NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The first official talks between India and Pakistan since the 2008 Mumbai attacks ended on Thursday with only an agreement to “keep in touch,” signalling that relations between the nuclear-armed rivals remain frosty.
The meeting also marks a tiny step in improving the outlook for stability in Afghanistan, where India and Pakistan have long battled for influence, complicating regional security, but many obstacles remain.
The two nations’ top diplomats met in a former princely palace in a heavily guarded New Delhi neighbourhood and agreed to “remain in touch” to build trust with each other.
“We went into today’s talks with an open mind but fully conscious of the limitations imposed by the large trust deficit between the two countries,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said after talks with her Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir.
“In line with our graduated and step by step approach, our aims were modest.”
Neither diplomat said if there would be a next round of talks, though the prime ministers of the two countries have an opportunity to meet at a regional summit in Bhutan in April.
Rao, wearing a black and red sari, and Bashir, in a dark suit, shook hands in front of the cameras before walking into a sprawling room for discussions.
The two countries did not appear to agree on which subjects should be covered in the talks; India wanted to focus on terrorism while Pakistan eyed the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir that has been the cause of two of their three wars.
“We don’t like to be sermoned on the issue of terrorism; we know what it means,” Bashir said, adding 5,366 Pakistani civilians had been killed in militant attacks since 2008.
“From Pakistan’s perspective the core issue that has troubled Pakistan-India relations is the issue of Jammu and Kashmir...and any effort to be dismissive of this issue will not be healthy.”
Kashmir, which India and Pakistan claim in full but rule in part, remains at the heart of their dispute. India accuses Pakistan of abetting a 20-year revolt in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan says it only gives moral support.
Bashir also criticized India’s role in Afghanistan, saying the country was being used to supply weapons and funds to militants to destabilize Pakistan. New Delhi denies this.
India broke off talks after the Mumbai attacks, saying dialogue could resume only if Pakistan acted against militants on its soil. It blamed the attacks, which killed 166 people and derailed a four-year-long peace process, on Pakistan-based militants.
India handed three new dossiers of evidence to the Pakistani delegation on Thursday, including one on Hafiz Saeed, the rabble-rousing head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the Mumbai killings.
Bashir said he would look into the fresh dossiers, but dismissed earlier evidence India supplied against Saeed as more “literature than evidence.”
Re-engaging Pakistan was a politically fraught move for New Delhi, given strong Indian public opinion against talks, but a nudge from Washington and dwindling diplomatic options saw India reaching out.
Expectations from the talks were modest.
“Nothing has come out of these talks, nothing was suppose to come out,” political columnist Cho Ramaswamy said.
“Whether there is going to be another round of talks depends on the amount of friendly pressure Americans put on both sides.”
The talks in New Delhi come amid a foreboding sense in India that the bombing of a popular bakery in the western city of Pune this month, which killed at least 16 people, may herald more attacks.
A second attack like Mumbai could shake what has so far proved to be a resilient Indian economy.
Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Alistair Scrutton