We are not excited about going to war: Salman Khurshid

We expect the media to be reasonable and not try to score points, provoke and push us in the direction of a war, says an articulate Salman Khurshid. After he took over from octogenarian SM Krishna as the External Affairs Minister, he has brought dynamism into how India conducts itself with the rest of the world. He spoke to Hardnews on a wide range of issues. Excerpts: 

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

After the coup that ousted former president Mohammed Nasheed in the Maldives and its fallout, do you think more Indian pressure would have avoided the situation that prevails today?

We have good wishes and aspirations for them. But the decision has to be their own. We can aid, advise, persuade about what we think is good for them and the region, but beyond that I cannot say, more pressure, less pressure and so on. The idea of a sovereign country — you cannot base it on your concept of what they should do just because it is good for you. One’s self-interest is most important but you have to balance that with the policy of non-interference and the policy of sovereign countries to do what is in their best self-interest. We are always respectful and careful about this. 

Where do we stand on the Indo-Pak peace process?

It is for the people on both sides to decide where we stand. We have shown restraint, being conscious of the security of our own people. We have exercised restraint because a lot of investment has been made in the peace process and it has certainly made some strides. If we could talk to Pakistan after war, we can certainly talk to Pakistan when things are not going smoothly. There was a danger of the peace process getting derailed, but it wouldn’t have been in anybody’s interest. 

In Afghanistan, many people foresee a civil war after the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2014…

I don’t think these doomsday prophecies will help anyone. We should be pragmatic. There is an elected government in Afghanistan. There is involvement of so many important countries and they have their troops on the ground. They will continue in development and cooperation as indeed we will beyond 2014. Efforts are being made to find a peace solution which is Afghan-driven and we are supporting it. We should neither be overtly sanguine nor should we be making doomsday prophecies that after this there will be an apocalypse. 

They are talking to the Taliban. Is that a step in the right direction?

Is there a choice? They must have made an assessment. After all, who has suffered the most because of the Taliban? The Afghans. Now the Afghans in their collective wisdom think that the time has come for some kind of negotiated settlement which can absorb most if not all of the Taliban into the political process and the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We must go by the Afghan point of view. 

China has aggressively entered the Afghan theatre. India has been consistently there and is widely seen as a stabilising force. How will you consolidate this positive footprint?

We will continue our work. We have no reason to be apprehensive of China’s participation. 

Many see Pakistan’s Gwadar port going to the Chinese as a major setback for India. How far have things moved on the Iranian Chahbahar port?

We are going ahead on the Chahbahar port. We should not see things in the short term and in a narrow perspective — that we can build Chahbahar but they cannot build another port. You have to factor in your assessment of the situation in the region and the consequences. I don’t think we should press panic buttons and go into serious depression. 

After the attack on the Israeli diplomat in Delhi and India’s position at the UN, did Indo-Iran relations suffer a setback?

No, we have a very mature relationship. We appreciate that they understand we have a principled position. There are divergent priorities in some areas but the fact that we are friends and we understand each other and can have our own reasons to take an autonomous position on issues is a great thing for the world. India and Iran share their worldviews and their aspirations candidly and openly. We value our friendship with Iran. It is not just a sentimental friendship: it is based on geo-politics, the economic interest on both sides and it’s a friendship based on history. We would want to consolidate that. Our commitments to the UN are in their own place. 

There were reports that you offered to mediate between Iran and the West....

We did not offer to mediate. We are in conversation with everyone. If two people are not able to talk and if there is a third person who is able to talk to them, that person should be willing to talk in case there is need. But you don’t go around offering mediation. That is not India’s style. We are especially placed in an advantageous position of being able to talk to both sides. If that will be of any help to the world and peace and stability in the region, India will be happy to contribute. 

India recently supported the French intervention in Mali. Do we expect more such endorsements on humanitarian grounds?

Not the French intervention, we supported the UN intervention. We don’t go for unilateral assistance or unilateral efforts. We go where that unilateral effort is backed by a UN decision. We were in the Security Council so we were party to those decisions. 

What do you make of the disturbing situation in Syria?

There is a need for dialogue. No outcome should be imposed from outside. It must be according to the free will of the people of Syria. Obviously, assessing and articulating this free will is a difficult thing because of the breakdown of equilibrium. We have advised both sides to look for opportunities for dialogue, abjure violence and try to normalise the situation. Meanwhile, we have extended $2 million as humanitarian aid and life-saving drugs and other essentials. 

