India and Pakistan have begun two days of crucial talks in Islamabad. A more relaxed visa regime and the prosecution of those behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks are high on the agenda.
Leading a 12-member delegation of top officials, Indian Home Secretary R K Singh is expected to ink a deal with his Pakistani counterpart, Khwaja Siddique Akbar, that will for the first time include group tourist visas, visas on arrival for senior citizens and children, and year-long multiple-entry visas for businesspeople.
"This issue has been hanging fire since October 2011 when a joint working group worked out the modalities. Let's keep our fingers crossed," an official accompanying the delegation told DW on condition of anonymity.
India's business community hopes that the elimination of compulsory police reporting for visitors will be a major step in building confidence among the two nations.
"The current visa policy of issuing three city visas instead of a multiple city visa has acted as a major impediment to the growth of business ties in both countries," the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in a statement.
"This relaxation in the visa regime, especially long-term business visas for people visiting both countries is going to be a big step," Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary, told DW. "People-to-people contact will improve dramatically and from there one needs to consolidate and address other contentious issues."
The Mumbai attacks
The most contentious issue is Pakistan's failure to take rapid action against those responsible for the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008. There has been concern in India at the belated progress of the trial underway in an anti-terrorism court in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, a few kilometers from Islamabad.
The inclusion of Intelligence Bureau chief Nehchal Sandhu and the director general of the National Investigation Agency S C Sinha in the Indian delegation is a clear indication of New Delhi's intention to push for the prosecution of the masterminds behind the attacks that killed 160 people.
Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed is accused of directing the attacks and yet he continues to move around freely in Pakistan where many appreciate his charity work. Last month, the US placed a bounty of up to $10 million (7.6 million euros) for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
A sense of optimism
Analysts were generally optimistic on Thursday about the outcome of the current round of talks, saying it would follow in the spirit of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari‘s visit to India early last month when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stressed the need for forward movement in the bilateral relationship.
"Pakistan has taken a conscious decision to intensify discussions with India. Strategically the dialogue has moved forward, maybe not tactically. But the idea is to build on confidence building measures," Srikanth Kondapalli, international relations professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told DW.
Other issues related to drug trafficking, networks involved in circulating fake Indian currency, and humanitarian issues such as the release of prisoners in both countries will also be discussed.
The past two years have seen a gradual improvement in Indo-Pakistani ties, with the decrease in cross-border attacks in the conflict-torn Kashmir region and Zardari's bold liberalization of Pakistan's trade policy towards its neighbor serving to relax tension.
Yet observers also say if relations are really to improve, the two need to seriously address issues that have divided them for more than six decades and not skirt around them.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas