ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan-India agreement on resumption of dialogue on bilateral disputes may have provided an opening for a thaw in an otherwise frosty relationship, but an inbuilt caveat and the unspoken subtext could make progress towards the start of talks challenging.

The two countries, helped by US, UK and Germany, made quick progress in the past 10 days from the ice-breaker in Paris to an agreement in Islamabad on resuming dialogue after a hiatus of nearly two years.

Also read: Pakistan, India agree to restart ‘comprehensive’ dialogue process

The statement — issued on Wednesday following Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz — said that there was an agreement on engaging in a ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’ for which foreign secretaries would work out the modalities and schedule. Ms Swaraj was in Islamabad to attend the Heart of Asia ministerial conference.

Foreign secretaries likely to discuss modalities in January

But a clearer picture of how the process would play out emerges from a closer reading of the second and third paras of the joint statement on the resumption of talks.

“The Indian side was assured of the steps being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial. Both sides, accordingly, agreed to a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue…” the statement read.

A source privy to the negotiations and the drafting of the agreement pointed out the centrality of the insertion of the word “accordingly” in the statement and noted that the commencement of the process was predicated on Pakistan fulfilling its commitment regarding the speedy conclusion of the trial of Mumbai attack suspects.

The snail-paced trial by a Pakistani court of the seven men accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack has been one of the major sticking points in the relationship, with New Delhi regularly accusing Islamabad of insincerity.

The inclusion of the condition regarding conclusion of the Mumbai trial, the source explained, was done under international pressure.

“This would be a major obstacle, let’s see how it is addressed,” the source observed.

In the meantime, the Pakistani government has already begun to face domestic backlash for the omission of Samjhota Express from the joint statement – an issue that it had, in the past, always flagged alongside Mumbai.

The two terrorism incidents could not be kept together because of their different contexts, the source said, adding that there was more on cooperation against terrorism than is apparent in the statement.

Swaraj’s statement

Ms Swaraj’s statement in Indian parliament on Friday would, meanwhile, be closely watched in Islamabad as it would provide an indication of things to come. “Indian foreign minister’s statement would show how the BJP government presents the agreement to its public,” the source noted.

While announcing the agreement in Islamabad, the Indian external affairs minister had refused to divulge details on the pretext that she would not do so before making a statement in parliament.

Moreover, the source said, the foreign secretaries’ negotiations on the modalities could be more complicated than what is generally believed.

Although, the dates and venue for the foreign secretaries’ meeting have not been settled yet, the general sense is that the two would meet in January. Going by the sequence of bilateral exchanges, it is the Indian foreign secretary’s turn to visit Islamabad.

The Indian foreign secretary was to visit Islamabad last August, but the trip was cancelled at the eleventh hour. His visit in March was part of a Saarc tour and not a bilateral trip.

The Indian government’s decision on resumption of cricket with Pakistan would, meanwhile, be another key point. The decision is expected in a couple of days. “A decision in favour of a bilateral series could further improve the atmosphere,” the source maintained.

Responding to a question about the cricket series, Ms Swaraj had said: “Read the joint statement”. The statement does not contain anything on this issue, but her remark may have been a reference to the terrorism caveat.

Asked about the impressions over apparent progress, the source said it was a breakthrough in the sense that the Indian government, which has been avoiding any bilateral engagement with Pakistan, agreed to resume dialogue, but the challenge would be in moving forward. “No need to be too excited about it,” he added.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2015