The process leading up to India and Pakistan pressing the refresh button on the eight-point agenda began over two months ago — when Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif had a quiet meeting at the leaders-only retreat on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Nepal.
At the 15-minute meeting in Dhulikhel outside Kathmandu on November 27, Modi and Sharif discussed the issues and challenges their governments would face if they did not engage, The Sunday Express has learnt. News of the meeting was not made public at the time.
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While there was no agreement then on how to move ahead, the two leaders had agreed to “wait for some more time”, after which they might have the political space to move on the talks. Sources said the unstated reason for going slow was the ongoing election in Jammu and Kashmir. Officials from the two sides agreed to keep “in touch”, depending on political sensitivities.
Later that day, the two prime ministers shook hands at the closing ceremony of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu.
The first opportunity to proceed came with the Peshawar school attack on December 16. Modi called Sharif within 12 hours of the attack on December 16, creating “diplomatic space” to restart the process of engagement. While officials prepared for the next move, the acquittal, immediately afterward, of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, one of the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks, put a spanner in the works, sources said.
Most contacts after the school attacks were through informal channels — the only visible one was when National Security Adviser Ajit K Doval and then foreign secretary Sujatha Singh went to the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi to sign the condolence book.
Sources said the two sides — through a number of under-the-radar meetings at a high level over the past few months — have agreed that the “sequencing” of the Pakistan envoy’s meeting with Hurriyat leaders is the only issue.
While the High Commissioner can meet Hurriyat leaders on their National Day or any other time of the year, India made it quite clear that there should not be any meeting “before” the official talks.
Once this issue was resolved — and conveyed through official as well as unofficial channels (the latest being the meeting of former Pakistan NSA Mahmud Ali Durrani with Doval in early February) — the government cleared a visit to Pakistan by Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan to attend a meeting on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
Sources said that the government’s decision to send a minister — and not a bureaucrat — for the meeting was a signal to the Pakistan establishment.
“We want certain issues to go up on the agenda. Pakistan is pushing some other issues. Water has suddenly become a core issue, although we insist on following the tenets of the Indus Water treaty,” said an official source in the Ministry of External Affairs.
Besides, Islamabad has pointed out that India has not discussed Kashmir in any substantive manner, the source added.
“New Delhi, on the other hand, has strongly conveyed that Pakistan has not followed through on its commitment on curtailing terrorism. There is fresh thinking on how to structure the talks henceforth,” another official source said.
After the last three-day bilateral talks in Islamabad in September 2012, then external affairs minister S M Krishna and his counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar had expressed satisfaction at holding meetings on counter-terrorism (including progress on the 26/11 trial) and narcotics control, humanitarian issues, commercial and economic cooperation, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul navigation project, Sir Creek, Siachen, peace and security, Jammu & Kashmir and promotion of friendly exchanges. These were the eight points the two countries focused on during the bilateral dialogue.
Sources said the meeting between the two foreign secretaries will be “process-centric”. “They are not likely to discuss the outstanding issues, but they are going to talk about the talks,” a source said.