India and Pakistan took rare steps to repair strained relations and resume dialogue with a warm handshake and an hour-long meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on a drizzly morning in this scenic Russian city on Friday.
The carefully-choreographed meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit followed a 207-word joint media statement, which skipped any reference to Jammu and Kashmir and set the stage for a nod from Pakistan to expedite the 26/11 Mumbai attacks trial, a longstanding demand of India.
The meeting between the two leaders came more than a year after they held talks in New Delhi when Sharif became the first Pakistani prime minister to attend an Indian counterpart’s swearing-in ceremony.
That event raised hopes of a thaw in relations but subsequent incidents put paid to Modi’s initiative, especially after a Pakistan court released from jail 26/11 attacks lynchpin and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.
But expectations were raised again at Congress Hall in Ufa as the two leaders agreed on a slew of measures to mend bruised bilateral relations, such as Islamabad providing voice samples of the Pakistan-based 26/11 accused and the two sides cooperating on terror, deep-seated stumbling blocks in ties.
Modi accepted Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan for next year’s SAARC summit, a first after becoming prime minister. But the visit was under a cloud because of continuing ceasefire violations on the border and sharp statements from Islamabad on Kashmir.
The Indian prime minister raised New Delhi’s concern over terrorism and slow progress in the 26/11 trial in Pakistani courts, especially of masterminds behind the carnage that killed 166 people.
“Both sides agreed to discuss ways and means to expedite the Mumbai case trial, including additional information like providing voice samples,” said the joint media statement read out by foreign secretaries Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. “They (the two prime ministers) agreed that India and Pakistan have a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development. To do so, they are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues.”
They also agreed on five steps, including a meeting in New Delhi between national security adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz to discuss all issues connected to terrorism.
An early meeting of the director-general of the Border Security Force and the officer of equivalent rank from the Pakistani Rangers will be held, which will follow talks between director generals of military operations of the two nations.
A decision was also taken to release fishermen in each other’s custody along with their boats within 15 days. Besides, a mechanism for facilitating religious tourism was agreed upon.
The BJP termed the meeting a breakthrough in Indo-Pak ties and lauded Prime Minister Modi for his statesman like approach and engaging Pakistan at a diplomatic level.
“Pakistan has accepted the voice samples, which are the basis of our case. They were the evidence we provided, it was visible to the whole world. Now that Pakistan has accepted this, there is glimmer of light in the relationship between the two countries,” BJP leader MJ Akbar said in New Delhi.
While the Pakistani Prime Minister faced flak back home as Kashmir did not figure in the joint media statement, Sartaj Aziz, who advises him on national security and foreign affairs, said Nawaz Sharif did bring up the issue during the discussion.
Sources said the two prime ministers could meet again on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, provided everything goes according to the script.
Pakistan and India have long tried to mend differences without making much progress. Last summer, India called off talks after Islamabad's ambassador in New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatist leaders.
Modi and Sharif met in November last year during the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, but there was not attempt to bring frozen relations back on track.
The ice melted a bit after Modi rang up Sharif to wish him on Ramzan and both sides released fishermen captured for straying into each other’s territorial waters.