BY REZAUL H LASKAR | PTI
ISLAMABAD: Bridging the trust deficit between India and Pakistan and finding the elusive common ground in efforts to tackle terrorism will top the agenda when Foreign Secretary Ms Nirupama Rao meets her Pakistani counterpart Mr Salman Bashir for talks here on Thursday.
Ms Rao, the first senior Indian official to visit Pakistan since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, and Mr Bashir have been tasked by Prime Ministers Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr Yousuf Raza Gilani to find ways to bridge the trust deficit and prepare the ground for a meeting of the Foreign Ministers on July 15.
Terrorism, particularly India’s concerns about Pakistan-based terror groups like the Lashker-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, will be among the issues that will be raised by Ms Rao during her meeting with Mr Bashir at the Foreign Office on Thursday at 11 a.m., diplomatic and official sources told PTI.
Sources in Pakistan’s Foreign Office conceded that no major breakthrough is expected during Thursday’s talks but said officials were preparing for the long haul in parleys with India as both countries have a desire to usher in peace and stability in the region.
The sources in the Foreign Office acknowledged that India would certainly raise the issue of groups like the LeT during the talks but said they believed this would not become a "sticking point" as Indian officials have recently said they are approaching the parleys in "an exploratory and not an accusatory manner".
The Pakistani side is keen to revamp the existing Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism by upgrading it and this issue is likely to be raised during the talks, sources said.
While Pakistan has launched major military offensives against Taliban in the country’s northwest and the adjoining tribal belt, Indian officials believe little has been done to rein in anti-India groups like the LeT, which continue to have bases and induct new recruits in Punjab province.
Pakistani authorities have put on trial seven suspects linked to the Mumbai attacks, including LeT operations commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, but the proceedings have been mired in controversy and affected by prolonged delays.
Western diplomats based in Islamabad concede there is valid reason for the growing frustration in India for the perceived lack of action by Pakistan against groups like the LeT and its front, the Jamaat-ud-Dawah.
Pakistani observers believe the Foreign Secretary-level talks present an opportunity for the two sides to find some common ground after a break of almost two years in the bilateral peace process. Prior to the meeting between Ms Rao and Mr Bashir, officials and leaders of India and Pakistan have only held talks on the sidelines of international gatherings.
"Foreign Secretary Rao’s visit to Islamabad is a sign of the judgement and patience demonstrated by the current generation of Indian leaders, especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh," said leading columnist Mosharraf Zaidi.
"Singh has been a strategic voice for a functional relationship with Pakistan serving as a cornerstone for India and this is a good sign," he said.
At the same time, Zaidi cautioned that it was unlikely Pakistani authorities would take "more significant action" against groups like the JuD in the immediate future.
"This is a long-term problem and will take a long time to resolve. We won’t see an army operation (in Punjab) but what we will see is ownership of intelligence and law enforcement operations. The cost of terrorism has been high for Punjab province," Zaidi told PTI.
He noted that the Punjab government "does find a way when it has the will", like it did in the 1990s when it cracked down on sectarian groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba. "So there is reason to be optimistic," he said. Besides the Foreign Secretary-level talks, Ms Rao will call on Foreign Minister Mr Shah Mahmood Qureshi at the Foreign Office at 2 p.m. on Thursday.
The Indian High Commissioner will host an official dinner for Ms Rao at the mission Thursday night. Ms Rao is scheduled to leave for Canada on June 25, hours before another Indian delegation led by Home Minister Mr P Chidambaram arrives in Islamabad to participate in a meeting of SAARC Interior Ministers.
Mr Chidambaram will also hold talks with his Pakistani counterpart Mr Rehman Malik on the sideline of the SAARC meeting.