India’s Narendra Modi arrived in Pakistan today, in his first visit to the country as prime minister.
The unplanned visit is a sign of improving relations between the neighbours. The two heads of government also had an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks earlier this month.
Since independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir – the Himalayan region that both claim in its entirety.
Modi landed yesterday afternoon in the eastern city of Lahore and met with Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, state-run media reported. State-run Pakistani TV showed Modi being received by Sharif.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the last Indian premier to visit Pakistan 11 years ago.
It was widely expected that Vajpayee’s successor, Manmohan Singh, would visit Pakistan, especially since he was born in a village in Punjab province, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks derailed the bilateral dialogue and ruled out such a trip.
Security forces and troops were beefed up at Lahore International Airport shortly before Modi’s arrival. Earlier in the day, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah said India had informed Pakistan about the visit yesterday. He refused to share any details.
From a stop yesterday morning in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where he inaugurated Afghanistan’s new parliament building constructed by India at a cost of $90 million, Modi tweeted that he is “looking forward to meeting” Sharif in Lahore, “where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi.” He said he also called Sharif and wished him happy birthday. Several birthdays have coincided with Modi’s visit – 25 December is also the birthday of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Analysts said the visit was an important development.
“I think it is going to play a significant role in improving ties,” said Amanullah Memon, a professor of international relations at a private university in the capital, Islamabad.
After a year of rising tensions, security officials from India and Pakistan held talks in Thailand earlier this month, discussing a range of issues including Kashmir and ways to maintain peace along the countries’ shared border.
Also, two weeks ago, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Pakistan to attend a meeting on Afghanistan. After her talks with Pakistan, she said both sides agreed to resume talks on several topics.
India has accused Pakistan of arming and training insurgents fighting for Kashmir’s independence from India or its merger with Pakistan, a charge Islamabad denies. More than 68,000 people have been killed in the violence, which began in 1989.
India also wants Pakistan to bring to justice Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed 168 people. Saeed lives in the open in Pakistan and often appears in TV interviews.
Another concern for both countries is the frequent skirmishes along their border in Kashmir. A cease-fire along the India-Pakistan line of control that serves as the Kashmir boundary has largely held since 2003, but firing and gunbattles are fairly common, with each side routinely blaming the other.