India and Pakistan hold their first official talks for 14 months today, seeking to put their volatile relationship back on a stable track after it was derailed by the 2008 Mumbai attacks. There were few expectations of a breakthrough in the day-long meeting between the Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir, which was soured in advance by arguments over the agenda.
Just hours before Mr Bashir arrived in the Indian capital yesterday, Indian frontier guards said they had been fired on by Pakistani troops across the border. "I'm not very optimistic," said the Indian home minister P Chidambaram, while another senior government official highlighted the "trust deficit" that lingered from the Mumbai siege that left 166 people dead. But the mere fact that the nuclear-armed rivals were sitting down together at all marks a step forward, with the probable best-case scenario an agreement to keep on talking.
Experts say Washington played a key role in nudging the two neighbours back to the table in an effort to keep a lid on South Asian tensions as it presses more troops into its fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It is good to be back," Mr Bashir said. "I have come here to bridge the differences (and) I am hopeful of a positive outcome." India froze all dialogue after the Mumbai carnage 14 months ago in which 10 gunmen targeted multiple locations in the country's financial capital.
India blamed the attack on Pakistan-based militants and said talks could only resume if Islamabad took concrete steps to bring those responsible to justice and cracked down on militant groups on its soil. Top leaders from both countries have since met several times during regional conferences, but today's meeting marks the first real move towards normalisation. New Delhi's offer earlier this month to bring the foreign secretaries together took many by surprise, but the government insisted that it did not represent a return to the comprehensive peace process suspended after Mumbai.
Speaking in London on Monday, Ms Rao said her meeting with Mr Bashir was aimed at finding a way back, "in a graduated manner," to a "serious and responsive" dialogue. "It is our core concerns about terrorism that we find the essential focus for the discussions," Ms Rao said, adding that effective Pakistani action against militant groups remained an "absolute must" if normalisation was to proceed. Pakistan has balked at the Indian emphasis on terror and made it clear that all issues should be up for discussion, including the seemingly intractable dispute over Muslim-majority Kashmir.
The Himalayan region is held in part by Pakistan and India, but claimed in full by both. Mr Bashir met with senior Kashmiri separatist leaders yesterday, signalling Islamabad's intention of keeping Kashmir on the talks agenda. The history of Indo-Pakistan dialogue is a long and patchy one, encompassing every form of contact from backdoor diplomacy to prime-ministerial summits. The only common factor has been the glacial pace of tangible progress in resolving the core disputes between two countries who have fought three wars since independence in 1947 ? two of them over Kashmir.
The most productive round, according to India's former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, was the comprehensive peace process ? known as the Composite Dialogue ? that was launched in 2004 and suspended after Mumbai. "That was remarkable," said Mr Mansingh, listing "tangible dividends" in increased people-to-people contacts, a dip in violence in Kashmir and a pact to reduce the risk of a nuclear arms incident.