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Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson (January 18, 2015)

January 18, 2015

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin):Good afternoon friends and thank you very much for being here this afternoon on what is obviously a holiday for all of you. However, for Indian diplomacy there are no holidays. So we thought we will also try and utilise the opportunity to provide you an update on what is actually peak season for India’s diplomatic activities. What I will do is try and give you a rundown of today’s interactions at the diplomatic level. I will then be willing to respond to any questions that you may have on that aspect. After that if any of you are interested on any other things, I am willing to answer those questions too.

With those preliminary remarks, let me inform you that the External Affairs Minister Shrimati Sushma Swaraj has had an extremely cordial, positive and substantive discussion with her Sri Lankan counterpart, the Minister for External Affairs Mr. Mangala Samaraweera. The discussion was spread over a period of more than three hours. They covered the entire expanse of our bilateral ties and were marked by warmth and mutual understanding. I will go through the reasons why I have used each of these so that it will perhaps indicate to you the rationale for what we are saying.

Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister was on his first visit outside the country five days after he was sworn in as the External Affairs Minister. He did indicate that the choice of New Delhi as his first destination reflects the priority that the new Government of Sri Lanka places on its relations with India. Today’s talks included areas of cooperation, political and economic, the political reconciliation process in Sri Lanka and efforts of the new government in this regard, Indian development partnership with Sri Lanka, and fishermen related issues.

Let me try and take each of these and try and explain to you where we stand on these. We feel that these talks apart from being cordial, warm and friendly, were also substantive in nature and have yielded several outcomes. I will list to you those outcomes. India and Sri Lanka have decided to re-engage on the issue of repatriation of refugees currently in India. The talks between officials on this matter will begin before the end of this month.

The Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister has invited his counterpart Shrimati Sushma Swaraj to visit Sri Lanka. She has accepted this, and we will work out an early visit by her to Sri Lanka. At that time we will also hold the next meeting of the Joint Commission between India and Sri Lanka. For those of you who follow this matter, the last meeting was held in January 2013. This is usually an annual event.

On the issue of fishermen, the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister informed that they are working on a modus operandi for return of the boats of Indian fishermen which are now in Sri Lanka. There are by our count approximately 87 Indian boats still in Sri Lanka. He has assured that they will work out a solution on this very quickly. Also, the two Ministers have agreed that it is time for the fishermen’s associations to engage on this matter. We are now working with all stakeholders following the meeting this morning to find an early date which is suitable to both the sides and a location for the meeting of the fishermen between the two countries.

Both India and Sri Lanka feel that in the longer term the solution needs to be worked out taking into consideration all aspects of the matter. But as an interim approach we feel that this issue needs to be dealt with in a humane manner taking into account the livelihoods of fishermen on both sides.

The two External Affairs Ministers also discussed the visit of the Sri Lankan President to India and have worked on possible agenda for that visit. The Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister is also carrying an invitation for an early visit by our Prime Minister to Sri Lanka.

So, on the basis of all that I have outlined to you, we can sum up and say that today’s talks have been marked by warmth, mutual respect and understanding between India and Sri Lanka, and the substantive outcomes demonstrate the desire of both countries to give a boost to our bilateral ties.

I am ready for any questions on this first.

Question:Akbar, you said that the bilateral committee of the consultations between India and Sri Lanka were last held in 2013, and you also said it is usually an annual affair. Could you tell me why they did not take place in 2014 if they are usually an annual event?

Official Spokesperson: My apologies. It may have been held in 2013. Last year we did not hold it. It was held in 2012 in Colombo, in 2013 in India, and since then it has not been held.

The issues are largely related to a host of agreements that are worked on and progress on those. As we had worked through this, we had hoped to have that meeting towards the latter half of this year. Unfortunately due to scheduling issues we could not work it out. But in terms of commitment, both India and Sri Lanka are committed to annual meetings. And please do not read into it anything more than scheduling issues during the latter half of last year, and that is because as you are aware Indian diplomacy was in high gear during that period.

Question:Akbar, yesterday in an interview to NDTV the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe has made some comments about Sri Lanka’s economic partnership with China and how it has come a cropper, to quote him. He also said that he was going to be reviewing multibillion dollar Chinese projects and not wanting to follow the other government’s policy of playing China against India. He seems to suggest that this is also in response to India’s concerns about Lanka’s proximity to China and how they want to bring India up to par again. Your comments on this and did this come up in the talks at all?

