November 24, 2020
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'The Symbol Of Our Secularism'

'For us, Kashmir does not merely mean a few square kilometres of land ...' . The EAM on wide range of issues: tsunami aid, Indo-Pak, Palestine-Israel, J&K, SAARC, SC seat with veto in SC, foreign policy, and, yes, even Pokhran II...

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'The Symbol Of Our Secularism'
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'The Symbol Of Our Secularism'

The complete transcript of the BBC Hindi special interview with external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh.

Nagendar Sharma: The biggest question being asked today is that despite repeated offers of help by the international community, India refused it. Why was such a decision taken to refuse aid?

Natwar Singh : The decision was absolutely right. When this particular natural disaster struck Tamil Nadu, Andamans, Kerala and Andhra, we were confronted with a difficult choice. But we have a vast experience of dealing with natural calamities, as the country faces floods, droughts year after year, and then there are cyclones. To deal with these, there are institutions right from the village-level to the national level, which swing into action within 24 hours of any calamity.

We have thanked everyone in kind words who offered help, but humbly told them that our country is quite capable of dealing with the situation. Not only this, despite being one of the countries severely affected by the Tsunami, India sent help to Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Therefore we now are not a recipient country, but a country which can provide help in difficult times. 

This is being widely appreciated, and the countrymen say it is a matter of pride for the country. We have not only withstood a difficult test for the country, but in such a time have provided assistance to the neighbours, some countries may not have liked this, but so far as we are concerned, the prime minister took this decision taken after careful consideration and deliberations with the cabinet colleagues, and it proved to the correct.

Nagendar Sharma : But it is also being said that Indian government wanted to project its image of being seen as a regional superpower, and that is why foreign aid was refused.

Natwar Singh : We have no ambition of being seen as a regional superpower, what we want is that our country be seen as an example for the world as a peace loving country which wants to strengthen the United Nations, and also strengthen multilateralism. We have no ambition of being seen as a superpower in the subcontinent, or South Asia or for that matter in the Indian Ocean region. We have no such wish.

Nagendar Sharma : The SAARC summit is coming up in February in Dhaka, smaller nations have a complaint that SAARC is being held hostage to Indo-Pak relations and there is a shadow of both neighbours on this multilateral forum. Is any effort being made to bring SAARC out of Indo-Pak obsession for real regional cooperation?

Natwar Singh : There is a concern among other SAARC nations that, if talks between India and Pakistan are not on the right track, then it does affect SAARC as a forum, because we are the biggest country in area, population, GDP. If your were to put the population of other six SAARC nations together and double it, even then we as a country of more than 100 crore stand bigger.

If I had been born in a smaller country, it would be natural for me too to be unhappy at such a situation and I would have also questioned why, when all nations are sovereign, the relations between two big countries should cast a shadow on forums meant for larger regional cooperation. Yes, in the past, the situation has been such that SAARC has not made the desired progress in the times of tension between India and Pakistan, but the ongoing process of composite dialogue between India and Pakistan has given a lot of hope to the entire region. We have high hopes that South Asia would have less obstacles and more cooperation in future. This is what we think.

Nagendar Sharma : So you are hopeful that the process of SAARC, which during the past couple of years is seeing concrete progress, would now move forward on a multilateral basis, and not be hindered by Indo-Pak bilateral relations?

Natwar Singh : We are making efforts in this direction. It has been 20 years since the formation of SAARC now, and today you see how far ahead,  the ASEAN has gone, and there are other bodies of international cooperation. Therefore we want that the question of India-Pakistan should not hinder SAARC progress. Though its charter clearly says that bilateral issues should not be discussed, yet history points out that bilateral issues have been a hindrance.

Nagendar Sharma : Coming to Indo-Pak relations, talks on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) have gone ahead in the right direction during past two years. But the recent deadlock on Baglihar hydro-electric project shows there is a long way to go and setbacks like could be suffered in future as well?

Natwar Singh : We have suggested a set of 72 CBMs to them. Concrete progress is being made in some of them, and in some others issues the progress has been slow. When I visit Pakistan next month, I would be discussing these issues with the Pakistan Foreign Minister Mr Khurshid Kasuri, and maybe with President Musharraf also.

The process of composite dialogue is on the right track, but this does not mean we are not confronted with problems and that all issues have been resolved, or a major breakthrough has been achieved on the Kashmir issue. What I am saying is that if the bus service starts between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, and similarly if the train service starts between Sindh and Rajasthan, it would definitely help matters, and at the moment atmosphere is cordial between the two countries.

