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India and Pakistan: Breaking the ice?

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

The news from Sharm El-Sheikh is that peace talks between India and Pakistan are back on track.

It is quite a remarkable achievement for two countries who have barely talked to each other over the past few months and who have in fact made almost no substantial progress in five years of intermittent dialogue.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (r) shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani
The two leaders met on the sidelines of a summit in Egypt

So, behind the headlines, everyone in the two countries is trying to make sense of what has changed in the past few months.

It is only the second meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan since last year's terror attacks in Mumbai (Bombay).

Last month Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Russia, on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Even before their formal talks and in front of the assembled media, Mr Singh told Mr Zardari that he had a mandate to tell him that the territory of Pakistan should not be used for terrorism against India.

His remarks were seen as deeply embarrassing to Mr Zardari and strongly criticised in Pakistan.

But exactly a month later, Pakistan and India have in a joint statement said that "action on terrorism should not be linked to the… dialogue process", even though no dates for talks were specified.

Firm stance

Many in India will see this as a major climb-down in Delhi's stance.

Since the Mumbai attacks, which sent relations between the two nuclear-capable neighbours into the deep freeze, India has insisted that talks could only take place if Pakistan took firm steps to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

Its founder, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was even detained on suspicion of being linked to the attack but has since been released, a move that was greeted with anger in India.

So what has changed?

Most will take heart from the fact that the two sides, despite decades of mistrust and major differences, appear committed to peace

Many in India see the invisible hand of Washington in prodding the two countries forward.

It is no coincidence that the talks, and apparent progress in relations, have taken place 24 hours before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in India for her maiden visit since taking charge.

The US is keen that tension between the two sides eases so that Pakistan can concentrate its energies on the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taleban in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Major breakthrough?

In a recent interview with CNN, a senior Pakistani military official, Maj Athar Abbas, suggested that Islamabad could help broker talks between the Taleban and the US.

CNN said such a move would be in exchange for pressure on India to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.

India has four diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, something that Pakistan has openly disapproved of, accusing Delhi of using them to foment dissent in Balochistan.

Even if little comes of this, it is telling that the joint statement issued at Sharm El-Sheikh takes note of Pakistan's concern over threats it faces in its south-western province.

There is however some significant progress.

Both sides have agreed to exchange real-time intelligence on any future terror threats.

They have agreed to hold frequent talks between their foreign secretaries.

Pakistan has said that it will shortly try five Mumbai terror suspects.

It is still too early to describe this as a major breakthrough or even foresee where it is all heading.

Both leaders will have to spend the next few weeks convincing their domestic audiences that they have gained and not yielded to the other - a task perhaps a little easier for the recently re-elected Indian prime minister than for his Pakistani counterpart, who is politically on shakier ground.

But most will take heart from the fact that the two sides, despite decades of mistrust and major differences, appear committed to peace.



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