February 19, 2020
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"I Don't Understand Why There Is Such A Big Turmoil. I Haven't Said Anythin

Defence minister George Fernandes is unfazed by the brouhaha over his statements. Excerpts from an interview to Sunil Narula after his return from the Andamans:

"I Don't Understand Why There Is Such A Big Turmoil. I Haven't Said Anythin
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You say what you expressed about China were your personal views. Doesn't that bring you into a conflict with the government?

I have said that so far as my work as defence minister is concerned, it is the government's policy which I have to implement. I cannot have any personal policy whether related to defence or a human rights issue or issues pertaining to democracy movements. This does not mean that I will abandon my convictions or commitments.

The PMO was worried that your statement could affect ties with China.

As defence minister it is my responsibility to make a proper assessment of the security perceptions of my country. The defence minister cannot do his job unless he also has the right perspective of the challenges which the country's security forces have to face. In the making of that evaluation someone may differ. What I have said does not go far beyond what several governments have been publicly stating in the annual reports of the ministry of defence. So frankly I do not understand why there is such a big turmoil over my utterances. It is not my words which have been used but headlines written by sub-editors, and they are now supposed to be my words. I never called China "enemy number one".

The MEA statement of May 6 contradicts what you have been saying.

I think the MEA has a certain point of view where diplomacy occupies the most important place. I have no quarrel with that.

Your statement from Port Blair was seen as backtracking.

I was not backtracking. That morning I was told that TV had gone to town and everything has been blown up. Then it was conveyed that the newspapers headlines have been screaming that I had said something which is atrocious and that I am opposed to any kind of talks, have declared China as enemy number one and so on. So I thought that it was necessary for me to make a statement. Then came this question as to whether the PM had pressurised me and whether it was at his behest. The PM had not telephoned me. Late that night, I heard that the PMO had telephoned. I got in touch and the PM told me what steps he had taken. I said I had also sent a statement earlier in the morning. He said he had seen it.

Yet the PMO and the MEA feel you speak, they're left holding the baby?

If there has been any kind of situation where they have been put into difficulties, well I think I will have to be little more careful. What else can I say? (Smiles.)

It is said that you are still behaving like an opposition leader.

Not at all. I am very very conscious of my responsibilities. But I want the people to know about the challenges we face on the security front. Because if they are not aware, then we cannot forge a response. Nobody can deny that China has considerable military clout. It has the largest military in the world, it is one of the five nuclear powers, and I have a certain perception about what we need to do to ensure the security of our frontiers. Now making a statement that these are the perceptions does not mean we should not have talks to resolve our problems. But we should always be prepared to safeguard our territorial integrity and in this I insist on greater transparency because unless the people are aware of what sacrifices are needed, we will not be able to get the requisite support in any emergency.

Don't you in the process play down the threat from Pakistan which is perhaps bigger than China's?

We are fighting a proxy war in J&K, nobody denies the immediacy of what's happening on our western front, but we are discussing the whole question of national security.

You were quoted as saying India will not redeploy its forces on the border or reduce its forces?

The media is obviously playing its own game. I go to a friend's house for lunch. Hardly do I sit at the table when there is a big noise outside by TV journalists gathered there. As I come down someone asks: are you going to reduce our forces on the border with China? Out of nowhere. I say no. Today it is the headline that I am not going to reduce the troops. There is a joint working group that decides that once we have reached a certain phase of our talks we will both withdraw. Where is the question of suddenly asking me, are you going to reduce the troops?

Do you think that you might develop some kind of political differences with the BJP over your stance?

I have absolutely no differences with the PM, the BJP or any of my colleagues.

How do you see the strong Chinese reaction to your statement ?

I don't think they should have reacted this strongly. It was not necessary. They should know that we are a society where we discuss things openly, we don't have one person controlling and pressing a button.

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