Nagendar Sharma : You are saying that the atmosphere is cordial, but the international media, the Western countries feel India does not adopt a flexible approach towards Kashmir in dialogue with Pakistan. How do your react to that?

Natwar Singh : It is not a question of flexibility. We cannot compromise on the reality, the basic question. For us, Kashmir does not merely mean a few square kilometres of land. It is the symbol of our secularism. We are proud of the fact that in our country, we have a state with Muslim majority. The chief minister of this state is a Muslim, so are majority of ministers and many MLAs. It is the foundation of India’s secularism, and we would not allow that to be compromised.

Nagendar Sharma : Moving out of South Asia, another important issue is that of Palestine. The Palestinians have elected a new leader, what could India’s role be in ensuring long-lasting peace in that region?

Natwar Singh : First of all, there would be talks on the roadmap of peace given by America and Britain. Newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, elected with over 60 percent votes, has said he would hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. We welcome this.

India has very close relations with the Palestinians, and good relations with Israel as well. In today’s context, if we have good relations with Palestinians, it does not mean we should not have good relations with Israel or vice-versa -- this issue is entirely different. But our sympathy is with the Palestinians, and there is no doubt about it at all.

Nagendar Sharma : Last five-six years have seen India and Israel coming increasingly close to each other. Would the UPA government continue with this or go back to the old Congress policy of a clear Pro-Palestine stance?

Natwar Singh : There is no change in our policy towards Palestine, so far as the Congress is concerned. Also let me make it clear that it was during Congress regime only, in 1992, during late Narasimha Raoji’s tenure in 1992, that India and Israel agreed to have ambassadors of both countries in Delhi and Tel Aviv, and we took the lead in that. There are many spheres in which they help us with their expertise, and similarly India also helps. That is the way to see it.

Nagendar Sharma : Another important focal point for the world is Iraq, and elections are due at the end of this month there. What kind of help would Indian government provide for peaceful conduct of elections in that troubled country and old friend of India? 

Natwar Singh : The election commission officials of Iraq came to India for training -- they have been trained, apart from this India has no role in elections there. We have provided humanitarian aid of twenty million dollars to Iraq, and we are aware of the highly tense atmosphere prevailing there -- people are being killed on a daily basis. We hope the peaceful conduct of elections in Iraq in the UN presence would lead to formation of a democratic government in that country, and peace would prevail.

Nagendar Sharma : But what steps are required for long-lasting peace in Iraq, so that people of that country could heave a sigh of relief?

Natwar Singh : The people of Iraq are hoping that after the elections, once they have their own democratically elected government, the coalition forces would leave Iraq. This is their hope, which could lead to peace and stability, without external interference.

Nagendar Sharma :  Another important foreign policy issue facing your government is India’s candidature for permanent membership of UN Security Council. There was some talk India could get this, but without a veto power, and also that perhaps India may not succeed in its bid...

Natwar Singh : This is a complex issue. Only once has the UN charter been amended so far in almost 60 years of its existence, and that too happened as far back as in 1963. So for the UN charter review to happen, first of all, the five permanent members with the veto power have to agree, which means that the Security Council should be ready. Then it would, in the next stage, go to the General Assembly, and a two-thirds majority is required there. We are aware that the seats are limited and there are many candidate countries in the fray. But our view is that India’s record at the United Nations is second to none. We are the largest democracy in the world, we have taken part in peace keeping operations in all parts of the world, similarly we have played a major role in disarmament.

But let's look at the real complexities. Take a look at African continent where there are more than 50 countries, and you could have two to three of them vying for permanent membership. India, Germany, Japan and Brazil are working together. Our Prime Minister has made it clear in the debate in Rajya Sabha that India would not accept any discrimination in expanded UN Security Council, such as that old members have all the powers and the new members do not, all would have to be treated equally. Recently, the Russian President, during his visit to New Delhi, has said that India should be there in the expanded UN Security Council with veto power. So we would make all possible efforts, but a lot of negotiations are to be done.

Then importantly, look at the report commissioned by the UN Secretary General on reforms required for the UN in the new century. He had asked how the UN could be empowered to deal with major issues facing the world such as terrorism, etc., But this important report is silent on the issue of veto. In my view, this report should have addressed the issue of veto. It is the most important question today.

Nagendar Sharma : So India stands firm that it would like to be a part of the expanded UN Security Council with a veto power only?

Natwar Singh : This is what precisely the Prime Minister has said. I think the Indian people would not like their country to be a B-class member of the expanded UN Security Council -- it would not be acceptable to anyone in India.

