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India, Pakistan PMs highlight ancestral ties at SAARC meeting

The prime ministers of India, Pakistan met at the annual meeting of SAARC, a notoriously ineffective regional bloc. But it offered a rare opportunity to highlight the shared ancestry of eight South Asia nations that make up one-fifth of humanity.

By Staff writer / April 29, 2010

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Thimphu, Bhutan,Thursday.

Manish Swarup/AP

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New Delhi

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan met today on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to talk about restarting a peace dialogue that was hobbled by the Mumbai terror attacks and their aftermath.

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In the 75-minute meeting, the two sides agreed to work on arranging more engagements as soon as possible.

SAARC is generally regarded as one of the world's least effective regional bodies. Its stasis is rooted in the bitter rivalry of its two largest members, India and Pakistan, and their moribund peace efforts over the decades.

Yet even talks about talks on the sidelines of a glorified talk-shop have value in this part of the world. In these face-to-face meetings, for a brief moment, the nuclear gamesmanship, proxy warfare in Afghanistan, and cross-border terrorism cannot overshadow recollections of a shared ancestry among the eight nations that make up South Asia – and one-fifth of humanity.

Recalling centuries-old ties, cooperation

Over lunch, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a member of the Sikh faith, mentioned to his counterparts that the ancestors of Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, a Sufi Muslim, helped build the Golden Temple. This central Sikh holy site lies in Amritsar, near the present-day border of the two nations formed by the partition of British India in 1947.

"Whereas earlier generations like that of [Singh and Gilani] might take all that for granted, and recall these aspects of our common ancestry with a certain pride and affection, I think maybe younger people may be less aware of all this because they grew up in a different, geographically bounded situation," says Salman Haider, a former foreign secretary of India. "It's good to remind ourselves."

Those reminders of common ancestry, and enduring common interests, rank among SAARC's only achievements to date, says Mr. Haider.

"One of the reasons why SAARC keeps going on is that when [the leaders] meet they realize they have a lot in common and they must not cast aside the possibilities of SAARC," says Haider. "People want it to succeed, but its actual achievements on the ground have not been commensurate with the hopes."

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