Arab Spring: Should India have taken a more active line?


Suhasini Haidar,CNN-IBN
Sep 17, 2011 at 02:57pm IST

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Suhasini Haidar: Hello and welcome to this week's edition of World View with me Suhasini Haidar. It has been nine months and counting the fires across the Arab world continue to burn and the Arab Spring as it is called is continuing to claim lives and in fact Governments. Today, we want to talk about what India could have done and can still do. Remember, it all began last December with Tunisia with the protests over there hardly watched by the world and then that finally forced Ben Ali to leave the country. There was a regime change there, three hundred people killed in protest. India stand at that time was to take no response, none was needed perhaps. And then it moved on to Egypt, President Mubarakh ousted from his position, 846 people killed in those protests. India's stand to begin with did not condemn President Mubarakh but as the protest in Tahrir Square continued it eventually went on to welcome the transition government that came in. Seven hundred Indian flown out for their safety, India still unsure what its position there should have been. In Libya, President Gaddafi has now been removed form his position but remember 30000 people an estimated number have been killed by both the protests as well as the NATO bombing of the past six months. India's stand was a little more clear over there, it began by backing Gaddafi's Government and abstained in fact from the United Nations Security Council Resolution in fact condemned the NATO strike. 15000 Indians had to be evacuated from Libya. The next challenge say many is really Syria, President Assad still very much in control, still in office but even so that death toll continues to rise. At least 2600 people have been killed according to the UN and according to the Government those include 600 security forces. India's stand has been to set itself apart perhaps from the west. It has sent its own envoy along with Brazil and South Africa at the Counsels Restraint to Syrian leaders who have visited New Delhi and it has opposed Western backed sanctions for the moment and any resolution on that subject. Finally we look at the other countries of the Arab Spring. Yemen, Bahrain that has the largest number of Indians there. Saudi Arabia there has been no regime change, small amounts of protest but for the moment it seems as if the Arab Spring in these places have been continued. The question one must ask again and again is should India have taken a more active line. That's a question we are going to ask tonight on World View. And joining us in our studio, we are very happy to have with us the Egyptian Ambassador to India, Khalid EL-Bakly, thanks so much for joining us Ambassador and also Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan, he has been the Prime Minister's special envoy to west Asia also we hope to be joined by Y. L. Awadh, he is a Syrian journalist but also the south Asian Bureau chief of Al- Arabia and Meenakshi Ganguli. She is in fact with Human Rights Watch. She is a South Asian director and has a fairly strong view on what India should do on Syria in particular. Perhaps we should start with you because the Egyptian revolution is what really has minds around the world Ambassador Bakly and as we looked at those Tahrir Square protests continuing to grow, India took a fairly middle position. In fact not really coming out one way or the other until it looked like President Mubarakh was about to leave, the question really would you have expected India to take a more strong line?

Khaled El- Bakly (Egyptian Envoy to India): Actually the changes that have been taking place in the whole region posed lots of challenges not only to India but to the whole world. You have seen United States position wavering Europe, countries in Asia, in Africa until today countries did not recognize the new government in Libya. So I wouldn't be surprised to see countries are taking cautious positions. Secondly, the region the Middle East is the center of interest of India. One Hundred and Twenty Seven Billion Dollars is the volume of trade between India and the region. Seventy five percent of energy coming to India comes from the region, six million workers form India work in the region with a what you call remittances close to 50 billion dollars. So, a change on the side of interest and the side of moral values that India have been following since the independence. India has been cautious but also has been supporting the aspirations of the people. This came out on each and every event. India has been against a change in the regime by foreign interventiuons.

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Ambassador El-Bakly: and this is I see it as very close to our position as Egypt so I don't see that India position should have been stronger or not. I would wish to see India taking in the coming time a more active policy with ours, linking up and tying up with the new regimes that are coming up in the region.

Suhasini Haidar: All right Ambassador Gharekhan very quickly, Ambassador Bakly has called it cautious, many have called it outdated for India to continue to take this very middle of the road position. Your response.

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Chinmaya Gharekhan, (former Indian diplomat)- I agree that in the beginning, the first few days, no more than the first week or so the government was, the government's response was not at all satisfactory and I said so publicly in an article in the Hindu. On the first of February, that is within days of the 25th of January we changed. And the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement and more importantly the minister himself spoke which in my view make, make more than ample amends for the initial…..

Suhasini Haidar: reach out to the people as a…

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Chinmaya Gharekhan- Not only reach out to the people but supported the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt, then we came out clearly on the side of the people's movement.

Suhasini Haidar: and we have that next challenge now in Syria where India has once again has taken the middle of the road position.