Nagendar Sharma : India has been receiving widespread support from many nations across continents, including Europe. But the most powerful country of the world, America, has not supported the Indian candidature so far. Are you disappointed with this?

Natwar Singh : Americans have not said anything on any country’s candidature so far. There is no doubt that America’s view would be very important on this entire issue. India has very good relations with America, and we hope they would support India’s candidature with the veto power for the expanded UN Security Council, as we fulfill all the criterion for this, whichever way you want to apply it. 

But I am saying this is a very complex question, with many complicated aspects involved, and we need to move ahead with utmost care and attention; it is not going to be easy. Remember, a similar review of the UN charter was due in 1995, when the UN had completed 50 years, but it did not happen then; this time, also, there is no guarantee that the changes would take place. Therefore we have to see how far things move during the next six-seven months. It is also possible that if the much talked about reforms do not take place this year, then there could be a delay of many more years.

Nagendar Sharma : Mr Foreign Minister, there is a clear ideological difference between the previous NDA government, and the present UPA government -- do you see these differences having an impact on Indian foreign policy, or would it continue in the same direction?

Natwar Singh : Broadly, there has been a national consensus on India’s foreign policy for the past 58 years, and it would continue. Except for say one or two instances, like the one in 1998, when Pokhran-II happened. If you look at the debate in Lok Sabha of that time, when reasons were asked, it was spelt out that Vajpayeeji in a letter to President Clinton had mentioned the reason that the threat to India from countries like Pakistan and China was the reason for carrying out the tests. But despite all this, what I am stressing is that the national consensus on foreign policy would continue.

When the first non-Congress government of Morarji Desai came to power in 1977, they could not change the direction of our policy. Similarly, later when the country saw many non-Congress governments from V P Singh, to Chandrashekharji and even later Deve Gowda and Gujral governments, there was no change in the consistent policy, even for that matter Atal Behari Vajpayee government continued with the roadmap we had left behind.

I am not saying that there were no changes at all, as changes have to be made in accordance with the international agenda, which has changed during the past few years. Today, the issues dominating the international agenda are terrorism, drugs, HIV AIDS, financial dealings, ecology, migration of people – all these are new questions and for them the agenda is different.

But what we are saying is that India has an independent foreign policy, we would not become a part of any camp, would continue to strengthen the UN and we believe in multilateralism.

Nagendar Sharma : You have mentioned terrorism. The international community listens to India’s concerns, but does not support India’s viewpoint. Would India adopt an aggressive policy against terrorism in coming days?

Natwar Singh : No, India is getting support in its fight against terrorism. The world knows that terrorists are entering Jammu and Kashmir from the neighbouring country, more than sixty thousand innocent people have been killed in the decades of unrest in that state, countries across the world accept this fact. Irrelevant talk such as that some terrorists are freedom fighters and so forth is no more accepted in the world united in the fight against international terrorism.

Nagendar Sharma : After taking over as Foreign Minister your first visit was to Nepal, giving a signal that your government would give top priority to relations with neighbours. What are the priorities in coming days ?

Natwar Singh : We are all going to meet in the SAARC summit next month. Then I am going to Islamabad also in February, I would be going to Colombo soon. We want good relations with the neighbours, our government is clear on that.

Nagendar Sharma : Also, of late, the Indian government is concentrating towards the East, with its Look East policy. Are you looking towards a long term partnership with East Asian countries?

Natwar Singh : We have partnerships with East Asian nations. The successful summit of India with the ASEAN nations, and earlier the success of meeting BIMSTEC nations clearly demonstrate that India is moving ahead with these nations in different spheres.

Nagendar Sharma:  Apart from the upcoming SAARC summit, as India’ Foreign Minister what are your other priorities?

Natwar Singh : We want friendly relations with all the countries. Good progress is being made with ASEAN countries, Indo-US ties are strong, similarly our relations with most European countries are becoming increasingly friendly. Also with Arab countries and Russia. The Prime Minister of China is coming to India in March, and this is a visit, important for both the countries. As a Foreign Minister, my endeavour is that no part of the globe should be ignored in relations with India.

Nagendar Sharma : Finally, what concrete progress do you see on Sino-Indian relations front ?

Natwar Singh : In the year 2004, the Indo-China trade was 12 billion dollars. We are trying that by the year 2008, this should go up to 20 billion dollars. Talks on the border issue are going on between the two countries. I see stable relationship developing in the coming days.

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