The external affairs minister on the first real challenge he has faced since taking over

The rising tension along the LoC and the war hysteria that gripped sections in India earlier this month was the first big challenge Salman Khurshid faced since taking over the crucial external affairs portfolio in October 2012. He spoke to Pranay Sharma on the challenges India and Pakistan face in keeping the peace process on track. Excerpts:

Is the Indo-Pak peace process back on tracks?

Fortunately, the peace process was not entirely derailed. There were hiccups that appeared to be very serious but the peace process itself was never derailed. May be it was an issue of both substance and perception. As we know perception can vacillate and it is more malleable, while substance is somewhat more solid. We didn’t get to the point where the substance could be damaged substantially. We were able to arrest it in good time. But there is a lot of repair that is necessary in order to get the perception back n place. So the substance was relatively intact, it was the perception that was affected.

But Pakistani hockey players were asked to go back…

Every organization had its own reaction and response. The fact that Pakistani players were to be sent back was not the decision of the government of India. The Pakistani players talked to the organizers who felt that things were getting difficult and what otherwise would have been a peaceful and enjoyable exercise would become very tense and unpredictable. They took a consensual decision to go away. This is just as someone who decides not to come, like Javed Miandad decided not to come though he was given a visa.

“Now anything can affect perception...and they got exaggerated because of the media interface of people with very strong opinions.”
What about the visa regime was that not put on hold?

Yes, as far as the visa regime is concerned, it is a far-reaching visa regime and we were all keen to push it forward. But there were some queries that the agencies had. Now the queries—may be contextually something happens and therefore, they arise, or it could be that the queries were already there in the pipeline and they could not be handled because of the short deadline. I wouldn’t put it beyond coincidence. But anything can affect perception and perception can affect anything. However, it was not a conscious decision like we had taken that here are 10 switches and we are going to switch off eight of them and dim the lights in the room. Fortunately that’s not the stage we had reached. So if you want to retrieve the situation—as we all want to do—it is much easier. I will admit that perceptions were affected and they got further exaggerated and amplified because of media interface of people who have very strong opinion. Now whether because of ideological or historical reasons, strong opinions were being expressed. That kept feeding negative perceptions. But in the last few days, particularly because the LoC is quiet and the DGMOs had met, I think we are steadily moving towards better perceptions.

The DGMOs mechanism was set up by the two countries to deal with possible tension along the LoC. Why did it take so long to activate it?

The idea of this process and procedures is that before things go into the public, the first people to notice something that can cause concern is the military itself who then immediately try to sort it out amongst themselves. This time before that could be done it got into the public space. Why and how etc are another matter. But because it got into the public space the whole process got reversed. The issue in the public became: Should the DGMOs meet? And this reversed the whole process and it took a few days' time. The flag meet which takes place before the DGMOs was not very successful this time. But fortunately the dialogue and conversation between the DGMOs was far more meaningful and positive in nature and that reversed the perception process.

Looking back how do you see the war hysteria and the hawkish line that had gripped sections in India?

Well it surprises me. I respect feelings of somebody who thinks we have been let down, not once but many times and the sense of hurt because of betrayal. Here lot of things had combined to give much greater traction and greater level of noise then there should have been. But this is a matter that touches the core of our patriotic sense and sense of betrayal. We have fought wars and we have then gone back and talked peace. No matter how terrible an incident may make you feel, it can’t be worse than massive destruction of life and property caused by war.  We have learnt to return to the peace table every time that we have suffered a war. So it’s important that while one feels deeply sympathetic and responsible to these feelings—and they were very raw feelings of the aggrieved families because of the terrible incident— we will also have to think of all the men and women who have lost their lives in armed conflicts with our neighbours. We don’t want to see a repeat of that happen in our generation. We don’t want to deprive more families of their cherished dear ones simply because we are angry with something that someone has done to us.

“No matter how terrible an incident may make you feel, it can’t be worse than the massive destruction of life and property caused by war.”
But we all know cross-border firing happen often, so why did it reach such heights? Was it because of the beheading?

