India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj at UN: “We’re fighting poverty, Pakistan is fighting us”

Killing it softly.
Killing it softly.
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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The skirmish began earlier this week, when Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, attacked India in his speech at the UN general assembly (UNGA). India fired back immediately, describing its western neighbor as “terroristan.” But the real rebuke came—as it had to—from India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, during her speech at the UNGA on Saturday (Sept. 23).

Walking onto the podium after a grueling week of diplomacy, Swaraj did not mince words. Speaking in Hindi, she began by listing out some of the Narendra Modi government’s developmental programs, including Jan Dhan, perhaps the world’s largest financial inclusion scheme, which has brought 300 million people into the banking network.

This focus on reforms and poverty alleviation turned out to be a perfect distraction, as Swaraj deftly pivoted to a more contentious issue. “We are completely engaged in fighting poverty,” she said. “Alas, our neighbor Pakistan seems only engaged in fighting us.” Referring pointedly to Abbasi’s speech, Swaraj added: “A country that has been the world’s greatest exporter of havoc, death, and inhumanity became a champion of hypocrisy by preaching about humanity from this podium.”

On Thursday, Pakistan’s prime minister accused India of war crimes in the disputed Kashmir region, calling for an UN investigation. Abbasi also requested that UN secretary general Antonio Guterres appoint a special envoy on Kashmir to help implement decades-old UN security council resolutions.

A combative Swaraj responded to those demands directly. “Prime minister Abbasi has recalled old resolutions that have been long overtaken by events,” she said. “But his memory has conveniently failed him where it matters. He has forgotten that under the Shimla Agreement (1972) and the Lahore Declaration (1999), India and Pakistan resolved that they would settle all outstanding issues bilaterally.”

She didn’t stop there.Intermittently sipping from a glass of water, Swaraj proceeded to first argue that the Pakistan was responsible for stalling the bilateral dialogue and then chastise India’s nuclear-armed neighbor for supporting terrorism. “Why is it that today India is a recognized IT superpower in the world, and Pakistan is recognized only as the pre-eminent export factory for terror?” she said. “What has Pakistan offered to the world and indeed to its own people apart from terrorism? We produced scholars, doctors, engineers. What have you produced? You have produced terrorists.”

It was a pointed attack at a time when Pakistan is under increasing pressure to clean up its house. Last month, Donald Trump called out the country for often providing “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” which was followed by a statement from the BRICS grouping that named specific Pakistan-based terrorist groups.

“I was struck by how Swaraj pushed back so hard against the Pakistani premier’s speech,” Michael Kugelman, senior associate for south Asia at Washington DC’s Woodrow Wilson Centre, told Quartz. “She had the option of taking the high road and ignoring his comments, but clearly India wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to pillory Pakistan on the world stage.”