Official Spokesperson: Maya, first of all, I think you have alluded to a lot of things and said that this perhaps reflects etc. I have to be much more tight in my response, you will appreciate that. That said, I mentioned that we discussed all aspects of our bilateral ties. What we heard from the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister was that Sri Lanka sees this as an opportunity to enhance their ties with India in a manner that benefits it economically because they feel that India under Prime Minister Modi is a powerhouse of economic development and for Sri Lanka it is a win-win situation.

Question:Akbar, for the talks on the defence cooperation agreement and CEPA, was there any discussion? Things stopped halfway. Things did not happen.

Official Spokesperson: On CEPA, yes, the External Affairs Minister did raise as part of our economic engagement that we need to link and move ahead if there is will on both sides. Certainly this was an issue that was raised. And the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister, as I mentioned, sees India as an economic opportunity. Therefore, we look forward to working on this matter. But please understand, the Sri Lankan Minister is five days into his job. Please give them space and time. India is ready to work with Sri Lanka at a pace that is convenient to the new Government of Sri Lanka.

Question:…(Inaudible)… Sir, how do you respond to reports about expulsion of the Station RAW Chief in Colombo after Rajapaksa’s defeat?

Official Spokesperson: First of all, Madam, I think you should get your facts right. I do not know who said this. Postings and transfers are in the public domain. I would suggest that you please check up. When Indian diplomats go to Sri Lanka, dates are announced; and when Indian diplomats leave from Sri Lanka, dates are available. Those of you, and I am certain all of you, who follow our diplomatic service know that the norm in postings like that is three years. Please check. These dates are available in the public domain of all Indian diplomats who have been there, whether they have completed three years or not. I do not know from where unnamed sources are willing to say all sorts of things. I am here standing in front of you, willing to be quoted, and saying to all of you that the normal tenure of an Indian diplomat in Sri Lanka is three years, and all officials who have been transferred during the last year have completed that. So, it is a normal transfer. Do not read anything into it, unless somebody stands up and says that yes. Using unnamed sources is just hiding behind and obscuring the truth. I am ready here, anybody can stand up and say that is there anyone who says what I said was wrong.

Question:In the discussion about the cooperation politically and economically, did both sides talk about China’s Maritime Silk Route? Is there any consensus between the two?

Official Spokesperson: This was an issue that did not come. When India and Sri Lanka talk, we talk about bilateral ties. What a country’s relationship with other country is for that country. But ours is a cordial relationship which we intend to enhance.

Question:Sir, you mentioned that the Sri Lankan Government briefed about the steps taken for the political reconciliation in the North and East. Can you please mention what they are talking about and what will be the next step?

Official Spokesperson: They are on record on this, and I am not the official spokesperson of the Sri Lankan Government. I can provide you my view. I can also provide you the tone and trajectory of the discussions. But if you expect me to report to you a viewpoint of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, I do not think it is fair to him and it is not fair to us. He represents best his country. That is well known. They have put out some elements in the public domain of a 100-day programme. They have indicated that in the 100 days what their efforts are. And he has listed out some of these. Some of these he mentioned are still a work in progress. And that obviously is a confidential communication between two Foreign Ministers. And it is best for you to raise these questions there. But it flows from the 100-day programme that the new Sri Lankan President has publicly committed himself to.

Question:Akbar, on the issue demilitarisation in the North and East, because that has been a demand which has been raised by the Tamil parties, the TNA in particular, and during the election campaign Mr. Sirisena seemed to suggest that that was not an option because that would mean regrouping of the LTTE. What is India’s position on this issue?

Official Spokesperson: Our position is well known. I do not want to repeat it. But I have said we have extremely cordial discussions with a Government which is five days in office. Please allow them the space and time to articulate their views. And you will see that we are working together with Sri Lanka on this matter as on a host of other things. But at this stage, five days, even by your standards is a little too early to judge.

Question:Sorry, I do not know if this counts as a question but was that a denial, that you denied the Reuters report?

Official Spokesperson: Let me repeat. It is in the public domain. Normally all Indian diplomats stay for a three-year period. All Indian diplomats who have been transferred last year, have completed their tour of duty and have returned. If somebody has proof, otherwise I would not stand ready to contest that. Otherwise, please take my view as the last word on that.

Question:Sir, this issue of Chinese submarines docking at Sri Lankan ports, did it come up during the discussions?

Official Spokesperson: In response to another question I said that India and Sri Lanka discussed all issues as friendly neighbours. What Sri Lanka’s relationship with others is, is for Sri Lanka to work out on. As far as we are concerned, we are aiming at enhancing our ties and improving them qualitatively. And that is because Sri Lanka is an important neighbour, a friendly neighbour, and a neighbour which has shown great understanding towards us.

