message, the daily observed that in Pakistan, “to succeed, PM Nawaz will need to go beyond attending functions or sharing in ceremonies”.
Pakistan has intensified efforts to keep the U.S.-led dialogue with the Afghan Taliban on track, but official sources in Islamabad maintain the responsibility for the “success or failure” of the fledgling peace process rests “exclusively” with the two negotiating sides.
The caution comes as U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, landed in the Pakistani capital Thursday amid expectations a direct meeting could take place between his delegation and Taliban negotiators during his stay in the country.
Prior to his departure Wednesday from Kabul, Khalilzad told reporters that talks with the Taliban will “happen very soon. That’s what we’re working toward.” He did not elaborate further.
Meanwhile, in a significant move, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani telephoned Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday and discussed the efforts being made for bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Khan’s office said in a statement that Ghani expressed his gratitude for Pakistan’s “sincere facilitation” for Afghan peace and reconciliation.
It said the prime minister “assured President Ghani that Pakistan was making sincere efforts for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan through an inclusive peace process, as part of shared responsibility.”
Official sources in Islamabad expected “important developments” over the next two days but they would not share further details. “There is no room for missed opportunities” under the circumstances, they insisted.
Pakistani officials maintain in background interviews with VOA that the U.S.-Taliban talks are being facilitated in the hope that they would ultimately lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue for political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. All sides in the peace process will share “the credit and benefits of a success,” they insisted.
“Similarly, given sincere desire and efforts of everyone, no one should be exclusively blamed if the main interlocutors fail to agree due to own lack of flexibility that is very much required from both the U.S. and the Taliban at this stage,” a senior official privy to the Pakistani peace diplomacy told VOA.
Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan where he briefed Ghani and other top officials of Afghan government on the U.S.-led peace initiative.
The Taliban has held several meetings with Khalilzad’s team in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but the insurgents have persistently refused to engage directly with the sitting administration in Kabul. Their refusal is blamed for a lack of progress in negotiations that started last summer, after American diplomats gave in to a major Taliban demand and met them directly.
Khalilzad, however, made it clear on Wednesday the insurgent group would have to engage with the Afghan government for the process to move forward.
“The road to peace will require the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government. There is a consensus among all the regional partners on this point,” the Afghan-born U.S. special envoy told reporters in Kabul.
He went on to warn that if the Taliban chose to fight over peace talks, the United States would support the Afghan government.
The Taliban threatened earlier in the week to pull out of all negotiations if the United States backed away from discussing the key insurgent demand for a troop withdrawal plan and pressured the insurgents into speaking to the Afghan government.
Diplomats privy to the peace process support the U.S. effort for the Taliban to speak directly to the current administration in Kabul to resolve internal Afghan matters. They see the Ghani-led National Unity government as a “legitimate” entity possessing official representation at the United Nations and maintaining diplomatic missions in world capitals.
The last substantial talks between Khalilzad and Taliban officials took place in Abu Dhabi about a month ago and Pakistan took credit for arranging it and bringing an authoritative team of insurgent negotiators to the table.
Officials in Islamabad say that Pakistan’s “biggest contribution” has been that it has “broken the political stalemate that was there in Afghanistan for several years.”
Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly stated that finding a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan is a top foreign policy priority for his government. While speaking to Khan on Thursday, Ghani invited him to visit Kabul at his earliest convenience and the Pakistani leader reciprocated by inviting the Afghan president to visit Islamabad.
Pakistan has long been accused of sheltering Taliban leaders and covertly helping them orchestrate insurgent attacks, charges Islamabad rejects.
U.S. officials, however, acknowledge the “positive role” Pakistan has played in the current Afghan peace effort. The thaw in traditionally mistrusted bilateral ties was visible earlier this month when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he intended to maintain a “great relationship” with Pakistan.
“So, I look forward to meeting with the new leadership in Pakistan. We will be doing that in the not too distant future,” said Trump.
Islamabad swiftly welcomed the remarks, which raised official expectations in Pakistan for an official invitation to Prime Minister Khan to visit Washington, though the Trump administration has so far given no such indication. (VOA)