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‘In WikiLeaks, certain codes were broken—a code of diplomatic practice and convention’

March 20, 2011

(Report on Foreign Secretary's interaction during Idea Exchange programme with Indian Express)

The Indian Express

Shubhajit Roy: Leaked US diplomatic cables refer to an alleged attempt by the Congress to buy MPs before the 2008 no-confidence motion. Do you think that the end justified the means?

We have no means to verify the authenticity of what is contained in that particular document. Cables from a diplomatic mission anywhere in the world, regardless of which Embassy is sending them to their central headquarters, are privileged communications and fall within the category of diplomatic immunity. Even in the legal sense, the content referred to is hearsay and you cannot take it as evidence. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal is of benefit to the country. It enhances and enlarges the scope of opportunity for India to access technology for the generation of electricity through nuclear technologies that will now become available. After the nuclear deal was concluded with the US, negotiations on civil nuclear cooperation are on with a number of countries. So I think history will make the right judgment and I think the judgment will be that India did benefit.

Shubhajit Roy: Given the crisis in Japan, is evacuation of Indians living there on the government's mind?

Some countries have announced their decision to encourage the evacuation of their nationals. We are in touch with the Department of Atomic Energy and with an Indian scientist who is posted in Tokyo with the World Association of Nuclear Operators. We are looking at the data which is coming out from the Japanese side and we are making our assessments on that basis. If electricity is restored and they can ensure that the reactors cool properly, the situation will naturally improve. At this moment, one doesn't have any surety on that.

Amitabh Sinha: When a diplomat sends a cable back home, how much of it is mere reporting of facts and how much of it is a value judgment, an assessment of the situation?

Diplomatic cables, by virtue of their security classification, will contain not only facts and figures but also an analysis—that is why a security classification would be given to a diplomatic cable. Such communications are not supposed to be leaked to the public.

Amitabh Sinha: Who is authorised at a mission to send cables?

Technically, any diplomatic officer can send a cable but since we function in hierarchies, it would have to be authorised by the head of the wing. It could be the deputy chief of mission, it could be the ambassador.

Coomi Kapoor: Are Indian diplomatic cables as indiscreet and as well-written as American cables?

I can assure you they are extremely well-written and they offer candid assessments. A great deal of care is taken over what you write in a cable.

Dilip Bobb: After WikiLeaks, is there any other way of sending cables back to the country?

I don't think telepathy functions as a means of diplomatic communication as yet!

Smita Aggarwal: Could you give us a sense of what went on behind the scenes during the evacuation of Indians from Libya?

There were an estimated 18,000 Indians in Libya. The decision to evacuate them was taken at the end of February. Libya is a fairly big country, almost half the size of India if you go by area. Our people were scattered all over the country. People said the Chinese were quicker than us in evacuating their people. In Libya, the Chinese were basically workers in Chinese projects without their families and were easy to take out. We had a mix of people, from blue-collared workers to professionals like doctors, teachers and engineers—many living with their families. We had to plan carefully to ensure nobody was harmed and everybody was evacuated. We had to get clearances for movement of our planes and our ships into trouble areas. As for the Libyan government, when it came to clearances for evacuation, they were quite forthcoming. The Indian community organised itself and they helped with the evacuation. So far, 16,200 Indians have been evacuated. There was excellent coordination between the MEA, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the Ministries of Defence, Civil Aviation and the state governments. I must also commend Air India for rising to the occasion.

Anubhuti Vishnoi: You and the MEA have embraced social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Now we have WikiLeaks exploding in the face of the world. What's your view of WikiLeaks? Have they done something criminal? Or is this a wake up call for transparency?

Social networking sites and WikiLeaks are very different. With Facebook and Twitter, you want to access the medium because you want to put out perfectly legitimate messages—about your work or a certain policy decision. You use it to expand outreach and for advocacy. Diplomats today can't be involuted, they have to reach out. As far as WikiLeaks is concerned, these are cables that have security classifications. In WikiLeaks, certain codes were broken—a code of diplomatic practice and convention. Regardless of advancements in modern communications, certain communications will always stay outside the public domain, and should, if national security is to be protected. Certain channels must remain restricted.

Anubhuti Vishnoi: Indian students—from Australia to the UK and USA—are facing difficulties. How much is it an issue of concern for you?

It's an issue of great concern. We have about 100,000 Indian students studying in the USA today. Generally, they have faced no substantive difficulty. As for the Tri-Valley case, it was clearly an illegal operation and 1,500 of our students were innocent victims. Our effort after this scandal broke was to reach out to students to provide legal advice and to work with the Department of Homeland Security, with the State Department. On the radio tagging incident—out of 18 students, there is only one who has a radio tag and I hope that would be removed shortly. Some students are still being questioned by US authorities. In the case of a large number of students who everybody believes are innocent, we are trying to see how they can adjust their visa status after they obtain admission to bonafide universities. Those who want to come back should be allowed to come back. That's the kind of involvement we have and that's why I say diplomacy is a service industry today. You have to be able to reach out and be accessible.

