Agreement reached between Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir in Thimphu

Short of calling it composite dialogue, India and Pakistan have agreed to hold wide-ranging talks on all issues they have been discussing before the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, according to a simultaneous announcement in both countries.

The agreement was reached during a 90-minute meeting on Sunday between Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir in Thimphu on the sidelines of a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting. The details were revealed on Thursday after both sides had briefed their governments.

Secretary-level talks will be held on eight subjects which will be followed by a wrap up round of talks between the Foreign Secretaries. These will be followed by a meeting here between External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi by July this year.

Sir Creek

The subjects on which talks will be held are counter-terrorism (progress on Mumbai trial included), humanitarian issues, peace and security, including confidence building measures, Jammu and Kashmir, promotion of friendly exchanges, Siachen, economic issues and the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project. The issue of Sir Creek will be discussed at the level of Additional Secretaries or Surveyors-General.

Composite dialogue covering these issues was resumed in 2004 after a summit meeting, incidentally, on the sidelines of a SAARC summit in Islamabad. After completion of four rounds and considerable narrowing of differences as well as progress on many issues, it was put on hold by India following the Mumbai attacks.

With the law of diminishing returns having set in on India's insistence of comprehensive action against Pakistan-based perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks and India's moral high ground having been eroded due to the complicity of its nationals in the Samjhauta Express blasts that killed 42 Pakistanis, the Indian side has been consistently indicating a “new approach” in which “all issues will be discussed.”

Afghanistan

Interestingly, speaking to the media in Thimphu, Ms. Rao had hinted at the talks incorporating a new subject — Afghanistan. “Why not? One of the ideas that came up was that why should we be just stuck with discussing these issues, why cannot we discuss more issues? Why cannot we discuss the situation in our region,” Ms. Rao said when asked whether both sides were prepared to discuss coordination of positions on Afghanistan.

Indian officials refused to get stuck in terminology and maintained that while this was no composite dialogue, the bilateral ties were such that all issues had to be discussed. “And when you say all outstanding issues are going to be discussed, you will obviously have to discuss every outstanding issue. Therefore, who discusses the outstanding issues? There are number of stakeholders. Number of government departments would be concerned. So, it has to be a comprehensive exercise, put it that way,” reasoned Ms. Rao.

The decision to resume dialogue on all subjects following the Rao-Bashir meeting is being termed the second Thimphu thaw. The first took place in April last year when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani directed their Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries to hold talks aimed at reducing the trust deficit between the two countries.

While Mr. Krishna and Mr. Qureshi did meet in Islamabad in July last year, their concurrence on some issues was lost in a post-interaction acrimony. The two sides then kept minimal contacts till the Foreign Offices began consulting each other regularly over the past few weeks in the run-up to the Thimphu meeting between Ms. Rao and Mr. Bashir.

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