New Delhi: In a move that could signal a thaw in India-Pakistan relations, the South Asian neighbours have agreed on an exchange of elderly and women prisoners.
The humanitarian gesture—first suggested by India—comes even as the two countries are exchanging fire across the border in Kashmir, in violation of a 2003 agreement, cited as a key confidence-building measure between the two countries.
A statement from the Pakistan foreign office on Wednesday said Islamabad had approved the proposals for exchange of prisoners and the revival of a judicial commission set up to expedite the speedy release of prisoners who had finished their sentences.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Khawaja Asif, after consultations with “all stakeholders", approved the proposals, which had been received from the Indian side, the Pakistani statement, emailed by the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi, said.
One of the proposals suggests the “exchange of three categories of prisoners, women, mentally challenged or (those) with special needs and those above 70 years of age".
A second seeks to revive the judicial commission and a third seeks to facilitate “the visit of medical experts (from both sides) to meet and examine the mentally challenged prisoners for their repatriation", the Pakistan statement said.
India had made these proposals in October, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said.
On its part, Pakistan has suggested an exchange of prisoners above 60 years of age and the exchange of child prisoners below 18 years of age.
“The foreign minister... stated that it was his desire that through such initiatives, Pakistan and India would embark on the road to a comprehensive dialogue, and make a conscious effort to de-escalate the extremely vitiated current environment and the situation on the Line of Control and the working boundary (International Border)."
Kumar in a statement noted the positive response from Pakistan. “The officials on both sides would be working on the modalities to implement the understanding reached on these humanitarian issues," he said.
“Pakistan’s response to India’s proposals comes six months after they were first put forward," said Dilip Sinha, a former Indian diplomat who was in charge of the Pakistan desk in the Indian foreign ministry. “The timing of the response is intriguing as it seems to be under pressure from India as well as the US and wants to de-escalate," he said.
India-Pakistan talks have been suspended since 2013 and efforts to revive them subsequently have come to nought. This is despite meetings between Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Russian city of Ufa and in Paris on the sidelines of the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change in 2015. Indian foreign minister travelled to Pakistan in December 2015 for a regional conference on Afghanistan and Modi visited Lahore in December 2015 on his way back from a trip to Russia. The Modi visit was the first Prime Ministerial visit from India in a decade.
But a series of attacks on military facilities in India in 2016 put paid to the efforts to resume talks. In September 2016, India said it had carried out surgical strikes against terrorist launch pads in Pakistan controlled Kashmir—something Pakistan denied. The Indian government also highlighted Pakistan’s active support to terrorist groups based on its soil at international fora including the UN General Assembly.
However, news reports said that there were several contacts between the national security advisors of the two countries last year.