Pranab Dhal Samanta: What is your prognosis of how things are evolving in Pakistan? We face a Sino-Pak nexus on various issues, we have our problems with China that get complicated by the day.

We have commenced the process of re-engagement with Pakistan. Later this month, the Home Secretary will meet his counterpart. This will be followed by a dialogue of the Commerce Secretaries. We have a sequence of meetings that will lead up to the meetings of the Foreign Secretaries just before our Foreign Ministers meet, hopefully in July. Through this, we seek to demonstrate that despite the complexity of the problems that populate our relationship, the best option is to engage with Pakistan and see how we can reduce differences, reduce the trust deficit between the two countries. Now Pakistan has been assuring us that it is equally concerned about terrorism and that it is as much a victim of terrorism today as any other country in the region. We have to see whether these assurances will translate into a permanent stoppage of terrorism against India and we want to hold them to that assurance. Meanwhile, we have begun this process of re-engagement because to keep the relationship in a state of complete non-communication is not good for the two countries or for peace and stability in the region. It's a modest attempt. We are not going in with inflated expectations. But we want to approach it with an open mind.

With China, there is a certain way in which we have managed the relationship over the years despite the fact that we have many complex issues that remain unresolved. Over the last decade, we have had many rounds of discussions on how to resolve complicated issues, like the boundary issue, on which differences still persist. But we have put mechanisms in place to maintain peace and tranquillity in border areas. We have engaged with China across a whole spectrum of issues at various levels. At the defence level too, until the deceleration in contact occasioned by the difficulties in the proposed visit of our Northern Army Commander to China. We are trying to resolve these differences. It was also tied to the issues of stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir on which we have had a very strong position and we have told the Chinese that this is not acceptable to us. The Chinese have assured us that they are working on a solution. We will have to verify this assurance. In recent weeks, there has not been an instance of a stapled visa being issued to a J&K resident, although we had this issue with Arunachal Pradesh.

M K Venu: There are some concerns at the highest level of government that the Chinese are funding massive infrastructure projects in India and funding private sector companies to build infrastructure of such a magnitude that nearly 20 per cent of India's power capacity will be hypothecated to Chinese. How do you look at this?

It's under the scanner at the moment. We are aware of the involvement and increasing presence of Chinese companies, especially in infrastructure, particularly in the power sector, and that funding is being provided to some of our companies for the purchase of machinery from China. The point is how do we deal with it? The long-term measures include building up capability within the country and building our own domestic manufacturing capabilities. In the short term, we have to embed the Chinese in a rule based system. We have to build more areas of reciprocity. If they are going to be coming in such a big way, then we should be able to demand similar access for our companies and businesses.

Amitabh Sinha: Will the Japan crisis impact our plans to expand the nuclear sector in any way? Also, we have high value collaborative projects like Posco or Jaitapur which have run into environmental obstacles. Do these become irritants in our relations with countries who are stakeholders in such projects?

There are two aspects to the nuclear issue, one is development and the other is the issue of safety. The DAE has been very categorical in affirming that our safety standards rank among the best in the world—we are not talking about using 40-year old technologies, we are talking about the latest technology. And nuclear energy is part of the energy mix that we want to provide to this country for clean energy, green energy. Events in Japan should be an opportunity to be even more vigilant about the safety aspects of the plants that we build. I think we should trust the atomic energy establishment on this.

On the question of business, investors come with full knowledge of the fact that being a democracy, there will always be a lively debate about these issues—this is not the only country where there have been protests about a site or a certain location, and there is an environment lobby that wants to make its point on this. As for being an irritant in our bilateral relations, I think by and large the record that manifests itself in the last few years is of increasing investor confidence in India.

Prajakta Hebbar: The Chinese programme similar to Google Earth had shown parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as Chinese territory. How do you react to this?

We do not react favorably to such reports. The way they represent the border with India, we don't accept that, we have not accepted it in the past and we do not intend to accept it in the future. Similarly, they don't accept the way we represent the border. So what is the solution to that? Obviously we need the negotiations to move forward and come to some mutually satisfactory settlement.

Coomi Kapoor: What is the percentage of women in the IFS now?

It is about 13-14 per cent. But the numbers are going up. And the quality of the jobs we are doing has completely transformed from what it was 30 years ago. My generation of women diplomats has certainly been able to take on very challenging assignments and there has been no discrimination between genders when it comes to posting you somewhere and giving you sensitive assignments.

Ritu Kant Ojha: Whenever Indians face any harassment in a foreign location, the response of the Indian government has been slow—that is the perception. Take the case of piracy and the Indians held hostage.

Not a single Indian ship has been taken hostage ever since our Navy started patrolling the international maritime transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden. In the last four-five years, a number of foreign flagged ships with Indian sailors have been taken hostage, and a number of ships have been released; not a single Indian life has been lost. At the moment, there are five foreign ships held by pirates and there are Indian sailors among the hostages. The perception here is that the Indian government should move in and somehow rescue them, but it does not work like that in any country. The ship owners deal with the pirates who want a ransom; the government does not intervene in negotiations. Media hype on these issues is not helping the negotiations and nobody is focusing on the pirates, and the crime of piracy. I think we need a certain course correction here.

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