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Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson (May 23, 2014)

May 24, 2014

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin): Good afternoon friends and thank you very much for being here today. We meet after quite some time in this format. I am gratified that a large number of you have desired to make this an important occasion by being present here today.

I do not have any statement to make but I am sure that some of you may have some questions on a variety of issues, and I am willing to answer all of them one by one. So, let us take the first question.

Question: How does the Ministry of External Affairs look at the move of Mr. Modi’s government to invite the leaders of SAARC nations? Do you think that it has come all of a sudden for the Ministry of External Affairs?

Official Spokesperson: I hear your question but I think philosophically I do not understand that. The invitations went from the Foreign Secretary Mrs. Sujatha Singh on behalf of the Government of India. So, why do you make that distinction between the Ministry of External Affairs which is implementing the decisions of elected representatives of India? Is that not what democracy is all about?

Question: How do you look at the timing of the attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat? And could you give us an update in terms of where our investigation is pointing to, who is behind this attack?

Official Spokesperson: Manish, you already have heard the responses of the Indian leadership on that. Obviously all of us condemn this cowardly terrorist attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat in the strongest possible terms. This attack once again underscores that the main threat to Afghanistan and its peace and stability and security stem from terrorism beyond its borders.

Our diplomatic premises in Afghanistan have been repeatedly attacked by elements who clearly do not support the Afghan people’s effort to rebuild and redevelop their country. Attacks of this nature will not dilute India’s commitment to assisting Afghanistan in its reconstruction and development efforts. As you are aware, our leadership has saluted the valiant efforts of the Afghan National Security Forces who immediately came to the assistance of the Consulate and succeeded in neutralising the terrorists. This is a debt of gratitude that we shall never forget.

As regards anything else, right now even as all of you are assembled here we are assessing the situation. Obviously this is a whole of Government of India approach that we take in such matters, and that is being undertaken right now. Once we are further ahead on this, even while we work with our Afghan friends because ultimately it is their territory, they have the resources and information on that; we will work very closely and share the outcomes at a certain stage.

Question: Can you just recap for us who all has been invited for the inaugural among the regional countries?…(Inaudible)… Also there is tweet from President of Sri Lanka that in order to counter the reaction from the Tamil Nadu politicians he is considering bringing the Chief Minister of the Northern Province Justice Vigneswaran also with him. Could you just outline and confirm who is confirmed and whether you have a confirmation of the Sri Lankan President?

Official Spokesperson: Let me start with giving you the factual information that you have asked. Invitations were sent to eight leaders, and we have confirmation from seven of them. These are: from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, from Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, from Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, from Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, from Mauritius Dr. Navinchandra Ramgoolam who is the Prime Minister of Mauritius, from Nepal Mr. Sushil Koirala, and from Bangladesh Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury who is the Speaker. These were the invitations sent which have been accepted. And as you all are aware, we had also invited the Prime Minister of Pakistan; we are awaiting their response on that.

As regards your question of what is the constitution of each of these delegations, it is normal diplomatic practice that it is the privilege and the prerogative of the leader of the delegation to choose who he or she would like to have in his or her delegation. As a host country India will be gracious and accept the delegation as is decided upon by the leader of the delegation of that country.

Question: I know the Prime Minister is going to host a banquet for the SAARC leaders and he will also be having bilateral meetings. But is there any possibility of having a mini summit of all the leaders at one place to sort of kick start the entire moribund SAARC process?

Official Spokesperson: I can take issue with you on several points, some factual and some that you have offered to comment on. First let me start by saying it is normal for a host to have an occasion when such leaders come for any event to host them for a dinner or a meal. And in this context a dinner is being is hosted. I think you have got your facts wrong about the host.

Secondly, you had asked about bilateral meetings. Again, it is normal practice that when a senior leader comes to your country as a gracious host you also have short meetings which are of a limited duration as a courtesy and as a gesture to the incoming guest.

We pride ourselves on being gracious hosts and therefore there will be short duration meetings on the basis of very limited number of participants between our leadership and the visiting leaders. These will be individual meetings; they will be structured on the 27th taking into account schedules of departure; and we will provide you these details because there will be photo opportunities for you to be present and capture these for history.

Question: Coming back to the attack in Afghanistan, is the timing of it significant coming as it does at a time when we are awaiting a response from Nawaz Sharif on the invite sent by Mr. Modi?

Official Spokesperson: It is your prerogative as a journalist to arrive at conclusions. It is my duty as a diplomat to assess and weigh every issue before I arrive at that conclusion. As I indicated to you, we are right now in a process of examining what the issues are in an event which we have all condemned and which has certainly shaken our officials there. But we are now assessing these events carefully, going through them and evaluating what they mean in terms of other issues. I would not like to jump to any conclusion at this stage but I would like to assure you that we are examining all these matters very closely.