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Chinmaya Gharekhan- No, you see the Syrian situation is not identical to the Egyptian situation so you cant compare, so this is what happened in Egypt and this is no, I think its not you know quite.

Suhasini Haidar: The reason I ask that is because we were taken as a group of journalists to Syria just last month. I would like you take a look at the ground report of just the people we spoke to over there. Lets watch:

These amateur videos of brutality by Syrian forces have outraged the world for months.

Navi Pillay, Human Rights Chief: The military and security forces have resorted to an apparent shoot to kill policy. Snipers on roof tops have targeted protesters, bystanders who were trying to help the wounded and ambulance.

But as you land in Damascus there is little hint of the turmoil described. At street corners there are protests but in favour of President Basshar Al Asad.

At a restaurant this woman tells me that anti- government protest against the government is destroying the region.

According to the UN, fire has claimed more than two thousand lives of protesters. Even so India chose to send its own fact finding mission to Syria along with envoys from Brasil and South Africa and cautioned the west against strong action.

Haran, Indian Amabssador- the situation is bad but not as bad as it is projected by certain sections of the media. There are human rights violations undoubtedly but you know what needs to be recognized is the protests are not always peaceful.

We visit Hama, the heart of the uprising. Last month's fighting still scars the walls of the buildings here.

Suhasini Haidar from Hama, Syria: But nothing really is as it seems, but here in Hama even as we see traffic plying normally we also see a heavy army presence. Bunkers, truck full of army men across the town square and many here telling us that they will not speak to us on camera but off camera saying they fear for their lives. Among them this woman's son, she said the world may forget the brutalized protestors of Syria but Allah wont. The tussle in Syria is much about a crackdown on dictatorial regime against the people as it is about a Sunni majority ruled by a Shia elite. And according to the Government like in Gaddafi's Libya it's a fight for a secular Syrian state versus the more radical Islamist protestors.

Faysal Mekdad, Vice Foreign Minister, Syria: What's common is the support of Western Europe of Al Qaeda in Libya of Al Qaeda in Syria. But they want the international community to fight against Al Qaeda when their troops are there in Afghanistan or other places.

Syria has banned any western reporters but even Assad knows that isn't stopping the word form getting out. And the pressure on him builds each time a video like this appears on line.

Suhasini Haidar: lets discuss more of Syria, in fact joining us now is Meenakshi Ganguli, she is with the human rights watch, she has taken a strong position. Meenakshi Ganguly you were watching the situation in Syria yet many inside Syria say it has been exaggerated and that includes the Indian envoy over there. Why is it that human rights watch is pushing again and again for more action on Syria when you cant even be sure of what exactly are the numbers inside there?

Meenakshi Ganguly: Suhasini we can only rely on what the United Nations is saying at this point, that's because the Syrian government has restricted journalists from going in. I mean when your team went in also you weren't allowed to freely move around inside that you would otherwise in other situations where you report. According to the UN 2600 people have now died in Syria. As a human rights worker we look at really people who have died, people who have been arrested, people who are being tortured in custody and when it is such a situation we want the world to speak up for those who are at risk.

Suhasini Haidar: Waiel Awwad you want to respond to that?

Waiel Awwad (South Asian Bureau Chief) As a Syrian expert I would also share my sympathy and my love and care for the families of the victims, both inside Syria and the military as well who have lost their lives. The fact of the matter is that there are preparators among the demonstrator who is trying to hijack the genuine demand of the state of Syria. It make me understand and make the rest of the world understand that there is a plot to topple the regime no matter what the regime is up for to the demonstrators. Because if you see what the president Assad has come up in the last six months which Syria has not witnessed in the last fifty or sixty years of its independence, we have not even seen this much of change and reform has taken into his shoulders but we said we needed the time to implement that but the thing is that there is no, as one of the person told me that irrespective of how many people are killed in the street, there is nobody, the number, the shots, the films are already been displayed and got ready in many quarter of Syria. So you will see these are fabricated matters and I am sure there are genuine cases of loss of lives, even inside the jail and all. But wait and see because we can see all the time most of the people even on the balcony and on the walls firing are the demonstrators. We don't know who is who? Unless and until we are able to listen to both the sides of the story then we will build up our own point on this issue.

Suhasini Haidar: Fair enough, Ambassador Bakley as we see West Asia, there are seventeen countries that are affected by the Arab Spring in the sense we are seeing protest in each of them. Should we be distinguishing between the armed oppositions as we have seen in Libya as we have seen in Syria and say the Egyptian one?

Ambassador Bakly: This is a difficult question and there should be an over arching principle of respect for human life, respect for the aspirations of the people for democracy and then we got to the regimes in each and every country and make a call, that is a strong one, that using security and using military will not solve the problems.

