Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has agreed to attend the inauguration Monday of incoming Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi, a development that could help ease concern about the potential for frostier relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Modi, a conservative Hindu nationalist who has made bellicose statements on Pakistan, invited Sharif to the ceremony, and the pair plan to hold a one-on-one meeting, according to a spokesman for Sharif.
Pakistani Foreign Office sources said that the discussion will include topics that over the decades have stirred controversy between the rivals, including the future of the disputed region of Kashmir and the Siachen Glacier, where each country maintains several thousand troops in a standoff 22,000 feet above sea level.
The glacier is on the eastern edge of Gilget-Baltistan, in the Pakistan-controlled section of Kashmir; the last major battle between India and Pakistan, in 1999, was centered on the Indian town of Kargil, along the Line of Control that divides the territory from the India-held part of Kashmir.
The planned meeting during Sharif’s overnight visit “would help restoring talks between both countries,” the Pakistani spokesman said.
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and splitting along religious lines, predominantly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan have fought three wars and conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998 that briefly raised the specter of nuclear war.
The countries have taken steps to increase bilateral trade, which totals $2.6 billion a year, but progress has slowed because of longstanding disputes over Kashmir and terrorism, with Pakistani militant groups frequently accused of carrying out attacks on Indian soil.
Modi, who climbed the ranks of a right-wing Hindu organization and earned a reputation as a tough administrator while serving as chief executive of the western Indian state of Gujarat, has said he would deal firmly with cross-border terrorism. But he has also been dogged by accusations that he is a religious fundamentalist who failed to stop a 2002 pogrom in his state that left more than 1,000 dead, most of them Muslims.
As a candidate, Modi softened his rhetoric and last month said of Pakistan, “I believe mutual respect for one another and cooperation should be the basis for relationships with foreign nations.”
Sharif’s decision to attend the inauguration quickly sparked criticism from a Pakistani opposition leader, Hafiz Saeed, who said it runs counter to the will of the Pakistani people.
“His decision is only to please India and the U.S.,” said Saeed, speaking in Karachi. “This acceptance would not bring any good to Pakistan. What would he tell people of Kashmir? He should rethink his decision.”
Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.