Question: I just wanted a bit of context. Is it correct that this is the first time that all SAARC leaders would be invited to a Prime Ministerial inauguration? Has it been the past practice of India to invite other foreign leaders to inaugurations? I just would like a bit of the context of this.

Official Spokesperson: I must confess my archival knowledge is limited. But that said, SAARC is an institution of the 80s and there are many colleagues here who have been following foreign affairs since then, and I am certain that they could confirm to you that as far as an invitation for the entire leadership of South Asian countries to an Indian swearing in ceremony is concerned, this is a first.

Question: Is it typical that say in inauguration like the last two administrations by Dr. Singh or previous to that were foreign leaders from any country typically invited?

Official Spokesperson: Again I am not an archival historian. I am a practising diplomat who has a very limited vision, according to all of you. But I will take that and say that this is a first as far as Indian diplomacy is concerned. And that is why all our effort is to ensure success of this first event of its sort.

Question: There has been a coup in Thailand and no one understands what role India is going to play at this point of time when you are stuck up with a new government and Indian Consulate is being attacked in Afghanistan, and even a military team has been sent to Thailand for some exercise. So, what is the situation and how do you think?

Official Spokesperson: Again I must say that the vocabulary that you use is alien to what is normal diplomatic discourse on such matters. I do not know why you should feel that a democratic transition is something that you describe in such terms. Rather if this was Parliament it would be unparliamentary language. But that said, let me try and focus on the substance of your issue.

Yes, India is concerned with the recent developments in Thailand. We are monitoring the evolving situation closely. The Indian community in Thailand is safe. And as a friendly neighbour with civilisational affinities we hope for an urgent political resolution and restoration of normalcy based on the principles of democracy, the will of the people, and the rule of law in Thailand. I hope I have answered that question.

And then you have another question and that I understand relates to certain Indian troops in Thailand who have gone there to start their exercises called the Maitri Exercise. My understanding is that our troops currently in Thailand for the Maitri Exercise have been advised to return to India.

Question: My question pertains to Sri Lanka. I would like draw your attention on Sri Lanka. The entire political parties of Tamil Nadu and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu have expressed their displeasure about President Rajapaksa’s visit to India. How is the new government looking at this Tamil Nadu political parties’ and the Chief Minister’s reaction?

Official Spokesperson: I am afraid I only reflect issues relating to foreign policy. What you are referring to is beyond my normal domain because these impact on matters of a domestic nature relating to political parties and their approaches on a specific issues. So, I would not be able to answer that question. That said, I can say as the Ministry of External Affairs we take a whole of government and a whole of India approach. And it was based on that approach and understanding that an invitation was sent to a close and friendly neighbour that is Sri Lanka.

Question: Sorry I may have missed the initial part of your briefing but I wanted to just clarify the assessment on the attack on Consulate in Herat. Who you think is responsible? And if indeed the attack could have been planned outside or beyond Afghanistan’s borders, are we then directly pointing a finger at Pakistan? And if so, what does that mean for inviting Nawaz Sharif on Monday?

Official Spokesperson: I think you missed out when I mentioned that there is currently a process under way which is examining all these issues. At the outcome of that process we will keep you informed. We are carefully examining and assessing all elements regarding this dastardly attack. I have also indicated some elements of our approach to this prior to your coming here. So, I would suggest that these are available on the record and you could use that.

Question: Is it possible for you to disclose whether the new Prime Minister designate has sought inputs from the Ministry before the invitation was sent out for the SAARC Heads of State?

Official Spokesperson: Those of you who are here and who have come before are aware that I never use this pulpit to discuss intra governmental issues. That has always been the Ministry of External Affairs approach to take a whole of Government and a whole of India approach. And I will not deviate from that.

Question: Have any opposition leaders also been invited like Begun Khaleda Zia?

Official Spokesperson: In response to an earlier question I explained to you all the invitations that were sent. Beyond that it is the prerogative of the leader of any delegation to bring any member from his or her country who they may feel appropriate. And we will, as gracious hosts, give them the hospitality, and we have not invited anybody else that you are referring to who may not be the leaders of those countries.

Question: The invitation to the Prime Minister of Mauritius was sent along with the invitation to the SAARC leaders. Could you explain that one please?

Official Spokesperson: Let me explain. The invitations to the SAARC leaders were sent as a collectivity in terms of South Asian neighbours. Also there have been several leaders who have been congratulating and getting directly in touch on telephone to wish the Prime Minister designate their best wishes and congratulations. The letter or the invitation to the Prime Minister of Mauritius follows one such contact.

