India-Pakistan Peace Talks Undermined by Nationalist Anger

The first meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his recently elected Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif yielded only small signs of progress, a consequence of larger tensions animating the rival nations.

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the United Nations General Assembly at the New York Palace hotel in New York, Sept. 29, 2013.

Rarely have the remains of a weekend brunch been so carefully picked over. But come Monday morning, the hour-long breakfast meet between the prime ministers of Pakistan and India in New York the day before had been dissected on front pages on both sides of the border, parsing out what — if anything — the much-anticipated confab could mean for the nations’ troubled ties.

It was a small miracle that the leaders managed to meet at all, with hawks in both countries calling for talks to be called off as violence broke out along the disputed Kashmir border last week. On Sept. 26, militants launched two attacks on Indian troops and police officers in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 13. It was the latest and deadliest incident in a string of violations of the decade-long ceasefire along the contentious border that began early this year.

Getting that ceasefire back on track was the topic of the hour on Sunday morning. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif agreed that their military leaders should meet and figure out a plan to re-instate the ceasefire along the border. Both sides see restoring peace in the area as a precondition for bilateral peace talks to move forward on other important regional issues, such as improving trade ties. The Indian media reported that the leaders also discussed Pakistan’s long-promised action against Pakistan-based terror groups known to be behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and India’s alleged backing of rebels in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, among other things.

It was the first time the leaders have met since Sharif was elected in May. Sharif made overtures to Singh early in his term to resume talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors, but it was unclear whether they would proceed after violence again escalated along the Kashmir border over the summer. An improved dynamic between New Delhi and Islamabad is considered vital, both as the countries warily eye the impending withdrawal of coalition forces in Afghanistan and also as Pakistan tries to revive its own beleaguered economy.

But media in both countries are known for whipping up nationalist sentiments when a fresh attack happens on either side of the border, fanning the flames of enmity among voters and making it tricky for elected officials to be seen as strong advocates of continuing talks when violence strikes. The major outcome of the first meet-up between Sharif and Singh may have been modest — essentially, a reiteration of a ceasefire both countries agreed to ten years ago. But the fact that both governments pushed ahead to get this far just days after a major attack is a reason to dust off the old hope that something more may someday be achieved.