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August date for thaw in Indo-Pak chill

New Delhi, July 23: The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan will meet on August 25 in Islamabad, ending a two-year chill, for the first substantive diplomatic engagement between the neighbours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his inaugural ceremony.

The two nations decided on the meeting after Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and her Pakistan counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary spoke on the telephone this afternoon.

Modi and Sharif had agreed to ask their foreign secretaries to begin a dialogue when they met after the May 26 swearing-in.

But a near-two-month hiatus ensued, with each nation sizing up the other. India waited for a signal from Pakistan that it would grant New Delhi the long-promised non-discriminatory market access. Pakistan watched for a hint from the new Indian government that the inauguration invitation to Sharif, following a bitter election campaign in which Islamabad was frequently a target in Modi’s speeches, wasn’t just a public relations exercise.

Officials from neither India nor Pakistan would reveal who initiated the telephone conversation. But senior diplomats from both nations told The Telegraph the two Prime Ministers had pressed their foreign secretaries to meet before a possible tete-a-tete between Modi and Sharif on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

“The PM has made it abundantly clear that he wants outcomes wherever possible from diplomatic meetings,” an Indian official said. “You need senior officials to meet before he meets a head of government for any outcome to be possible.”

India and Pakistan suspended the composite dialogue — a multi-layered engagement including talks ranging from territorial and water disputes to trade and energy — in January 2013 after the always simmering tensions flared up along the Line of Control.

New Delhi accused Pakistan soldiers of crossing into Indian territory and killing two Indian soldiers. Islamabad retaliated by alleging Indian forces had also killed two Pakistani soldiers in border skirmishes. Persistent ceasefire violations — each side accusing the other — continued through the year, including on the eve of a meeting between Sharif and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York last September.

The tensions upset a pattern India and Pakistan were slowly hoping to establish one where they could maintain detailed diplomatic dialogue even if domestic politics in both nations prevented any significant breakthrough on contentious disputes.

India and Pakistan held foreign secretary meetings in February 2009, September 2009, February 2010, June 2011 and July 2012. The February 2009 meeting took place just three months after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that India blames on Pakistan-supported terrorists.

But the border tensions in 2013 — a year both the then ruling UPA and Opposition BJP began preparing for the Lok Sabha elections — killed the possibility of foreign secretary talks that year.