By Lidia Kelly
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has agreed to make a landmark visit to Pakistan next year, India’s foreign secretary said on Friday, signalling a warming of ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours after a year of tensions.
Modi accepted the invitation to attend a 2016 meeting of South Asian leaders in Islamabad during talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the margins of a security summit in Russia, foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.
Experts warned the trip could yet fall through, but if Modi goes, it would be the first time an Indian leader has visited the country since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.
The move demonstrates a readiness to engage with India’s longtime rival despite the hawkish stance Modi’s government has often taken.
The leaders also agreed on Friday to work together to rein in regional militancy, scheduling rare meetings between national security advisers and heads of border security, as well as helping expedite the trial of those charged with the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
Modi and Sharif shook hands for about 15 seconds, smiling, before sitting down for talks.
“The very fact that they’ve met is good,” said Ayaz Amir, a political analyst and former lawmaker in Pakistan. “If they perhaps agreed to try to tone down the extremist rhetoric coming from both sides, that would be even better.”
Modi’s government has adopted a tough posture on Pakistan, insisting that it show greater progress in prosecuting members of the Pakistan-based group charged with carrying out the Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed.
In April, when a Pakistani court freed on bail Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, accused of plotting the attacks, the move drew swift condemnation from India, which warned that relations were deteriorating.
Clashes on the border in disputed Kashmir have also intensified during Modi’s first year in office. On the eve of Friday’s talks, an Indian border guard was shot dead by a Pakistani sniper in northern Kashmir, Indian officials said.
Sharif was elected in Pakistan in 2013 on the back of promises to rebuild relations with India, but has come under pressure to toughen his stance from hardliners at home, particularly within the army.
Islamabad has long said that Kashmir remains the core dispute with India, and wants New Delhi to hold talks to resolve the row before moving forward on other issues such as trade.
The neighbours have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Friday’s was the first meeting between the prime ministers in over seven months, when they shared a handshake and a few words at a South Asia summit in Nepal in November.
Their last formal talks were in May, 2014, after Sharif attended Modi’s inauguration in New Delhi, a first for a Pakistani leader.
During that meeting, the newly anointed Indian prime minister issued a stern warning that Islamabad must stop militants from attacking India.
Friday’s raft of announcements, made during a joint briefing by Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart after the bilateral meeting, were welcomed by Modi’s colleagues in New Delhi.
They also took some sectors of India’s political establishment by surprise.
Most had predicted dialogue would resume, but few expected concrete action, said Neelam Deo, director of the Mumbai-based thinktank Gateway House.
“It signals from both sides a willingness to get down to the real issues,” she said.
But both Deo and Amir, the Pakistani analyst, cautioned that people should not pin hopes on Modi’s possible visit to Pakistan.
“It’s a year away,” Deo said. “If things go really badly, (he) can say, ‘Sorry.'”
The two sides announced they would release fishermen held in each other’s custody within 15 days as a goodwill gesture. Scores of fishermen stray across the waters of the Arabian Sea each year and end up in jails, some for years.