JSW group, CMD, Sajjan Jindal.image courtesy:Business Standard

News that a three-member Indian delegation had secretly met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Muree on Wednesday rocked Islamabad on Thursday afternoon.

Steel magnate Sajjan Jindal’s meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif near Islamabad on Thursday sparked speculation about secret back channel talks between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Pakistani news channel ARY News, which broke the story, reported that the Indian steel tycoon and JSW Group chairman Sajjan Jindal was among three Indians who called on Sharif in Murree on Wednesday.

The delegation “reached Islamabad from Kabul in a special aircraft at 10 am on Wednesday from where they travelled to Murree by road in three vehicles to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,” the report said.

The other two members of the delegation were identified as Suket Singhal and Virander Babar Singh, “but details relating to their ranks and affiliation could not be established”, the channel said.

The visit came against the backdrop of unabated violence in Jammu and Kashmir, which prompted chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting on Monday to talk to the Hurriyat and other stakeholders. She also referred to former premier AB Vajpayee’s Kashmir peace push and noted that Modi had repeatedly said he would follow Vajpayee’s “footsteps, whose policy is of reconciliation not confrontation”.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) expressed reservation over the arrival of Indian delegation and submitted a resolution in Punjab Assembly.

PTI leader and Opposition leader in Punjab Assembly Mehmood-ur-Rasheed tabled the resolution.

The resolution states Indian delegation flew to Pakistan to rescue the beleaguered Prime Minister. The resolution demanded the house and masses be apprised of motives behind this visit.

The PTI leader,Imran Khan also expressed dismay at the implication that the secret Kathmandu meeting was facilitated by an Indian steel magnate. “Given the Sharif’s steel business interests,” Mr Khan said, “PM Sharif clearly has a conflict of interest between these and the national interest[s] of the country.”

A detailed statement issued by the party’s central secretariat and a series of messages from Mr Khan’s official Twitter account described the revelation as shocking.

The PTI chief said he believed that peace between Pakistan and India was critical for prosperity in the Subcontinent, “However, peace requires conflict resolution and de-escalation of military tensions along the border, the LoC and the Working Boundary.”

“Unfortunately, the present leadership of Pakistan and India lack[s] the courage and the conviction, which has led them to hold secret meetings that can be denied,” Mr Khan said.

Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, insisted that the meeting was not secret as TV channels ran the story throughout the day. “Mr Jindal is an old friend of the Prime Minister. Nothing ‘secret’ about the meeting & should not be blown out of proportion,’’ she tweeted.

Pakistani analysts and the media speculated that the Indian team had either come with a special message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or had come to negotiate the release of former Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, who a Pakistani military  court has alleged was an Indian spy and awarded the death sentence.

According to one report, Sajjan Jindal had reportedly played a key role in arranging the surprise meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi in Raiwind on December 25, 2016. Sources further claimed that Jindal was a guest at the wedding ceremony of Sharif’s granddaughter.

A source in the JSW Group told HT that the Jindal and Sharif families have known each other for decades and this was a personal visit by the magnate. “When Nawaz Sharif last visited India for the oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, even then the Pakistani prime minister had dropped by to see the Jindals in New Delhi,” the source said.

Jindal was in Lahore in December 2015 when Modi made a surprise trip to the eastern Pakistani city while returning from an official visit to Afghanistan to wish Sharif on his birthday and to participate in events before the marriage of Mehr-un-Nisa, the daughter of Maryam Nawaz, and Raheel Munir.

Raheel Munir, the son of prominent businessman Chaudhry Munir, is also related to ISI chief Naveed Mukhtar, sources said.

Jindal reportedly played a key role in facilitating an ‘hour long secret meeting’between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the Saarc Summit in Nepal in 2014, journalist Barkha Dutt revealed in her book, This Unquiet Land – Stories from India’s Fault Lines.

Dutt described Jindal as an informal messenger serving as a ‘covert bridge’ between the two leaders and keeping them ‘connected even when things got difficult’.