I think it was the matter getting into the public domain before adequate preparations were done to put things in perspective and also to seek adequate response and preparation from the other side. If that had become apparent and clear that the process for getting an appropriate response has already begun, it may have been seen in a different light. But here the process appears to begin after it became public and therefore the process also became difficult. It is unfortunate that it panned out in this manner and extremely unfortunate that it happened. Cruelty, both in times of war and at other times, cruelty of this nature and inhuman treatment of men in uniform is unacceptable. I don’t think anyone publicly in Pakistan can say this is something you will have to accept. Our argument with them was that responsibility must be taken and what follows from that, I don’t think our argument was to say whether this is okay during times of tension or is it okay to do to each other. I don’t this was the issue and I don’t think they disagree on this.

Could they have taken the responsibility after it became an issue in the public domain?

I know, perhaps it becomes difficult. But you have to have broad shoulders. People have taken responsibility in the past for things having gone wrong under their command and supervision. You have to be tall and broad enough to take such responsibility.

Does it apply to both sides because many feel that armies of both sides in the past have engaged in beheading of each other’s soldiers?

There are rules of engagement and there are basic human expectations that you don’t do this. I fact you give full honour even to your enemy once he is incapacitated or killed. You provide the best of health facility to an injured enemy, we all know that. But we also know that in the battle fields or in conflict zones things happen that are very, very difficult to explain. But that is why every time something like this happens we have to put some accountability on ourselves—you do it yourself vis-à-vis your own armed forces and you expect it from the others if it happens from the other side.

Do you see any major breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations or more of a “holding operations” since both countries are getting into the election mode?

I don’t think this is necessarily what we should be doing. We shouldn’t lose time since your practical sense tells you your window is getting narrow and narrower because of elections and preoccupations at home. But I think the time has come for us as countries to conduct our affairs so that we don’t lose critical moments and critical times simply because we are preoccupied with democratic processes etc. It is important that some use must be made of whatever time there is. If political people are not available then the civil service continues and a lot of ground work needs to be done for political people to come and put their stamp of endorsement on it.

“Cruelty of this nature as shown by the Pak army is unacceptable. I don’t think anyone there can publicly say —you just have to accept it.”
How do you see Hina Rabbani’s suggestion for a meeting of the two foreign ministers to sort out things?

I don’t think you should see it as an offer; rather it should be seen as a suggestion that this is one way that it can be sorted out. It is a positive suggestion. We were concerned because there were constant signals about getting someone else to investigate and decide and adjudicate. That is not acceptable to us. Therefore, this suggestion is welcome and a positive one. But it’s not an actual offer, like an invitation. But it was a publicly made suggestion, a good suggestion and I have also said so publicly. But it is not as if over a cup of coffee we will be able to sort something that has been going on for over 50 years. However, it calls for preparations at the different levels. At least get the routine things back in place and ensure the perceptions are repaired. And to repair that some content delivery on some of things that we have raised including how these fallen soldiers were treated. There must be some extent to which these things must be addressed because that will help perceptions. And if the perceptions and the atmospherics are good then I think we can move forward.

How you do see Mr Shinde’s comments on “saffron terror” panning out? What is its likely diplomatic fallout since even the militant outfits in Pakistan have welcomed them?

These are people who have their own little game to play. The minister said what he said based on specific briefings that he has access to. I think something has also been said by the previous home minister, Mr Chidambaram. The point is that it is not their intention to pinpoint a religion or a political party. But there are certain facts available that indicate either complicity, or encouragement or some kind of collaboration with organizations that in common parlance or in short hand often get expressed by one or another expression. If people have problem with an expression, we can use another expression. But as far as the unwholesome groups across the borders are concerned, they are just wasting their time. Simply because we find a particular group of people are involved in an incident in India doesn’t mean that many more incidents —and may be even this—has not been promoted by these unwholesome elements from across the borders. There is no way of condoning what they do, excusing them for what they do or even to think that we have given them a clean chit. There is no such question. It is unfair to say look Mr Home Minister someone from across the border is using your statement and taking advantage. By saying such a thing we are actually giving advantage to such people. This is too important and too significant a matter to be lost in a debate about linguistics. It is the core that matters and people who are concerned should answer the core issues that the home minister has raised.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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