India and Pakistan held their first formal talks in 14 months yesterday, seeking to put their volatile relationship back on track after it was derailed by the devastating 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir met for three hours in New Delhi for talks that offered little hope of a breakthrough, but carried vital importance for regional peace and stability.
Arguments over the agenda and a brief exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani border guards before the meeting augured badly for major progress, with the probable best-case scenario an agreement to keep on talking.
The mere fact that the nuclear-armed rivals sat down together, however, marks a step forward for two countries that have fought three wars against each other and are seen as vital in bringing stability to neighboring Afghanistan.
“I look forward to our talks,” Rao told reporters as she met Bashir at a former princely palace in the Indian capital.
Bashir said he hoped for “a very good, constructive engagement.”
New Delhi’s offer earlier this month to resume an official peace dialogue that began in 2004 had taken many by surprise. India froze all discussions after the Mumbai carnage 14 months ago in which 10 Islamist gunmen targeted multiple locations in the country’s financial capital, killing 166 people. India blamed the attack on Pakistan-based militants and said talks could only resume if Islamabad took concrete steps to bring those responsible to justice and cracked down on militant groups on its soil.
Reflecting domestic political concerns and criticism from the opposition about the initiative, India had insisted that the focus of yesterday’s meet would be on tackling Pakistan-based militancy.
During the talks, the Indian side handed the Pakistanis the latest in a series of dossiers containing intelligence related to the Mumbai attacks.
“It is our core concerns about terrorism that we find the essential focus for the discussions,” Rao had said on Monday, adding that effective Pakistani action against militant groups remained an “absolute must” if normalization was to proceed.
Pakistan had balked at the Indian emphasis on terrorism and made it clear that all issues between the rivals should be up for discussion, including the seemingly intractable dispute over Muslim-majority Kashmir.
The Himalayan region is held in part by Pakistan and India, but claimed in full by both. It has been the trigger for two out of the three wars the countries have fought since 1947.
Both foreign secretaries, the most senior civil servants in their foreign ministries, were expected to brief the press separately later yesterday. There will be no joint statement.
Experts say Washington played a key role in nudging the two neighbors back to the table in an effort to keep a lid on South Asian tensions as it presses more troops into its fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Top leaders from both countries have met several times since the Mumbai assault during regional conferences, but yesterday’s meeting marked the first real move toward normalization.
Indian politicians and newspapers were generally pessimistic on the likely outcome.
Also See: Pakistan envoy meets separatists