Published March 31, 2011
NEW DELHI – It was all smiles as the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers held an impromptu mini-summit over a cricket match in north India, saying they would work toward achieving permanent peace between their nuclear-armed nations.
The meeting — put together over the last week as their cricket teams faced off for a World Cup semifinal match — seems to have restarted efforts to restore trust after a long period of testy relations.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Wednesday's meeting a "good beginning," while his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani said his country desired "good neighborly relations" and invited Singh to visit Pakistan.
Whether the comments reflect a real change in diplomacy is yet to be seen. Similar overtures have fallen flat in recent decades with both sides holding deeply entrenched opposing views on key issues, including rival claims to the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, where they deploy heavily armed troops along a cease-fire line.
India — still cautious after Pakistan-based militants went on a deadly terror rampage in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 — says Islamabad has failed to crack down on militants on its soil.
Both prime ministers also face strong opposition to compromise at home, after decades in which the countries have viewed each other as major threats to national security and fought three wars. Gilani's civilian government also struggles to operate independently from Pakistan's powerful military.
India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party insisted Wednesday that any efforts to resume talks "cannot be de-linked from the terror threat."
"Pakistan will have to give enough assurances to India about steps being taken to check sponsoring of terror from its soil" before full-scale talks can begin, BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman said.
The prime ministers, mindful of the deep mistrust on both sides, emphasized their desire for friendship between their nations, which have deep cultural, religious, linguistic and familial ties stretching back before they were created in 1947 and won independence from British rule.
"There are difficulties on the way, but we will make every honest effort to overcome those difficulties," Singh said after the meeting, which included a dinner attended by dozens of high-ranking Indian and Pakistani officials.
"The resolution of all issues through dialogue will bring peace and prosperity to our people," Gilani said in a statement.
The feel-good factor trickled down to those at the game. Even as India won the match, fans in the stands cheered heartily for both teams, and one sign held aloft read "Friends Forever." Players on both sides made gracious remarks about the skill of their opponents. And with all hotels near the match stadium booked up, residents opened their homes to visiting Pakistanis.
Ruling Indian Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, also watched the match and joined Singh and Gilani for dinner — underlining the government's support for resuming dialogue with Pakistan.
"India wants to be seen by the world as a responsible country, not a petty one," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a history professor at Delhi University. "At the same time they're trying to bolster Pakistan's civilian government, and this cricket match was a great way to do that. No one can object to such a meeting over a cricket match."
India and Pakistan have yet to resume formal peace talks on resolving their most rigid disputes, such as Kashmir.
Seeking little victories to start off with, they resumed dialogue on less controversial issues only this week, after a two-year break over the 2008 Mumbai attack.
The home secretaries, meeting in New Delhi, agreed to set up a terrorism hotline and to cooperate on the Mumbai attack investigation — a major step in placating Indian concerns.
The secretaries for commerce, defense and foreign secretaries are to meet in coming months, eventually leading to a resumption of the peace dialogue between the foreign ministers, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said.
India's former ambassador to Pakistan, Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, said the plan seemed reasonable, though he was skeptical of any major breakthroughs being made soon.
"What is important is to avoid a fiasco at high-level meetings. That is why there was no particular agenda for the meeting," Parthasarathy said.