India and Pakistan promise ‘new era’ of more stable relations


Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, right, reaches out to shake hands with Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna before their talks in New Delhi, India. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

Two weeks after a triple bombing in Mumbai, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on Wednesday heralded a “new era” of friendlier and more stable relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Both sides played down their differences in unexpectedly positive comments after talks in the Indian capital, but analysts warned that a huge gulf persists under the surface and that the peace process could still be derailed by another major terrorist attack on Indian soil.

Pakistan’s first female and youngest foreign minister, 34-year-old Hina Rabbani Khar, said New Delhi and Islamabad needed to acknowledge a “mind-set change” among a new generation of Indians and Pakistanis, who have been pressing their governments to engage more constructively than in the past.

The South Asian rivals have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, with their front line often seen as one of the world’s most dangerous flash points.

The newly installed Khar, a businesswoman and politician, blunted concerns about her lack of experience by appearing to charm her Indian hosts.

Studiously avoiding any mention of Kashmir at a joint media appearance after 2 1 / 2 hours of talks with her 79-year-old — and vastly experienced — Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, Khar said both sides wanted the dialogue to be “uninterrupted and uninterruptible.”

Despite the challenges, she said, “I can confidently say that relations are on the right track.”

The peace process broke off after an attack on India’s financial capital, Mumbai, by Pakistani militants killed 166 people in 2008. But under intense U.S. pressure, both sides resumed formal talks in February.

The Obama administration is anxious that the rivalry between India and Pakistan not upset regional stability, especially as it starts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan this year.

Indian officials kept their cool after the July 13 triple bombing in Mumbai, which killed 24 people, partly because they have not found a direct link between Pakistan and the attack.

“There is full awareness of the levels of difficulty involved in relationships as complex as those between India and Pakistan, but what is also important is for the fog to lift from this relationship,” said India Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, adding that recent meetings had largely “cleared the undergrowth.”

Pakistan disputes India’s right to Kashmir and has long backed militants fighting there. Khar ruffled feathers Tuesday by meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders in New Delhi, and Rao said the Indian government had expressed its concerns about that meeting “in a frank and candid manner.”

“Having said that, let us not lose sight of the fact that we owe it to the peoples of the two countries to understand that there is a future to be built for this relationship, and there has to be coexistence between the two countries,” she said.

However, aside from a promise to promote cross-border trade in Kashmir, there were few concrete agreements of significance to announce Wednesday.

Indian analysts said Pakistan’s failure to bring to justice the planners of the 2008 Mumbai attack remained a major stumbling block.

“You have a new sensitive foreign minister . . . but things don’t change just like that in Pakistan,” said Indian retired Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, who has convened years of informal talks between opinion leaders from both countries. “The next time there is an attack on the scale of Mumbai [in 2008], you will again stop talking.”

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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