New Delhi: The national security advisers of India and Pakistan met in secretly planned and closely guarded talks in Bangkok today after 16 months of failed attempts, signalling a new thrust by their Prime Ministers to re-engage after a handshake and sit-down chat in Paris last week.
The content and context of the talks, however, reflect subtle yet definite concessions by both sides, with India's apparent climb-down more pronounced, and effectively kill the road map Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif had laid out in Ufa, Russia, in July.
India had objected in August to the national security advisers (NSAs) discussing anything beyond terrorism. But Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Nasser Khan Janjua talked about "peace and security, Jammu and Kashmir and tranquillity along the Line of Control" apart from terrorism, according to a joint statement they issued in Bangkok.
The meeting comes two days before foreign minister Sushma Swaraj travels to Islamabad for a conference on rebuilding and securing Afghanistan. No Modi government minister has travelled to Pakistan so far.
Experts said today's meeting reflected a growing recognition in both establishments that the policy of not talking wasn't yielding dividends. The two countries' leaders also face pressure from the United Nations and common friends like America to return to a dialogue.
But the experts pointed to the Modi government's stop-start Pakistan policy to caution against inferring any long-term drive for peace talks with Islamabad.
"This is major and, frankly, the signals have been there for a while, especially as the realisation has dawned that not talking has diminishing returns," Happymon Jacob, international relations expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told The Telegraph.
"What we need to wait for, however, is consistency in this government's handling of Pakistan. That's been missing so far."
Today's meeting marks a departure from India's position on NSA-level talks since Modi and Sharif met in Ufa on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in July.
Foreign secretaries S. Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, who were alongside Doval and Janjua in Bangkok today, had read out an agreement after the Ufa meeting, laying out three meetings the neighbours had agreed to hold.
The first, a meeting between the NSAs, was on all matters related to terrorism.
When Islamabad insisted, ahead of a meeting scheduled for August 23 in New Delhi between Doval and his then Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz, that Kashmir also figure on the agenda, India rejected the proposal.
Pakistan had also insisted that Aziz be allowed to meet Kashmiri separatist leaders while in New Delhi, and India had turned this down too.
The same demand had also killed the first attempts at NSA talks under Modi, in August 2014, when New Delhi drew a new "red line" for dialogue with Pakistan. Visiting Pakistani officials and leaders had for years earlier met Hurriyat leaders.
After days of hectic allegations and counter-allegations, Sushma had on August 22 this year laid out India's final position on the scheduled NSA-level talks the next day.
"Talks are only on if Pakistan gives a commitment tonight that Mr Aziz will not meet Hurriyat leaders and will not go beyond terrorism," Sushma told a media conference packed with over 200 journalists. "Otherwise, there will be no talks."
Less than four months later, the two NSAs today discussed Kashmir too, which Sushma had said India was ready to discuss but after the talks on terrorism. The foreign office had not explained the shift till late this evening.
Pakistan too has made a minor concession, but only on the location for the talks. By holding the talks in Bangkok, Pakistan has avoided a meeting between its NSA and Kashmiri separatists ahead of the dialogue.
Unlike India's shift, however, Pakistan can revert to its demand for a meeting with Kashmiri separatists if any future talks are planned in India.
Sunday's meeting also signalled the death of the Ufa road map. India had since July rooted any proposal for talks with Pakistan in the Ufa agreement.
But today, India and Pakistan did not even refer to the Ufa meeting or the agreement reached there as New Delhi shifted its position on talks.
Instead, Doval and Janjua referred to the brief Paris meeting between the Prime Ministers on the margins of the climate change conference there this past week.
Today's meeting, they said, was "pursuant to the meeting of the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in Paris".
A combination of pragmatic compulsions and largely behind-the-scenes progress between the neighbours had created the conditions for the fresh attempt at a thaw, officials and experts said.
Pakistan is hosting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit next November, and Modi has publicly and repeatedly talked about India's neighbourhood as his top foreign policy priority, making it hard for him to skip the conclave.
A thaw leading up to a Pakistan visit is critical for any Indian Prime Minister to carry domestic support with him.
Besides, America and the UN have been pressing India and Pakistan to return to talks. US deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken is visiting both countries this week and is expected to nudge the neighbours towards a sustained dialogue.
And in September, the BSF and the Pakistan Rangers, the two paramilitary groups that guard the international border on the two sides, had agreed to coordinated patrolling, among a series of measures that Indian officials say could reduce tensions.