NEW DELHI: Without any prior announcement and far from both their capitals, Indian and Pakistan National Security Advisors met quietly in Bangkok for the first time on Sunday, discussed Kashmir, terror, cross border-firing on line of control and agreed to "carry forward the constructive engagement".
Only after the meeting was completed that external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeted a picture and issued joint press release on Sunday evening. In the blurry photo, NSA Ajit Doval smiles widely as he shakes hand with Pakistani counterpart, Lt General (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua, in a nondescript hotel conference room.
Express has learnt that the meeting took place at a Bangkok airport hotel and lasted for four hours. Both sides described discussions as being "held in a candid, cordial and constructive atmosphere".
The Indian delegation led by Doval, included foreign secretary S Jaishankar, PM's special envoy on counter-terrorism and extremism, Asif Ibrahim, outgoing joint secretary (PM Office) Jawed Ashraf and his successor Vinay Kwatra.
Sources also added that Indian side had handed over dossiers on wanted Indians nationals believed to be in Pakistan, including the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Besides, expediting the trial of the Mumbai 26/11 mastermind was also part of Indian agenda, discussed at the meeting.
The joint press release acknowledged that the meeting of the NSA was in "pursuant to the meeting of the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in Paris" - proving that the 160 second meeting in the leaders' lounge was a deliberate encounter as opposed to the spin given by South Block of just a chance courtesy.
"They (NSAs) were guided by the vision of the two leaders for a peaceful stable and prosperous South Asia," said the joint press release.
The last two sentences are the most salient - "Discussions covered peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquility along the LoC. It was agreed to carry forward the constructive engagement ".
Unlike the press release issued after the meeting of two PMs in Ufa in July, Kashmir has been explicitly mentioned in the document. PM Sharif had got a lot of blowback on the lack of mention of Kashmir in the Ufa statement ,which Indian officials had claimed was one of the reason for their rolling back on some of the understanding reached in Russia.
The NSA-level meeting on Sunday was a revival of the Ufa track which had been frozen for the last four months. There was give and take from both sides to make this meeting happen.
For India, the compromise meant that terror was not the sole topic of the NSAs meeting, as India had insisted for the meeting in Delhi in August. For Pakistan, the venue gave a convincing reason of not meeting Hurriyat leaders before meeting his counterpart.
Of course, there had been also been pressure from the international community to break the ice between the two countries.
Sources confirmed that the Hurriyat factor had been the main reason for choosing a third country to host the first-NSA level meeting.
Pakistan's meeting with Hurriyat had been the ostensible reason for India's pushing back on two meetings which were scheduled and then cancelled.
New Delhi had confined Hurriyat leaders to their home in Delhi and Srinagar to prevent them from meeting of the then NSA Sartaj Aziz, which led to the cancellation. Last year in August, newly-elected Modi government called off trip of foreign secretary Sujatha Singh to Islamabad, when Pakistan ambassador met with Hurriyat leader in Delhi.
Sources said the timing of the NSA-level meeting was directly related to the visit of the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad on Tuesday. She will be attending the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan and hold bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Sharif, her counterpart Sartaj Aziz.
Another key factor for the meeting was that Sartaj Aziz was no longer holding the national security portfolio. The retired Pakistan army officer's appointment as NSA meant that the Pakistan military establishment - which hold veto on Indian policy - were more confident in a meeting with NSA Ajit Doval, rather than leave it to previous incumbent, Sartaj Aziz, a foreign office veteran.
A few weeks before his appointment as NSA, Janjua retired as chief of Southern command, headquartered in restive Balochistan province - where Pakistan frequently brings up allegations of Indian interference.
In fact, Indian officials are convinced that one of the reason for Pakistan stalling on dates for a NSA-level meeting after Ufa was due to Rawalpindi's misgivings.
Incidentally, as India was waiting for confirmation of the dates in August, Pakistan had wanted a simultaneous meeting of the foreign secretaries. However, India had not agreed as it was not part of the Ufa template.
Then ahead of the United Nations General Assembly session in September, India suggested that NSAs could meet on the sidelines in New York. Pakistan in turn proposed that foreign ministers should also meet in New York, so that was a non-starter.
Instead, Pakistan PM breathed fire against India in his speech at the UNGA, proposing a four point 'new peace initative' - all of them unviable propositionus from Indian perspective.
Sushma Swaraj used the UN podium to famously tell Sharif, "We don’t need four points. We just need one. Give up terrorism and let us sit down and talk".
Incidentally in August when Swaraj gave an ultimatum to Pakistan to cancel Aziz's get-together with Hurriyat leaders at a press conference, she was asked if a meeting in a third country was possible to get over the problem of the Kashmiri separatists.
"There will be no talk in third country. When the talk is supposed to be held between India and Pakistan, then it should be between the two countries. It will take place either in New Delhi or Islamabad. Every talk of Composite Dialogue has happened in these two countries," she said on August 22.