New Delhi: Declaring their intent to open “a new chapter” in ties, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan on Thursday noted “positive” movement in their efforts to re-engage each other after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, even as they agreed on “more productive” peace talks in the future.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in the Maldives. Describing Gilani as “a man of peace”, Singh said both leaders were “happy with the progress made so far”—a reference to the dialogue resumed on a tentative note in February.
Ongoing dialogue: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the opening session of the Saarc summit in the Maldives. Photo: PTI
Gilani said the next round of official talks, expected to resume in the coming weeks, “will be more positive, more constructive and will open a new chapter in the history of both countries”, Reuters reported.
This is the second meeting between Singh and Gilani this year. Both earlier met in the northern Indian city of Mohali in March. Peace between the South Asian neighbours is seen as key to stability in the region, including neighbouring Afghanistan where both sides are vying for strategic influence ahead of a planned withdrawal by US-led foreign troops from the country in 2014.
In his remarks, Singh said the two countries “have decided to resume this dialogue with the expectation that all the issues that bedevilled the relationship will be discussed”.
“I am happy that Prime Minister Gilani endorses the view that we have a unique opportunity and, therefore, the next round of talks should be far more productive, far more result oriented in bringing the two countries closer to each other than even before,” he said.
Gilani said all issues of dispute including Kashmir were discussed, while Singh said terrorism and the need to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice were raised at their meeting. Both leaders also agreed to normalize trade and liberalize visa rules to encourage business travel and improve people-to-people ties, PTI reported.
Any substantive progress towards peace is unlikely “till Pakistan abandons the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy”, said New Delhi-based analyst C.U. Bhaskar. Across the border, Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, too, gave a guarded welcome to the day’s developments. “So far so good. Both sides are coming to the table with a lot of baggage,” the Islamabad-based analyst said over the phone. “But this time, the two sides are trying to expand ties and then solve problems. Though this has been been tried some time in the past, let’s see how it goes this time,” she said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan interior minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Maldives that Ajmal Kasab, the only one of the 10 gunmen caught alive during the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, should be sent to the gallows.
“Kasab is a terrorist. He is a non-state actor. He should go to the gallows,” Malik said, adding that a proposed visit by a Pakistani judicial commission to India to record the statements of Indian investigators, and others involved in Kasab’s trial, will help speed up the trial of seven people detained by Pakistan for their alleged involvement in the plot.
A four-year-old peace dialogue between the two countries was stalled by the November 26-29 Mumbai siege, in which 166 people were killed when 10 gunmen targeted multiple locations in the city. The attack was blamed by India on Pakistan-based terrorist group the Lashkar-e-Taiba and sections of the Pakistani establishment.
Efforts last year to revive the peace talks after the Thimphu meeting between Singh and Gilani floundered when India and Pakistan were unable to agree on the content or format of the dialogue. It was only in February this year that the two countries tentatively resumed dialogue that yielded incremental steps towards shrinking the “trust deficit” caused by the Mumbai attacks.
Last week, Pakistan moved towards granting India “most favoured nation” status—that aims to normalize commercial ties between the estranged neighbours. The step helped improve the atmospherics before the prime ministerial talks as did the quick return by Pakistan of an Indian army chopper, with four military personnel on board, that had strayed across the de-facto line of control in Kashmir. The region has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan for more than 60 years and the trigger for three wars between the two since 1947.
India’s reported vote in favour of Pakistan during elections to one of the 10 non-permanent seats of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) last month also helped. Gilani told reporters on Thursday that he had thanked Singh for supporting Pakistan during the elections to UNSC last month and pushed for greater access for Pakistani textile imports in the European Union market after last years’s devastating floods, PTI reported.
India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party was critical of Singh’s approach towards Pakistan during the talks. “The Prime Minister of India has erred in describing Mr Gilani as a man of peace. The central issue between India and Pakistan has been cross-border terrorism, and there is nothing Pakistan has done to warrant the impression that they are serious about tackling the issue,” BJP leader and former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha said.
He dismissed India’s reported support for Pakistan’s election to UNSC as a “peripheral issue”. “There might be progress in such areas, but our concern on the issue of cross-border terrorism is something that needs to be addressed, Sinha said.
Reuters and PTI contributed to this story.