If there are no further questions on this, I am willing to answer any other questions that you may have.

Question:Syedji, there were recent reports that Sushma Swaraj is going to China in the beginning of February first for a bilateral visit and secondly to participate in the meeting of Russia-India-China Ministers of External Affairs. Can you comment on this please?

Official Spokesperson: I can confirm to you that the External Affairs Minister intends to visit China. It is best for our hosts to work out and tell the programme of other engagements there. This is a work in progress. And the Chinese side will certainly let you know once this is finalised. But yes, the External Affairs Minister will be visiting Beijing during the first week of next month.

Question:Sir, when is President Obama coming, when can we get the details of his visit, when would you be sharing them with us?

Official Spokesperson: I understand your enthusiasm and it is shared by the whole nation. I understand the reason for that because the trajectory of our relationship between India and the US is such that you have all converted the Republic Day into a foreign policy event; and I am grateful to you because foreign policy has been elevated in terms of the focus of attention. But that said, I would like to tell you that as part of the way we work, we take into consideration our visiting dignitary’s sensitivities and concerns, and we will at an appropriate time explain to you. You are aware that the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister visit we only announced when we announced, or the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit. So, while you are way ahead of the curve, and I see everyday all sorts of things, you should be happy that I am not telling you the details. Otherwise, all those will no longer be playing field for all of you. So, enjoy it while I bide my time.

Question:There were reports that Obama’s security wanted Indian Air Force to impose no-fly zone during Republic Day Parade. Is it true?

Official Spokesperson: Listen gentlemen, every day I read reports which are either fanciful flights of imagination or figments of somebody’s creativity. I do not want to get into these details because then I will say this, this, this. I have heard reports of visit to Mathura one day, another visit to another place. I do not even want to get there because this is kite flying of the worst order. You are welcome to do it. When we have a detailed programme for you, we will tell you. But let me assure you that currently elements of the programme are being worked on. So, do not do any kite flying. Be patient, you will get all the details.

Question:Sir, hum protocol ki baat karein, President Obama aa rahe hain. Kya voh Indian President ki gaadi mein aayenge Rajpath par ya phir voh apni gaadi se aayenge? Simple question.

Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much for this simple question.Main ne aapse bataya tha jab programme taiyar hai hum aapko batayenge. Agar aap samajhte hain ki aap koi dusri tareeqe se mujhse information le lenge, yeh aap ka haq banta hai, koshish kijiye. Aur aapka question waste karna bhi aapka haq hai.But let me tell you, President Obama is an honoured guest in India. We will do everything that ensures his convenience. So, while we are working on all sorts of things, please be assured, this is an honour that we have extended to the Head of State of one of our mostly friendly partners. So, we will do everything that is possible to ensure his stay here is comfortable, is something that he will cherish for a long long time.

Question:Do we know if the first lady, his children, his Secretary of State are going to be with him?

Official Spokesperson: We know but you do not.

Question:Sir, will Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai move outside the country or not?

Official Spokesperson: I do not know. I think I have answered this previously but let me explain once again. All of you may think that the Ministry of External Affairs has tentacles everywhere. That is not the reality. We are a small organisation. We do not deal with immigration issues that are the province of others. So, I suggest that that question needs to be directed to those who oversee these matters.

Question:I wanted to ask you about a report you may have seen in the Hindu today on the subject of the Pakistan International Airlines office, specifically related to their own reply where they say that any kind of shutting down of their office or hampering of their services will snap a vital link between India and Pakistan. Is the MEA in any way getting involved in that?

Official Spokesperson: I saw that report which was described as a storm that is brewing. Let me tell you, if it is a storm, it is a storm in a tea cup. That said, as far as the MEA is concerned, if this was a storm this has not even reached us. This, therefore, is a storm in a teacup. As regards the other element of that report relating to the visa of that person, this is a normal routine thing. This gentleman has been in India. My understanding is that there is a process under way. So, somebody seems to have put two and two together and landed up at 22. That is what it is, a storm in a teacup.

Question:The German Finance Minister will be here tomorrow. Is Chancellor Merkel due next month?

Official Spokesperson: No. You asked whether the German Chancellor is coming here next month. The answer to that is no. But I do not want to worry you. I can also say that India and Germany have a biennial Heads of Government meeting, and that has still to be worked out. That will hopefully be during the course of this year. Once that is worked out, you will certainly have the opportunity of the German Chancellor visiting India. But that is later, it is not next month.

With that we come to the end of this interaction. Thank you very much.

(Concluded)

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