x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Indian and Pakistan to resume peace talks

First talks since Mumbai attack of 2008 will focus on counterterrorism, humanitarian issues, peace and security, the disputed Kashmir region and other border issues.

NEW DELHI // India and Pakistan announced yesterday they would resume formal peace talks frozen since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.

A statement released simultaneously in New Delhi and Islamabad said the new talks would focus on counterterrorism, humanitarian issues, peace and security, the disputed Kashmir region and other border issues.

Officials of the two countries would hold a series of talks ahead of a visit to India by Pakistan's foreign minister in July.

The decision to return to talks came after a meeting between the two countries' top diplomats in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, on the margins of a regional conference.

"They have agreed to resume dialogue on all issues," Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Both nations have been under pressure to resolve contentious issues, including concerns about militant violence and the disputed Kashmir region. Their rivalry spills over into Afghanistan, complicating peace efforts there.

The White House said yesterday that it hoped resumed peace talks be "productive".

The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said: "The idea of them sitting down and having peace talks is something that the president has encouraged and we hope (they) will be productive in their outcome."

The resumed talks will not be called a "composite dialogue", the name given to the last set of talks between the two countries that began in 2004 and were suspended after the Mumbai attacks, which India blamed on Pakistan-based militants. The dialogue was never revived.

However, an Indian official involved in repairing ties with Pakistan told Reuters that the new talks would in effect be "the formal resumption of the composite dialogue. What happened in Thimphu is that we both agreed there is support for the process [on both sides]."

Not calling the new talks a resumption of "composite dialogue" is important for both countries, said Nitin Pai, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent strategic-affairs think tank based in Chennai. "The Indian side will look at each of the six or seven rounds of discussions, before the foreign ministers' meeting, as a hurdle that Pakistan has to cross. The Pakistani side will say that it has resumed dialogue and gotten what it wants," Mr Pai said. "From a purely diplomatic point of view, it's a success to have broken the logjam."

Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said he was cautiously optimistic about the talks: "Cautious because there are so many variables and unknowns involved."

Frictions between the two countries clearly continue to persist, emerging even as negotiations for a resumption of talks were taking place. Just before the meeting at Thimphu between Nirupama Rao, the Indian foreign secretary, and her Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir, Pakistan's foreign office spokesperson, Abdul Basit, issued a statement criticising India for "lacking courage to unearth culpability of Hindu extremists" in the 2007 bombing of the Samjhauta Express, a train that runs from Delhi to Lahore. The bombing killed 68 people.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has also asked that Kashmiris be included as a third party in any dialogue over Kashmir. It is a move that India has staunchly resisted in the past because, as Ms Rao told reporters at Thimphu, "the Kashmiri people are part of the Indian system."

From the Indian side, frustration has built over what is seen as Pakistani reluctance to move against seven of its citizens charged with involvement in the Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

"We are disappointed and we are let down by Pakistan, because till now only two witnesses have been examined and there has been some kind of a lull on that front," India's foreign minister, SM Krishna, said last week. "India expects the pace of the trial should be speeded up."

India has also accused Pakistani intelligence of being intimately involved in the planning of that attack, and had insisted it would not return to the negotiating table until Pakistan cracks down on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for carrying it out.

Mr Pai said the friction between the countries comes from India's disconnect between "reality and the Indian government's approach towards whatever is happening in Pakistan. You would expect things to move with reciprocity - create good faith, then take small steps".

Instead, he said, the Indian government "driven by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is pursuing a dogmatic approach - that they have to pursue talks". For this reason, he said, he expects "nothing concrete" to come out of them.

Mr Singh has consistently pressed for peace talks with Pakistan, even after the 2008 attacks, a stance that has brought the prime minister frequent criticism at home. In July 2009, he met the Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and issued a joint statement that disassociated the dialogue process from Pakistan's actions against terrorists.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, called this a capitulation and a complete turnaround from India's earlier position on terror. "The distinction between the aggressor and the victim has been completely obliterated," said Yashwant Sinha, a BJP leader, at the time.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press