By Ruwa Shah � New Delhi�:�Strategic experts on Saturday welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's historic, surprise visit to Pakistan as a major step aimed at rebuilding the derailed bilateral peace process.
Former diplomats and retired generals who have dealt with Pakistan said Modi's dramatic gesture of flying to Lahore from Afghanistan on Friday and meeting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif was a good beginning.
"The visit was a necessary step and a goodwill gesture," Panak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former secretary in the external affairs ministry, told IANS.
General Ved Prakash Malik, a former Indian Army chief, agreed.
"It is an engagement strategy which will help to reach the end of our national interest. To that extent, it is a good move," the general said.
"I think it has created a conducive atmosphere for both India and Pakistan to move towards resolution of substantial issues."
Barring the Congress which questioned the suddenness of Modi's move, the Indian leader's two-hour halt in Lahore on his way home from Kabul has been widely welcomed.
Modi broke the ice by telephoning Sharif from Kabul on Friday to extend him birthday greetings.
Indian officials let it be known that Sharif had asked him to break his Kabul-Delhi journey in Lahore. Pakistani officials said Modi sought an invite -- and Sharif gave him one and proved a gracious host.
Modi then flew into Lahore, hugged Sharif, and the two leaders took a helicopter to Sharif's ancestral residence at Raiwind where they sipped Kashmiri tea and discussed confidence building issues.
A Pakistani report on Saturday said they discussed Kashmir too.
Gen. Malik said cross-border terrorism, border tensions and Jammu and Kashmir were the main issues plaguing India-Pakistan ties, which have seen ups and downs in recent years.
"Modi's visit to Lahore has created hope and it indicates his style of diplomacy," Malik told IANS.
Modi became the fourth Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan -- and the first in 11 years. Sharif came to New Delhi when Modi took oath last year.
Diplomatic expert C. Raja Mohan felt that after creating a diplomatic opening with Pakistan in recent weeks, Modi had decided to accelerate the pace of the engagement with Islamabad.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not reacted to Modi's initiative but its leader Subramanian Swamy said Modi should have a free hand on Pakistan.
"Namo (Narendra Modi) be given a free hand since he is working to a strategy," he tweeted. "As PM, he must (be) allowed risky decisions since buck stops with him."
The greatest bouquets for Modi came from Jammu and Kashmir, which is at the heart of India-Pakistan tensions. India accuses Pakistan of supporting an ongoing separatist insurgency in the state.
"It is the right step in the right direction," Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said from his hospital bed in Delhi where he is admitted. "It will definitely break the ice."
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah called it "a good step and a very welcome development" but said India and Pakistan must maintain consistency when they deal with one another.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani said he had always favoured good relations between the two countries but insisted that the Kashmir dispute must be first resolved.
Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Kashmir's chief cleric who heads the moderate separatist Hurriyat group, added: "It is a positive move, a good step and we should welcome easing of tensions between the two countries. But the basic issue of Kashmir will have to be resolved."
Kashmiris also saw a ray of hope in the Modi-Sharif embrace.
"We always believed Modi was a right wing politician. He has done something no other Indian prime minister ever did," Srinagar resident Abid Wani said.
Modi himself said after returning to New Delhi that he was touched by Sharif's decision to personally welcome him at Lahore airport -- and see him off.
Modi said Sharif touchingly recalled his interactions with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last Indian prime minister to go to Pakistan and who is now bed-ridden.(IANS)