Top intelligence officers from India and Pakistan held secret talks in Dubai in January in a new effort to calm military tension over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, people with close knowledge of the matter told Reuters in Delhi.
Ties between the nuclear-armed rivals have been on ice since a suicide bombing of an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in 2019 traced to Pakistan-based militants that led to India sending warplanes to Pakistan.
Later that year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew Indian-ruled Kashmir's autonomy in order to tighten his grip over the territory, provoking outrage in Pakistan and the downgrading of diplomatic ties and suspension of bilateral trade.
But the two governments have re-opened a back channel of diplomacy aimed at a modest roadmap to normalising ties over the next several months, the people said.
Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, both of which claim all of the region but rule only in part.
Officials from India's Research and Analysis Wing, the external spy agency, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence travelled to Dubai for a meeting facilitated by the United Arab Emirates government, two people said.
The Indian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Pakistan's military, which controls the ISI, also did not respond.
But Ayesha Siddiqa, a top Pakistani defence analyst, said she believed Indian and Pakistan intelligence officials had been meeting for several months in third countries.
"I think there have been meetings in Thailand, in Dubai, in London between the highest level people," she said.
'IT IS FRAUGHT'
Such meetings have taken place in the past too, especially during times of crises but never been publicly acknowledged.
"There is a lot that can still go wrong, it is fraught," said one of the people in Delhi. "That is why nobody is talking it up in public, we don't even have a name for this, it's not a peace process. You can call it a re-engagement," one of them said.
Both countries have reasons to seek a rapprochement. India has been locked in a border stand-off with China since last year and does not want the military stretched on the Pakistan front.
China-ally Pakistan, mired in economic difficulties and on an IMF bailout programme, can ill-afford heightened tensions on the Kashmir border for a prolonged period, experts say. It also has to stabilise the Afghan border on its west as the United States withdraws.
"It’s better for India and Pakistan to talk than not talk, and even better that it should be done quietly than in a glare of publicity," said Myra MacDonald, a former Reuters journalist who has just published a book on India, Pakistan and war on the frontiers of Kashmir.
"...But I don’t see it going very far beyond a basic management of tensions, possibly to tide both countries over a difficult period - Pakistan needs to address the fall-out of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, while India has to confront a far more volatile situation on its disputed frontier with China."
DIALLING DOWN THE RHETORIC
Following the January meeting, India and Pakistan announced they would stop cross-border shooting along the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir which has left dozens of civilians dead and many others maimed. That ceasefire is holding, military officials in both countries said.
Both sides have also signalled plans to hold elections on their sides of Kashmir this year as part of efforts to bring normalcy to a region riven by decades of bloodshed.
The two have also agreed to dial down their rhetoric, the people Reuters spoke to said.
This would include Pakistan dropping its loud objections to Modi abrogating Kashmir's autonomy in August 2019, while Delhi in turn would refrain from blaming Pakistan for all violence on its side of the Line of Control.
These details have not been previously reported. India has long blamed Pakistan for the revolt in Kashmir, an allegation denied by Pakistan.
"There is a recognition there will be attacks inside Kashmir, there has been discussions as to how to deal with it and not let this effort derailed by the next attack," one of the people said.
There is as yet, however, no grand plan to resolve the 74-year-old Kashmir dispute. Rather both sides are trying to reduce tensions to pave the way for a broad engagement, all the people Reuters spoke to said.
“Pakistan is transiting from a geo-strategic domain to a geo-economic domain," Raoof Hasan, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, told Reuters.
"Peace, both within and around with its neighbours, is a key constituent to facilitate that."