India and Pakistan’s foreign ministers held their first talks for a year Wednesday, looking to breathe fresh life into a peace process still stifled by the trauma of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
India suspended contacts with its arch-rival after the attacks and the peace dialogue has struggled to gain any real traction since its formal resumption in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination and mistrust.
Speaking to reporters before the talks began, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said it was important that ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours and rivals should “not be held hostage by the past.”
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them triggered by their territorial dispute over Kashmir, which has repeatedly eluded previous attempts at reaching a comprehensive peace deal.
Khar also stressed the “responsibility both countries have on their shoulders” to bring stability not only to their own relationship, but to the South Asia region as a whole.
Khar, Pakistan’s first female foreign minister, was appointed just last week and, at 34 years of age, some have questioned whether she is experienced enough to handle one of the world’s most fraught cross-border relationships.
At 79, her Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna is 45 years her senior.
Krishna also stressed the wider regional importance of a stable India-Pakistan relationship, saying they owed it to “succeeding generations” to find a way out of six decades of animosity.
However, the pre-talks atmosphere was soured by Khar’s decision to meet with Kashmiri separatist leaders immediately after her arrival in New Delhi on Tuesday.
A senior Indian government source said the meeting was “not a good idea at all” and served “no useful purpose” in the context of the ongoing peace dialogue.
Wednesday’s talks were not expected to produce any breakthrough, with both sides content to work on confidence-building measures in relatively uncontentious areas like cross-border trade and people-to-people contacts.
The main focus, analysts said, was on simply keeping the peace dialogue alive and steadying a volatile relationship that has contributed to decades of instability in South Asia.
India and Pakistan are jockeying for influence in Afghanistan ahead of the planned US troop withdrawal and Washington sees stable India-Pakistan ties as crucial to Afghanistan’s post-war viability.
“It is the Afghan dynamic…. that will define the regional context for Indo-Pak relations for years to come,” said C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
The meeting is also another opportunity for India to press Pakistan to clamp down on anti-India militant groups like the Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) — blamed for the Mumbai assault.
Khar comes from one of Pakistan’s leading political and land-owning clans and some observers say her appointment is evidence that Pakistan is still run by select family dynasties.
“The people in power, including the military, are comfortable that she will follow whatever brief is given to her,” Pakistan foreign policy analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.
“She will not make waves,” he added.
The Indian media made much of Khar’s photogenic looks, with her image adorning the front pages of most newspapers Wednesday.
“Pak Puts On Its Best Face,” noted The Times of India, the biggest-selling English-language daily, while the mass circulation Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times said India was “sweating over model-like minister.”