South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

THIMPHU (AFP) – The prime ministers of India and Pakistan agreed Thursday to work towards resuming their frozen peace dialogue when they met in Bhutan for their first direct talks in nine months.

During their discussions, which both sides described as positive,Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, mandated their respective foreign ministers to draw up a road map for future talks.

The officials would work out ways to restore trust and confidence, “thus paving the way for a substantive dialogue on all issues of mutual concern”, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters.

Singh and Gilani met for 90 minutes on the sidelines of the eight-nationSouth Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit under way in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu.

India broke off a slow-moving peace dialogue with Pakistan after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead.

Since then, it has repeatedly rebuffed Pakistani calls for a resumption, insisting that Islamabad had not done enough to bring to justice the Pakistan-based militants that India blames for the carnage.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi hailed the fact that future talks would go beyond the subject of tackling militancy and would address other areas of dispute between the rivals.

“All issues that are of concern… are on the table and will be discussed,” Qureshi said, adding that this was “a step in the right direction.”

During the talks with Gilani, Rao said the Indian prime minister was “very emphatic that Pakistan has to act, that the terror machine needs to be controlled, needs to be eliminated.”

Gilani responded that Pakistan was as much a victim of terrorism as its neighbour.

The last time the two premiers sat down together was in July, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement’s summit in Egypt.

That meeting ended with a joint statement which appeared to alter India’s position that Pakistan must first crack down on militant groups before peace talks could take place.

Singh was pilloried at home for the move and as a result their next meeting, at the Washington summit earlier this month on nuclear security, went no further than a handshake and a cursory exchange of pleasantries.

In between, the two sides managed a meeting between their senior foreign ministry officials in February, which resulted in little more than a vague pledge to keep the doors to dialogue open.

The talks in Thimphu offered no timetable for when the two foreign ministers would meet, saying only that it would happen “as soon as possible”.

Qureshi said Gilani had invited Singh to visit Pakistan soon and that the Indian prime minister had accepted.

The last Indian premier to make an official visit to Pakistan was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999.

Kalim Bahadur, a retired professor of South Asian studies, from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the two sides still had a long way to go to reduce their mutual trust deficit.

“This is only a slight opening of the door, to introduce more content into the talks,” Bahadur said. “But you can say that’s positive.”

Observers believe the decision to talk in Thimphu was forced in part by the annoyance of other SAARC members who feel that Indo-Pakistan tensions have all too often blocked the organisation’s efforts to foster regional cooperation.

That sense of frustration was voiced on Tuesday by SAARC’s smallest member, the Maldives, whose president, Mohammed Nasheed, broke with protocol which traditionally precludes public mention of bilateral disputes.

“I hope neighbours can find ways to compartmentalise their differences while finding ways to move forward,”Nasheed said in his speech at summit’s opening.

“I am of course referring to India and Pakistan. I hope this summit will lead to greater dialogue between them,” he said.

The bitter South Asian rivals have fought three wars since the subcontinent’s 1947 partition. They are currently locked in a struggle for influence in Afghanistan, which joined SAARC in 2007.

The organisation’s membership comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal,Pakistan and Sri Lanka.


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