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India, Pakistan hold first talks since Mumbai attacks

Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir (pictured right) held talks with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi on Thursday, the first since the 2008 Mumbai attacks amid pressure on the two foes to mend ties as the Afghan crisis mounts.


India and Pakistan on Thursday held their first formal talks since the devastating 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India claims were carried out by Pakistani-based militants.

Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and his Indian counterpart Nirupama Rao met in a colonial mansion in a heavily-guarded New Delhi neighbourhood that also houses the parliament and the presidential palace. The talks ended only with an agreement that the two countries would “keep in touch”, signalling that relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours remain frosty.

Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir told reporters after the conference that India's focus on the 2008 Mumbai attacks was "unfair" and was stalling efforts to get relations between the countries back on track. "It is unfair and unrealistic and, in our view, counterproductive to keep the focus on that (Mumbai) to stall the process of the broader relationship between the two countries," Bashir said

Agenda issues

“The fact that the foreign ministers are meeting at all is significant, it shows there is a willingness on both sides to move forward and normalize ties,” explains FRANCE 24 correspondent in New Delhi, Natasha Butler. But she said that no real breakthroughs had been expected from the talks.

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram had commented that he was “not overly optimistic” ahead of the talks, while another senior government official highlighted the "trust deficit" that lingered from the Mumbai siege that left 166 people dead.

The two countries even disagreed on which subjects should be addressed in the talks: New Delhi wanted to focus on how to deal with Pakistan-based terrorist groups, while Islamabad insisted that the thorny issue of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir must be addressed. The decades-long conflict there has already been the cause of two wars between the neighbouring countries.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has warned against attempts to restrict the talks. "We want a dialogue, but we want a meaningful dialogue ... if India restricts the agenda or narrows it to its own immediate needs, then I'm afraid not much progress will be achieved," he told reporters during a visit to China this week.

Terrorism fears

The talks come amid Indian fears that the bombing of a popular bakery in the western city of Pune this month, which killed 13 people, may herald more attacks. Even if progress is made on Thursday, it could be politically difficult for India to convince its citizens of the benefits of normalizing relations with Pakistan, suspected of sheltering the terrorist groups that carry out these deadly attacks.

“There is a sense among the Indian population that their government has no business dealing with Pakistan at all,” says Natasha Butler.

“The fear instilled in the Mumbai mind since the 2008 attacks is perfectly understandable, but I don’t quite agree with the widespread anti-Pakistani sentiment in India,” Indian author and film maker Vijay Singh told FRANCE 24. “My personal conviction is that the only way forward is dialogue,” he added.

Kashmir stand-off

On the eve of the talks in Delhi, the two states exchanged terse allegations over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Indian border guards in Kashmir said they came under fire from Pakistan on Wednesday, a claim denied by Islamabad.

The long stand-off between the two countries is considered by diplomats as a factor of instability in the region. Any progress made by the two nations' foreign secretaries may also help Western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, where India and Pakistan have long engaged in a proxy war for influence.

The Afghanistan problem

Analysts say the peace talks were resumed under pressure from the US. “Washington believes that it won’t be possible to stabilise Afghanistan while India and Pakistan are at loggerheads,” explains Natasha Butler. It is thought that if Islamabad no longer has to worry about its eastern border with India, it will be able to focus on fighting the Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is a new bone of contention between the India and Pakistan. India visibly wants to expand its influence and trade ties with Afghanistan, which makes Pakistan very jittery,” Alain Lamballe, former military attaché for France in India and Pakistan, told FRANCE 24. “Today, commercial goods cannot transit freely from Afghanistan to India through Pakistan, despite a 1985 free trade agreement all three countries are members of. India ships goods through Iran and by sea to circumvent the problem, but it remains a prickly issue,” he explained.

According to Lamballe, Afghanistan is just one of the numerous deeply entrenched and complex disagreements between the two nuclear neighbours. The issue of access to vital water resources in the Kashmir valley is a recurring problem, as is Pakistan’s civilian nuclear agenda.

“I’m afraid that the rift is so deep between the two countries that even if the stand-off in Kashmir is resolved, tensions and distrust will remain for a very long time,” concluded Lamballe.

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