Suhasini Haidar: the Arab league did recommend strikes on Libya and it is not recommending strikes on Syria, why is that?

Ambassador Bakly: the Arab league did not recommend strike on Libya, the Arab league recommended a no fly zone and no targeting of civilians on both sides. On Syria the Arab league has already envoyed the Security general twice times, there is on the table a proposal and it is most likely to fly with the Syrian leadership and what we hope for is an end to the blood shed and the start of a political process where negotiations and talks between all the Syrian factors to bring back peace and to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Suhasini Haidar: All right, given all those differences Ambassador Garekhan I do want to ask you what India's stand should be. We will take a short break, we would like to also thank Meenakshi Ganguly, Waiel Awwad for joining us with those inputs on Syria, we will be right back.

Segment 2

Suhasini Haidar: Welcome to World View, we are asking the question, should India have taken a more active line on the Arab Spring and with me still in the studio is Khaled Bakly, the Egyptian Ambassador to India and as well as Chinamay Garekhan who was the Prime Minister's special envoy to West Asia. Ambassador Garekhan I do want to take some of the questions from our viewers on the web writing in very specifically. Lets just listen to some of them:

Question: What are the positives that could come out if India changes its policy on the Middle East and the West Asia from subdued criticism to being vocally pro-revolutionary in each case? What, what is the upshot for India or has India lost out?

Ambassador Garekhan: Our Prime Minister has clearly said that we are on the side of the progressive forces of history. We are in the side of democratic forces in the middle east, in west Asia, we are with the people of this country or these countries. When it comes to specific situations in a specific country then one has to not necessarily go by what the West are saying, or the Americans or even what the media here is saying but what the Government of India perceived to be a particular situation and what its interests are at that point in time. So I don't think that the Government has been unnecessarily timid on this, there is no point in being more active for the sake of being more active.

Suhasini Haidar: All right, and to you Ambassador Bakly about the progressive movements over there, there is also worry that these are becoming increasingly Islamic movements. In Egypt we have seen the Salafists take control perhaps on some of the protests over there. In Libya we have seen the TNC coming out very clearly and saying its going to be the Sharia law that they are going to adopt, in Syria as well there is the fear that the Muslim brotherhood and more radical elements that are taking over. Do you as somebody from the West Asian region worry about the increasing radicalizations perhaps of these democratic movements?

Ambassador Bakly: Well, I do not see it this way. During Mubarakh's time in Egypt the security was aligned with the regime in order to press down all religious movements including the political ones. When the jar was opened, the lid removed and the whole smoke came out, the religious movements also came out. It has been in our history that no parties will take part in the political life if they are religious parties. Now they have registered as political parties, so they will be joining and what we really aspire to see is an all inclusive democratic process where everybody is in and nobody is left out. And by time things will settle down and the whole world will see that moderation will prevail. If you don't have a democracy, if you don't have a democratic life, well the mosque and the church and maybe the temple will be the resort for people. In Syria we don't see this, the whole Mediterranean countries have always been exposed to western civilization and there was an exchange. So what you see now is an aftermath of a real street change, so we don't see it really. One you see Salafis taking part of demonstrations or they are demonstrating by themselves. They have mobilized all their forces to come to one demonstration but when people went to the streets to change the regime, it was the whole country.

Suhasini Haidar: so basically what we seem to be coming to is that India cannot afford to take a if you like a timid position but it must take a cautious position and Ambassador Bakly

Ambassador Garekhan: no, I don't agree with these adjectives, cautious or timid or anything like that. As I said in the beginning for the first few days the government did not know which way things are going to turn up so that time they sitting on the fence if you like. But I have no doubt, second day of the Tahrir revolution, the very second day I was convinced that this is a genuine people's movement and this revolution will succeed.

Suhasini Haidar: So back the people's movement but stay engaged much more in the region.

Ambassador Bakly: I will just add to what Ambassador Garekhan has mentioned because I don't see the Muslim brotherhood are lying now and making people understand. No people in Egypt understand quite well what the Muslim brotherhood are doing. And there is a differentiation between the Salafis which are really extremists and the Muslim brothers who are really well educated and they are part of the Egyptian society so we must not be afraid of them and this will go…

Suhasini Haidar: We must learn to engage with them is what you are saying.

Ambassador Bakly- yes, yes, yes

Suhasini Haidar: Thanks so much for joining us gentlemen and in fact that's all we have time here for on World View but there is lots more. The debate continues on our website, ibnlive.com/worldview. You can write in, put in your blogs. Vote on the issue of the week and send us questions for our guests next week as well. You can also find my take on the issue of the week there. Keep track of us and we will keep track of the world for you. From the tea, at World View, thanks for watching.

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