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India, Pakistan restart talks after 2-year gap
Updated: 2004-02-16 14:41

Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan began their first formal peace talks in more than two and a half years on Monday, with their dispute over the mainly Muslim Himalayan state of Kashmir high on the agenda.

The three days of meetings in Islamabad between foreign ministry officials, are seen as "talks about talks" and will aim to set the agenda and structure for what is likely to be a long, drawn-out dialogue process.

Diplomats and analysts say the opening exchanges could provide clues about how open both sides are to addressing the disputes that have divided them for more than 50 years, particularly over control of Kashmir.

On Monday, Jalil Abbas Jilani, the director-general for South Asia in Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, shook hands with India's Arun Singh, a joint secretary in the External Affairs ministry, before beginning the meeting.

The men will hold two days of talks to pave the way for a meeting on Wednesday between foreign secretaries, the highest-ranking bureaucrats in the rival ministries.

Eighteen months after coming to the brink of their fourth declared war, a gradual rapprochement between the bitter enemies was sealed last month in a groundbreaking meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The two men appeared to strike up a personal bond and agreed to restart a peace process that has never really got off the ground in more than five decades since independence from Britain.

The two sides aim to revive a "composite dialogue" over eight areas of disagreement, a process that ran aground in 1998 and finally collapsed at a failed summit in the Indian city of Agra in July 2001.

Under the previous composite dialogue, foreign secretaries were to discuss the Kashmir dispute as well as "peace and security," code for a range of confidence-building measures meant to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange.

Officials from other ministries would also tackle a range of issues, including trade and economic links, people-to-people contacts and disputes over water sharing, maritime boundaries and the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battlefield.


Pakistan hopes the two sides will also agree to a timetable for higher-level meetings between foreign ministers and for another summit, seen as vital to prevent the process running aground again.

Diplomats and commentators see signs both sides genuinely want to make a fresh bid for peace and to avoid the pitfalls that have undermined previous attempts to mend their differences.

A cease-fire between their two armies along the line of control dividing Kashmir has held since late November and already helped to improve the atmosphere.

Nevertheless both sides still have a lot to prove.

Pakistan has promised to stop militants crossing into Indian Kashmir to join a 15-year-old insurgency there. It remains to be seen if it will maintain that promise once the snows melt on the high mountain passes that the militants traditionally use.

India, which controls the lion's share of Kashmir, must also allay Pakistani fears that it simply sees the talks as a way to sideline the issue, and to give it time to crack down on the separatist struggle within the picturesque mountainous state.

An important signal will be whether India agrees to put human rights and policing inside Indian Kashmir on the agenda, issues it has often dismissed in the past as "internal matters."

The dispute over Kashmir has triggered two wars between India and Pakistan since independence in Britain in 1947. New Delhi claims the region as an integral part of India, while Islamabad backs a U.N.-mandated referendum that would allow the people to chose between India and Pakistan.

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