By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: The diplomatic significance of the meeting between Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan in Thimphu (Bhutan) cannot be sidelined. Ironically, it cannot also be hailed as a major diplomatic breakthrough. Nevertheless, that Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir held talks on Sunday night (Feb 6) bears its own importance. What holds substantial relevance is that they did not refrain from holding a bilateral meeting on sidelines of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Foreign Secretariesâ€™ meeting. Their Thimphu-meeting is suggestive of the two countries being keen to revive the Indo-Pak dialogue process, which has been stalled since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist-strikes. Last year, July-meeting in Islamabad between Rao and Bashir had failed. Talks between Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministers also collapsed.
Against this backdrop, Thimphu-meeting is certainly suggestive of a fresh attempt made by both India and Pakistan to bring their full fledged dialogue process back on track. The talks have also been viewed as setting the stage for next round of talks between Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The two sidesâ€™ aim is to â€œunlock the dialogue processâ€ and â€œfind the right path to move ahead,â€ sources said.
Ahead of Sundayâ€™s talks between Rao and Bashir, Krishna said: â€œLet us not pre-judge the outcome. An initiative has been taken by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This is primarily to reduce the trust deficit. This is a confidence building measure.â€ Singh and Gilani met last April during the SAARC summit in Bhutan.
Interestingly, despite their talks being preceded by negative exchanges between the two sides over Mumbai-strikes and the Samjhauta-train blasts, the two Foreign Secretaries met with a constructive approach. Giving emphasis to Indo-Pak dialogue being â€œnecessary,â€ ahead of her meeting with Bashir, Rao said: â€œWe are resuming our contact after interregnum of some time. We have a number of issues to be discussed. As we have always said that dialogue between India and Pakistan is necessary and a must if we are to satisfactorily resolve the outstanding issues between our two countries. We have a number of outstanding issues. So, we are going into this with an open mind and constructive attitude.â€ A similar approach was displayed by Bashir, who said: â€œMy expectations are that we should be working towards continued engagement.â€
Though the Indo-Pak talks in Thimphu cannot be described as suggestive of any major and/or dramatic breakthrough, the crucial fact that they have not been a failure cannot be ignored. After the 90-minute meeting between Rao and Bashir, the Indian spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said that the two sides had â€œuseful and frank discussions.â€ â€œThey agreed on the need for constructive talks between India and Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues and affirmed the need to carry forward the dialogue process,â€ Prakash said.
There is little doubt that prospects of India and Pakistan reaching any agreement on resolving â€œoutstandingâ€ issues are as dim today as they were earlier. Yet, the Thimphu-meeting suggests that rather than let these â€œoutstanding issuesâ€ act as diplomatic irritants, stalling their talks, India and Pakistan seem keen to bring their dialogue-process back on track. This also suggests that India and Pakistan have apparently accepted that they have no other option but to revive their talks, irrespective of whether they retain differences on several issues or not. As for instance, prospects of their reaching any agreement on Kashmir-issue remain as illusive today as they were earlier, but now they wish to â€œcarry forward the dialogue process.â€
The same can be said about their respective stand towards terrorism. India remains concerned about the slow pace of trial in Pakistan of the suspects, who have been accused of being responsible for planning the Mumbai-strikes. Till sometime back, India gave the impression of not being open to reviving the dialogue process till Pakistan took action against those suspects. The Thimphu-talks certainly convey a different message.
Of late, Pakistan has also questioned the pace of Indiaâ€™s probe into Samjhauta-blast, in which 68 passengers, mostly Pakistanis, were killed. The explosion took place at night (Feb 17-18, 2007), near Panipat in Haryana when the cross-border train was on its way to Pakistan. Right-winged Hindu extremist, Swami Aseemanand recently confessed his â€œinvolvementâ€ in this incident.
India and Pakistan do not apparently want their talks to remain stalled by terrorism. Besides, despite India and Pakistan retaining differences over several issues, of late, diplomatic cooperation at several other levels has played a crucial role in acting as a bridge between the two countries. This is indicated by increasing presence on the small screen of Pakistan actors as well as cricketers and popularity of Indian film stars in Pakistan. Notwithstanding all their differences, the Thimphu-talks suggest that India and Pakistan have diplomatically conceded to the fact that officially they have no other option but to work towards improving their ties. Even if these attempts are viewed as a show of cosmetic diplomacy, they have â€œaffirmed the needâ€ in Thimphu to carry this process forward!