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India, Pakistan set talks ball rolling
Terror remains ‘primary issue’ but dialogue freeze ended
Yekaterinburg: Terrorism was the “primary issue” five months ago when India suspended high-level interaction with Pakistan and remains so today. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh broke the dialogue logjam on Tuesday, meeting President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the SCO summit here and agreeing that their Foreign Secretaries should discuss the T-word so that the two leaders could decide how to take the bilateral relationship forward when they meet again mid-July at the Nonaligned summit in Egypt.
With one eye presumably focused on those back home who might see the resumption of contact with Islamabad as a softening of India’s stand, Dr. Singh began what was meant to be a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Zardari in the full glare of the media which had gathered to capture the ‘photo-op.’ “I am very happy to meet you,” he told the Pakistani President after the two delegations had greeted each other and reporters, including this one, were still in the room clicking away.
“But I must tell you quite frankly that I have come with the limited mandate of discussing how Pakistan can deliver on its assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India.”
The message duly noted by the media, officials from both sides rushed to clear the room, leaving the two principals alone for their private interaction without note takers. “The Prime Minister does not do anything by chance,” a senior Indian official told The Hindu when asked if this departure from protocol was by design or happenstance.
Whatever its impact on domestic public opinion, Dr. Singh’s “public” airing of Indian concerns runs the risk of making Mr. Zardari’s life back home more difficult, though Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi took the awkwardness of the moment in his stride.
Asked whether he felt Dr. Singh’s remarks were acerbic, he told reporters he did not think so. “We all agree that we should condemn terrorism and fight against it, no matter where it comes from,” he said, adding, “Be it from India, Pakistan, Britain or Africa.”
In a statement issued after the meeting, Mr. Zardari’s spokesperson, Farhatullah Babar, said the “stalled peace process [had] got a fresh lease of life.” He omitted any reference to terrorism in describing the mandate of the proposed Foreign Secretary talks but said the Pakistani President had “reiterated the desire of [his] government to cooperate with India in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice.”
Briefing the media about the 40-minute long meeting, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said the two leaders reviewed the bilateral relationship which “remains under considerable stress, the primary cause of which is the terrorist attacks on India from Pakistani territory.”
If his much-awaited encounter with President Zardari tended to overshadow Prime Minister Singh’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Brazil, Russia, India and China summits in this Russian city on Tuesday, the bilateral meeting was also not without a certain sense of historical irony.
The last time Indian and Pakistani leaders met on the soil of the Eurasian superpower was in Tashkent in 1966, when Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan signed a declaration formalising the end of the 1965 war.
Since Tashkent, India and Pakistan fought each other twice, in 1971 and 1999, and nearly went to war again in 2002. Sabres were rattled again following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai of November 2008 only to be left in their scabbards, but the peace process went into suspended animation.
In line with his remarks to Parliament in Delhi last week, Dr. Singh told Mr. Zardari that he was all for resumption of talks and that there was a vast untapped potential to the bilateral relationship that had so far remained untapped by the dialogue process, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon told reporters. “But since we can’t wish away the factors that have disrupted the dialogue, they decided on this discussion between the two Foreign Secretaries,” he added.
The reference to untapped potential holds out the prospect of a potential expansion in areas of bilateral discussion, including those like water which Pakistan is deeply concerned about, provided conducive conditions are created for the resumption of the peace process.
The Prime Minister reiterated “the full extent of [India’s] expectation” that Pakistan would take “strong and effective action” to prevent its soil being used to stage attacks on India, that it act against the perpetrators of past attacks and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its territory,” Mr. Menon said. On his part, Mr. Zardari described some of his government’s efforts to deal with this menace “and also explained the problems that Pakistan faces in this regard,” the Foreign Secretary added.
In Islamabad, the Pakistani foreign office said Mr. Zardari had suggested reactivation of the joint terror mechanism the two countries had established in 2006.
Mr. Menon refused to predict what would happen next in terms of the wider dialogue process. The two Foreign Secretaries now had a very clear mandate, he said. “We’d like to hear what they’ve done [on terrorism]. Let’s see what they come back with. Let’s have this discussion.” “All I can say is that the leaders will take stock when they meet at Sharm-el-Shaikh in July. The rest would be astrology.”
Asked whether he agreed that Islamabad was also a victim of terrorism, Mr. Menon acknowledged that there was terrorism in Pakistan but said that was not the issue here. “What has paused our dialogue is terrorism from Pakistan against India … We are supposed to discuss what Pakistan has done about that, whether it’s the previous attacks, Mumbai or whatever. We will tell them what concerns us. We will then report to our leaders and they will then take stock of this when they meet. I am trying to be very precise, without getting into the larger philosophical questions of where it might lead, what it could mean in terms of whether Pakistan is a victim or not.”
While the two principals were meeting, Mr. Qureshi told reporters the outcome should not be prejudged. But he said both countries stand to gain from resumption of dialogue. “Pakistan feels it was a useful exercise and we made good progress, slow but steady, and it was sound progress.”
Asked if the resumption of dialogue would help Pakistan to move troops to its western frontier where the country’s armed forces were battling the Taliban, Mr. Qureshi said there was no link.
“Pakistan is already doing that, it has deployed troops where they are required and the Pakistan Army is doing its job.” The problem of terrorism was not country-specific, he said. “We in Pakistan are victims of terrorism, our people and our economy are affected, and we as a people have decided to deal with this in a decisive manner.” The Pakistani government has moved “in a very effective manner and there has been a lot of internal dislocation,” he said, referring to the more than two million civilians who have fled the Swat valley since major military operations began last month. “We are paying a price but it is a price worth paying.”
Mr. Qureshi directed enquiries on the legal case against the Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders involved in the Mumbai conspiracy to the Interior Ministry. He described the recent release from house arrest of LeT chief Hafiz Saeed as a court decision but said an appeal was being considered by the provincial government.