Question: Indian Embassy and the Indian Missions in Afghanistan have been subject of attacks several times in the past. In the light of these attacks and the final investigation as to who were the people behind that, whether you are getting some cue from the previous experience as to who might be behind these attacks?

Official Spokesperson: I understand your desire for instant information. But that said there is a process under way and as I said, even while we are speaking that process is under way in another part of the capital city. Please allow that process to play itself out normally and you will know the outcome.

Question: How many Indian staffers are there in Herat in the Consulate and how many in the other Consulates in Afghanistan?

Official Spokesperson: I cannot off hand give you numbers but I can tell you that in terms of diplomatic and official personnel in our Consulate in Herat, the numbers are in single digits. Of course in addition we also have, as you are aware, brave ITBP jawans who are deployed there to protect the premises. But those are security personnel. As far as Herat is concerned, the primary areas that our Consulate in Herat focuses on relate to development projects. We have several small development projects in that region. Also those of you who are aware that we are undertaking a major project in that region which is called the Salma Dam project. This is a hydropower project and that is the focus of attention of our small Consulate in Herat.

Question: Earlier the ITBP DG was saying that there was prior intelligence of this attack in Herat and also saying that security is going to be stepped up across the Indian Missions in Afghanistan. Is there anything the MEA would say on that?

Official Spokesperson: I will not get into operational intelligence issues because these are not issues of a diplomatic nature. But as you are all aware there have been instances of attacks on Indian outposts elsewhere in Afghanistan and we keep this under review. We are constantly monitoring the situation and taking all effective measures. You have seen the effectiveness today of one such measure, in the sense that the ITBP personnel bravely were able to thwart the attempt by four fully armed terrorists who were trying to breach our security perimeters.

Question: About an hour back news emanated from Pakistan that their Foreign Office has strongly recommended Nawaz Sharif should attend Monday’s inauguration of Mr. Modi. Do you have any update on that, any corporation, confirmation, denial on that? Also, whosoever comes, whether he or he nominates somebody else, will there be a bilateral meeting structured on Monday?

Official Spokesperson: Rajiv, the internal processes of a country are best responded to by those in that country. It is not for me to respond to what are the processes under way in a country for decision making. We are a patient people and we will wait for the outcome of that process.

Question: Pakistan ki jailon mein hamaare Indian fishermen ki kya position hai? Aur kya kuch aise bhi signals hain ki unko kuch wo log chhodne ja rahe hain?

Official Spokesperson: My understanding is that there are as of today more than 360 I think if I am right, 362 Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails. These include some of them whom we understand are going to be released, but our approach has always been as far as we in India are concerned, that when the fishermen or a civilian prisoner completes his term, we release them, there are others who adopt other approaches and they may use occasions to release them.

Question: You had taken up this matter of two Indian journalists being asked to leave Islamabad with the Pakistani Government. Have you got any response to that?

Official Spokesperson:Yes, following the decision by the Pakistani Government to ask the two Indian journalists to leave within a week, our Deputy High Commissioner in Islamabad, Shri Gopal Bagley had taken this matter up with the concerned counterpart of his in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. Obviously you can see that since then they have returned and we have not had the satisfaction of our request being responded to satisfactorily.

Question: The IBSA Summit has been scheduled on the 6th of June. So would you confirm whether you are going to organize it?

Official Spokesperson:I do not think that your facts are correct.

Question: Today Dr. Hamid Karzai has talked to Mr. Narendra Modi the Prime Minister designate, I have heard what you have said in the media but I am asking that whether he has also shared the same perception that the elements beyond the border of Afghanistan are involved in this attack?

Official Spokesperson:When two leaders of two countries talk, they share a lot of information. And it is not my duty to share with you all elements of that information, because then it would be a public diplomacy effort rather than confidential conversation between two leaders at a very high level.

What I can tell you about that conversation however is that it was a conversation that lasted approximately ten minutes. It was initiated by President Karzai during which he did brief Prime Minister designate about the attack and assured him that Afghanistan would do everything to protect India’s Missions located there.

Prime Minister Designate thanked President Karzai for the efforts of the brave Afghan forces who had been able to thwart the attack. He assured President Karzai that the attacks of this nature will not dilute India’s commitment to assist Afghanistan. He also assured President Karzai about the abiding friendship between the people and Governments of India and Afghanistan and said that he looked forward to receiving President Karzai here in New Delhi next week.

Question: Did President Karzai also speak to…(Inaudible)… or vice versa?

Official Spokesperson: I do not have any information on that as of now.

I think we have exhausted the questions. Thank you very much for being here this afternoon. We will meet now regularly from next week in the same format. Thank you.


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