By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: The much-awaited talks between Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani were held last week on sidelines of 16th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Thimpu, Bhutan (April 29). Though the two sides still retain differences over several issues, including Kashmir, the high-level talks are viewed as a â€œpositive breakthrough.â€ The key point is their agreement to revive the Indo-Pak dialogue process, practically put on hold since Mumbai-blasts in 2008. Though the two prime ministers last met at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt in July 2009, Indo-Pak dialogue has yet to be brought back on track. Till date, it has been held back because of terrorism, sources said. While concern about terrorism still remains high on agenda of both the countries, the positive outcome of talks in Thimpu is that they agreed to â€œnormalizeâ€ Indo-Pak ties and decide on dates for talks to be held at various levels.
Briefing media persons on Singh-Gilani talks, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said: â€œThey discussed all issues in a free and frank manner. They agreed that India-Pakistan cooperation is vital, if the people of South Asia are to realize their destiny and if SAARC is to become an effective and powerful instrument of regional cooperation. They agreed that relations between the two countries should be normalized, and channels of contact should work effectively to enlarge the constituency of peace in both countries.â€
Singh voiced Indiaâ€™s concern about terrorism to Gilani. â€œIndia,â€ Singh told Gilani, â€œis willing to discuss all issues of concern with Pakistan and to resolve all outstanding issues through dialogue, but that issue of terrorism is holding back progress,â€ Rao said. On his part, Gilani told Singh, â€œPakistan would not allow Pakistani territory to be used for terrorist activity directed against India.â€
â€œThe meeting was an exercise in mutual comprehension because there is a lack of mutual trust in the relationship impeding the process of normalization. The two sides have agreed on the need to assess the reasons underlying the current state of relations, or current state of affairs of the relationship and to think afresh on the way forward. They have agreed that the foreign ministers and the foreign secretaries will be charged with the responsibility of working out the modalities of restoring trust and confidence in the relationship and thus paving the way for a substantive dialogue on all issues of mutual concern,â€ Rao told media persons.
To a question on dates for taking forward the process of Indo-Pak talks, Rao replied: â€œThe two sides have agreed to meet as soon as possible.â€ While dates have yet to be decided, Rao said: â€œThe instructions of the prime ministers are that the foreign ministers and the foreign secretaries should meet as soon as possible.â€
When asked on whether Pakistan gave any â€œcommitmentâ€ to India regarding terrorism, Rao said: â€œPrime Minister (Singh) was very emphatic in mentioning that Pakistan has to act on the issue of terrorism, that the terror machine, as he termed it, that operates from Pakistan needs to be controlled, needs to be eliminated.â€ Gilaniâ€™s stand, according to Rao, was that Pakistan was â€œequally seized of these concerns, that terrorism has affected Pakistanâ€™s well-being also, and that they want to address this issue comprehensively and effectively.â€
In a separate press briefing, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that the two prime ministersâ€™ meeting had played a major role in improving the atmosphere between the two countries. The â€œoutcomeâ€ of their meeting has been â€œmore than expected,â€ Qureshi said. â€œIt is a step in the right direction, a concrete development and we will build on it,â€ he stated. Dismissing prospects of any major breakthrough in immediate future, Qureshi said that â€œtrust deficitâ€ between India and Pakistan has to be bridged through â€œconfidence-building measures.â€ â€œWe have to be realistic and pragmatic. It (bridging trust deficit) will not happen in a day, it is a process. If we allow the process to continue, obviously with passage of time, the deficit will be narrowed down,â€ Qureshi said. â€œThere was acknowledgment about deficit in both sides. The two prime ministers have to bridge that divergence and build confidence,â€ Qureshi said.
Islamabad will be hosting the SAARC home ministersâ€™ meeting this year on July 26. On this, Qureshi said: â€œWe welcome Indian home minister to take part in that meeting.â€
Rao and Qureshi held separate press briefings in Thimpu soon after Singh-Gilani talks, which lasted for about an hour and a half. Both described Singh-Gilani meeting as comprehensive, cordial and friendly.
Notwithstanding the fact that diplomatic tension still prevails between India and Pakistan on issues such as Kashmir, their agreement to take forward the dialogue process and â€œfight terrorismâ€ together is viewed as a major development in their bilateral ties. While in some quarters, this has been described as a â€œfirm, strong step â€“ finally taken,â€ others view it simply as a â€œthawâ€ in Indo-Pak ties which had been â€œfrozenâ€ since Mumbai-blasts.
United States has welcomed the decision of India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue. â€œObviously there is a long way to go. But certainly, the de-escalation of tension between the two countries would help in fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan,â€ White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in Washington (April 30). Earlier, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said: â€œWe always think that when leaders of countries, particularly countries with the unique history of India and Pakistan, anytime they can get together for high-level constructive dialogue, that is good for the region, and we support it.â€ On whether US had played any role in making Singh-Gilani meeting possible in Thimpu, Crowley replied: â€œWe have encouraged the leaders of Pakistan and India to restore direct dialogue that has been characteristic of the relationship between those two countries within the last few years, and weâ€™re encouraged that they are taking steps to do that.â€