Does the rise of fundamentalists, after the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and even in the subcontinent,
worry you?

We are seeing it in India also. We don’t welcome it in India, why would we welcome it abroad? I don’t think we should, again, paint a doomsday scenario. There is also a lot of hope for people who have committed themselves to fight terrorism and extremism in any form. It is a complex thing. It is not easily done. It is a long-drawn process, a long haul. We must be committed to it and there is a price to be paid. Ultimately, these tendencies are not restricted to one society or one country. They have spilled into the global arena. All of us have to fight it together.

 When will India do away with the practice of hanging people?

Since my days in Oxford, I have been an abolitionist. I have worked a lot against the death penalty and appeared in the Supreme Court against cases of death penalty. But, as of now, it is a position the Supreme Court has upheld and Parliament has adhered to. The debate was unfortunately stifled by ugly incidents of terrorism that were inflicted upon our people. It sort of lost objectivity. We have to wait till the situation becomes more objective, more balanced, and the debate can continue. 

Do you think the media plays a negative role on Indo-Pak relations — hyping the issue?

There are certain areas of governance, of national priority, where the fight between government and non-government parts of society has to be looked at carefully. When we take a position on a neighbouring country or any other country, what has to be given priority is the national interest rather than one’s like or dislike of the government of the day. National interest is something that cannot be settled in a debate or in a column, in a few minutes. It has to be reflected upon and considered with a degree of objectivity. To assume that there is patriotic zeal in the media which leaves a big question mark on the government has to be examined because the position that you take simply because you want to disagree with the government to score a point, is not a position that should make the government weak vis-a-vis a neighbouring country.

We are investing in a peace initiative with Pakistan because it is our national policy. We, as a nation, are not willing, and not necessarily excited about going to war; it is another matter if war is forced upon us. If we are not necessarily excited about going to war and if the media is pushing us in that direction, then, is the media being fair to the country? There is an alternative to peace and that alternative is war. There is a cost of war in human terms. Is the media going to take responsibility for that? The answer is no. We will be the ones answerable. Who is answerable to the parents of the young people who get sacrificed every time there is war? We will be responsible. So, frankly, if we have such a huge responsibility on us, it is only fair that we expect the media to be reasonable and not try to score points and provoke and push us in that direction so that we will inevitably end up wrecking whatever efforts have been made towards peace. 

Is some kind of regulation necessary from outside?

It is easy to talk of regulation but that is seen as anti-democratic and an anti-freedom of speech position. We have maintained that within the media, responsible people, leaders of the media, must reflect and decide what they should be doing in the interest of the country. Nobody says there should be no regulation, there is a law of defamation, for instance. The media cannot say there shouldn’t be a law of defamation but it works so slowly that it might as well not be there at all. If there is a law of defamation and it is not effective, not only should the people outside the media speak of making it effective but the media itself should speak of making it effective. Not all of the media defames people; but the media that does becomes a question mark on the credibility of the media as a whole. It is the responsibility of the media also to come up with solutions.

You have to think of regulations carefully because they can be misused easily in the whole arena of freedom of speech. Even in liberal societies like the UK, after the hacking and the Daily Mirror episode, there is a serious rethink on whether ‘we need to do something more or not’; that is a debate in their society. Similarly, a debate in our society needs to take place. 

The recent total clampdown on the media in Kashmir didn’t have any impact on the national media. Do you see a contradiction?

Of course there is a contradiction and it is that as long as I am fine, somebody else is hurt, it doesn’t matter. This kind of approach is bad everywhere. Not just for the media. Any citizen who believes in freedom has to stand up for freedom, particularly when it concerns somebody else, not that citizen himself/herself. Freedom is meaningless if it applies only to you. Freedom must apply to everybody. And particularly to those you don’t like. If freedom is only for those you love then it is no freedom at all.

People can take it out of context but taking things out of context is another major problem in this country. The fact that things are taken out of context means there is an attempt to stifle freedom. The Supreme Court allows reasonable restrictions but there is disagreement in society on what is reasonable. For instance, what YasinMalik did, we think it is unreasonable. Somebody else may think it is reasonable. Who will decide that? It has to be decided by the court of law. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2013