India and Pakistan, whose historic enmities have plunged the Indian subcontinent into war three times, have taken their first tentative steps toward a no-war pact.
After four days of preliminary talks that concluded Jan. 31, visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Agha Shahi and his Indian counterpart, P. V. Narasimha Rao, jointly announced that ''the air had been sufficiently cleared'' to keep on talking and get down to specifics.
They agreed to establish an Indian-Pakistani joint commission that would meet periodically to review bilateral relations.
A no-war pact - acknowledged to be still a long way off - would be largely symbolic, since the two countries have already signed a 1972 agreement pledging mutual abstention from threats or use or force against each other.
But symbols are as important as signatures in diplomacy, and the subcontinent is no exception. With tensions currently running high between the two, largely over the issue of US arms supplies to Pakistan, the decision to continue the no-war dialogue in Islamabad later this month was itself seen as progress.
Suspicion marks Indian-Pakistani relations at the best of times. Now it has been heightened - to the extent of open predictions of another war - by the behavior of the two superpowers.
The Soviet Union's December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan has left many Pakistanis fearful of an eventual Indian-Soviet pincer attack to squeeze or slice their country out of existence.
India, in turn, has strenuously opposed the Reagan administration's $3.2 billion package of military and economic assistance and cash sales of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan in the wake of the Afghanistan crisis. India contends that the US arms will upset the region's military balance, trigger an arms race, and plunge the region into superpower rivalries. Indians charge that Pakistan has always turned its arms acquisitions against India - and that India again will be the target.
Not surprisingly, suspicions and symbolism have marked the course of the current no-war pact venture as well. Pakistan's September offer of a pact raised immediate Indian doubts because of its form and timing - an add-on to a press statement announcing Pakistan's acceptance of the American arms package. For several weeks India complained that the offer had not been put in writing or submitted through formal diplomatic channels. When it formally arrived late last year, Delhi hailed it as Pakistan's own tardy acceptance of a 1949 Indian offer of no-war talks.
By then, however, Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq had reaped a public relations advantage as a would-be peacemaker up against a suspicious, nit-picking India. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi indirectly acknowledged as much in a weekend interview with Pakistani journalists, remarking that Pakistan had given the impression that ''India is moving to war and it is Pakistan which has come forth with a magnificent offer.''
Not above public relations gestures herself, Mrs. Gandhi told the Pakistani journalists accompanying Shahi that India would be happy to sign a friendship treaty with Pakistan - a remark that struck headline ''pay dirt'' in the Indian press.
But it has since been played down by both Indian and Pakistani officials as a rhetorical comment, tossed out in response to a needling question about India's 1971 friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. Shahi said he took it as ''an expression of goodwill of the prime minister of India and her desire to live in peace with Pakistan.''
Although both India and Pakistan said the talks had covered and clarified ''misgivings and suspicions,'' it was clear that the US arming of Pakistan would remain a sticking point in the next round of discussions by the foreign ministers' aides.
Despite reported assurances that Pakistan would not give bases to the United States or become part of the American ''strategic consensus'' against Soviet expansionism, India remains uneasy about Pakistan's new-found friendship with the United States. And Pakistan continues to bristle at objections to its US arms acquisitions in light of India's own large-scale arms purchases over the last three years.
Shahi said it should not be ''misunderstood'' that a nation's treaty dealings with another ''deprive it of its sovereign right to provide for its own defense.''