India and Pakistan Talk, but Tensions Are High

Nawaz Sharif & Manmohan Singh at UN (Credit:
Nawaz Sharif & Manmohan Singh at UN

LONDON, Sept 27 — The leaders of Pakistan and India held their first official meeting in New York on Sunday, leaving with renewed promises of mutual restraint in Kashmir but little real hope for a fresh start in relations.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan shook hands for the cameras at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan before their long-anticipated meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. But despite the smiles, violence back home formed the backdrop to the encounter.

A series of cross-border artillery exchanges in the disputed territory of Kashmir over the past two months has led to the death of at least eight soldiers on both sides, and plunged diplomatic relations to their lowest ebb in years. In the latest episode, on Thursday, a militant raid on an Indian Army base in Indian-controlled Kashmir resulted in the deaths of at least 10 people, causing an outcry in India.

India’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, said that Mr. Singh and Mr. Sharif agreed during their meeting on Sunday to dial back tensions in Kashmir, the disputed territory that has triggered three wars between Pakistan and India since 1947.

The leaders pledged to push senior military officers to find “effective means” of restoring a 2003 cease-fire in Kashmir, Mr. Menon said.

Both Mr. Singh and Mr. Sharif personally favor normalizing relations, but both are hamstrung by domestic considerations — especially hard-line elements in their respective military and political establishments — that drastically limit their room to maneuver.

Mr. Singh’s party faces an electoral challenge early next year against Hindu parties that have called for a tougher stance against Pakistan. Under fire at home for meeting with Mr. Sharif, he established a tough tone in an address to the United Nations on Saturday in which he called Pakistan the “epicenter of terrorism” in South Asia.

For any progress to occur, he said, Pakistan has to first ensure that the “terrorist machine” operating from its soil is shut down. That was a reference to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, in which 166 people were killed, and whose leadership still enjoys free movement within Pakistan.

Mr. Sharif, 63, was more optimistic, telling the United Nations on Friday that he wanted “a new beginning” with India, and deploring the resources both countries have spent on their nuclear-arms race — a pointed statement given that it was Mr. Sharif who ordered Pakistan’s first nuclear test during his last stint in power in the late 1990s.

Mr. Sharif’s push for a new peace initiative can be seen in part as an attempt to continue the business of that previous term, in which he staked much on reaching out to India in a process that was derailed by a nuclear crisis and a military coup in 1999. Now, as then, he has framed better relations with India as an economic necessity for both countries.

“We stand ready to re-engage with India in a substantive and purposeful dialogue,” he said during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

For Mr. Singh, 81, whose lack of personal political power has made him a deeply cautious prime minister, meeting with Mr. Sharif was a bold move.

On Sunday at a large rally in New Delhi, Narendra Modi, who is the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, questioned Mr. Singh’s ability to undertake the meeting effectively.

“I wonder if he will meet the Pakistan P.M. confidently today?” Mr. Modi asked. “Will he be able to ask him when Pakistan will stop aiding terrorism? Will he be able to question Nawaz Sharif on the Indian soldiers who were brutally killed?”

Analysts said Sunday’s meeting met its low expectations, and could at best stabilize relations until the political climate in both countries improved.

“This can help border incidents from escalating until India’s election season is over and more serious business can be transacted between the two countries,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

Stephen P. Cohen, an American academic who recently published a book on the India-Pakistan conflict, said the leaders appeared as “two men with tired ideas and constraints that they cannot overcome, afraid to take the bold measures that could liberate them.”

But even with the best intentions, Pakistani and Indian leaders have frequently found their efforts at diplomacy undone by the spoiling tactics of hard-liners.

In 1999, Mr. Sharif made impressive strides toward peace with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s prime minister. Months later, the Pakistani military carried out a covert operation in the disputed territory of Kashmir that spectacularly upended the peace drive and, for a brief period, edged the two countries toward a nuclear conflict. A coup deposed Mr. Sharif soon afterward.

In November 2008, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, told an Indian conference that Pakistan was ready for a more moderate nuclear weapons policy, and called for closer economic ties between the countries. Days later came the militants’ coordinated attacks in Mumbai.

The long conflict between India and Pakistan has become a major preoccupation of the security establishment in both countries, and has found expression through proxy forces in third countries like Afghanistan.

Indian officials have for years demanded that Pakistan take action against Lashkar-e-Taiba and its founder, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who lives openly in Lahore. Mr. Menon, the Indian security adviser, said in New York that Mr. Sharif had promised to take action against those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Mr. Menon said the tone of the talks was friendly, but added: “As for how useful and productive the meeting was, I think the only proof will be in the months to come.”

Gardiner Harris contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Somini Sengupta from New York.

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