India, Pakistan harp on differing agendas ahead of talks

New Delhi, Feb 24 (IANS) A day before foreign secretary-level talks, India Wednesday put its concerns over terrorism at the heart of re-engagement with Pakistan, but indicated that it was going into these talks with ‘an open mind’.

In the first such formal bilateral talks since the Mumbai attacks 14 months ago, the two sides will focus their efforts on bridging the trust deficit in a bid to defreeze post-Mumbai tensions that plunged ties to a new low.

The two sides, however, go into these crucial talks with sharply differing agendas.

New Delhi clarified that Thursday’s talks between Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir was not ‘a continuation of the composite dialogue process’ and stressed that the future of engagement will depend upon ‘an environment free of terror or threat of terror’.

Pakistan struck a hopeful note. Said Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who arrived here Wednesday with a five-member delegation: ‘I have come here to bridge the differences. I am hopeful of a positive outcome.’

Pakistan wants talks to move beyond what it calls the narrow agenda of terrorism to focus on its pet issues like Kashmir. ‘We want to discuss all issues with India, including terrorism but our main priority will be Kashmir,’ Bashir said.

‘India must understand that terrorism is now an international issue,’ he added. The Pakistani side may also rake up allegations of the alleged complicity of India in the insurgency in Balochistan.

Indian and Pakistani leaders met at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt last year. But this is the first structured dialogue since the Nov 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks that put the brakes on the composite dialogue process.

A positive outcome could set the stage for summit-level talks between leaders of the two countries on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Thimphu in April and brighten the possibilities of resumption of a broader dialogue.

Putting terrorism at the centre of talks, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told parliament: ‘The meeting of the foreign secretaries Feb 25 is not a continuation of the composite dialogue process.’

‘The proposed talks will focus essentially on India’s core concerns regarding terrorism,’ he replied to a question in the Lok Sabha.

Krishna asked Pakistan to ‘bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist attack to justice, unravel the full conspiracy behind the attack, fulfil its commitment to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and to deny sanctuary to all terrorist groups which operate from its soil.’

The Indian side is also likely to highlight the renewed anti-India activities of Hafiz Saeed, founder of Jamaat-ud Dawa and the suspected mastermind of the Mumbai carnage.

Since India’s offer of talks early this month, Saeed has been found to have stepped up his anti-India rhetoric and is encouraging his followers to continue jihad against India.

New Delhi is, however, cautiously optimistic and has stressed that it is going into ‘talks with an open mind’ with a view to clearing the air over issues of concern to it like terrorism emanating from across the border.

‘We are going into talks with an open mind, but are fully conscious of the limitations imposed by the trust deficit, post Mumbai,’ said government sources.

‘However, we are not prejudging the outcome,’ the sources added.

‘We are going to the table without a pre-set agenda. That doesn’t mean we will engage in substantial talks on all issues. Terrorism will top the agenda, they need to give us access to the accused (of the 26/11 attack),’ said Home Minister P. Chidambaram. ‘These are talks about talks. I am optimistic,’ he said.

Separatist leaders from Kashmir, meanwhile, met the Pakistani foreign secretary here, urging Islamabad to include Kashmiris in the India-Pakistan dialogue process.

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