Karan Thapar talks to National Security Advisor M K Narayanan on India’s relationship with two important neighbours: China and Pakistan.
Karan Thapar: Let’s start with China first; in recent weeks there is a widespread perception that Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have increased and many people say that in fact the incursion is coming deeper and deeper into Indian territory. What’s the truth about these perceptions?
M K Narayanan: There haven’t been any increase if you take the last few years. And I really find it hard to explain why there has been so much media hype on this question. I think it’s disturbing because it tends to give an impression and then people get attuned to that kind of attitude. Almost all the so-called incursions which have taken place have taken place in areas which in a sense are viewed as being disputed by one side or the other.
In terms of number of incursions; I think there has been hardly any increase. And there is much more knowledge about what’s happening because I think people are much more alive to these questions etc.
Occasionally maybe the inroads are little deeper than what they might have been in the past. So I don’t think there is anything alarming about it and I think we have a good understanding about the whole issue.
Karan Thapar: Let me underline two important things that you said: firstly that there has been no worrying or remarkable increase in the number of incursions, is that right?
M K Narayanan: Yes.
Karan Thapar: And secondly even though one or two of the incursions may have been deeper than before these are not alarming situations?
M K Narayanan: No.
Karan Thapar: So is it in fact just media hype that is building up a sense of concern?
M K Narayanan: As a National Security Advisor and as part of the National Security architecture or mechanism as the case maybe, I am unable to explain why this kind of--one can always argue that any incursion, small or big could be a cause of concern. But having been through this--not only now but in the past, I don’t think there is any reason for us to feel particularly concerned as to what’s happening.
Our idea is that our border should be tranquil. I think as far as possible we would like to keep it tranquil. I think my counterpart and I have discussed this from time to time.
Not only the two of us as the special representatives but political leadership on both sides is very keen to maintain peace and tranquility on the border and I think that explains a lot.
Karan Thapar: As you must be aware certain opposition politicians, Mulayam Singh Yadav for one, have even called for special sessions of parliament. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has asked for a white paper on the subject.
Are you saying to me that those are exaggerated political reactions?
M K Narayanan: When one sees what comes in the media almost on a day-to-day basis, I presume political leaders will be concerned is this happening? We want to know more about it etc. And I don’t want to blame the media but the question is, why there is so much reporting?
I wont even use the word exaggerated reporting on the point. But I think this is a national security issue. It isn’t a kind of a game that we are playing and the more you raise people’s concerns, the tension could rise and we would then be facing a situation of the kind that we wish to avoid.
Karan Thapar: In other words the media by its overreaction could end up creating a problem that it wants to avoid?
M K Narayanan: Could create a problem and I have been through 1962. Then, of course we didn’t have the media of this kind. What we need to be careful of is that we don’t have an unwarranted incident or an accident of some kind and that’s what we are trying to avoid.
But there is always concern that if things go on like this someone, somewhere might lose his cool and something might go wrong.
Karan Thapar: In other words the media might accidentally, unintentionally, provoke someone to do something that otherwise would not have happened?
M K Narayanan: I don’t think they would provoke but people may get mesmerised into doing something, seeing a ghost where it probably doesn’t exist.
Karan Thapar: It’s also been reported that the army has sought the lifting of restrictions on patrolling along what’s considered sensitive sectors of the border. Is that a fact that the army want these restrictions removed?
M K Narayanan: It’s not as if new restrictions have been placed. There are limits of patrolling which are placed from time to time, and it’s a calibrated exercise.
If you suddenly think that things are--there could be problems in a particular direction, that you may feel that you need to be little careful, sometimes the limits are--I mean everybody who is on the border is conscious of the fact that you need to keep the border safe and therefore there are different views. But the decisions are taken at the highest level basically by the China Study Group and then these are approved by the cabinet committee.
Karan Thapar: But it has been suggested that there could be differences within the government over the nature of the patrolling.
It is said in the press that the army wants a more assertive response --the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) is a bit concerned about offending or provoking the Chinese--is there any truth to these differences of opinions?
M K Narayanan: There is always (differences)--why only between--even I suppose within the army or within the MEA or within Ministry of Home Affairs there could be differences because we are human beings. That’s why you have a China Study Group which looks at all aspects of the question. Then over and above that as I said there is the Cabinet committee which looks at it.
There are perceptions of what you need to do. An organised government, which has various checks and balances, looks at these questions and sees what is in the best interest of the country. Each individual can’t do what he likes.
Karan Thapar: Now it is not just activity on the border that has the media concerned and certain opposition politicians concerned. There are also increasing reports of what are considered hostile articles in the Chinese media that mock at or scoff at India.
For instance there was an article in August in the journal of the Chinese Institute of Strategic Studies which said that just a little action on China’s part could lead to the fragmentation of India into 20-30 bits. How do you view this sort of increasing commentary?
M K Narayanan: I don’t think it is so much of increasing--it has been there and there is now more academic freedom in China than previously I believe. And it is not that everything that comes in either ‘Global Times’ or in the ‘Strategic Review’ etc reflects the opinion of the Chinese government, which is the conventional wisdom in these matters.
After all there are articles in our newspapers or what’s more even statements by responsible people in India sometimes which are not particularly favourably inclined towards China.
Karan Thapar: In other words this sort of thing happens on both sides?
M K Narayanan: Both sides and that’s why you have governments who look at the whole issue and do not get carried away by individual statements.
Q: What do you say to strategic experts who look at these two twin developments of activity on the border and hostile commentary in the Chinese press and say this is a deliberate pattern or strategy to put pressure on India?
Some people have even gone so far as to say that if we aren’t careful we may see the buildup of a sort of situation that existed in India in 1962 before the war began.
M K Narayanan: The first thing I would like to sort of wipe out is the question of a repeat of 1962. India of 2009 isn’t India of 1962 and those who say this, most of those people who have written this, were not even born perhaps in 1962--I was there and I want to make that point very clearly. So there is a very fundamental difference between India of 1962 and India of 2009.
It is easy to write an article – I wrote articles for 10 long years, hopefully they were balanced ones but necessarily one doesn’t have most of the facts. The system that we follow is that you get pieces of information, they are not necessarily considered views and therefore assessment tends sometimes to be quite off the mark.
Karan Thapar: One reason why people are concerned at the moment about the buildup of what they consider to be incursions and also hostile commentary in the Chinese press is a second perception that the border and boundary talks that you’re holding are not making progress and secondly that the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of an understanding reached in 2005 that settled areas would not be the subject of any future boundary alignment.
Are your talks with the Chinese on the boundary making progress?
M K Narayanan: I think my last round of talks with Mr. Dai Bingo was the best that I have had in the nine rounds that I have held with him. We discussed the border and boundary dispute.
I think we had over 14.5 hours of discussion spread over a couple of days and of which I think eight-nine hours were on the border. I think we are much more comfortable at this moment than we were a year ago.
Karan Thapar: One of the widespread beliefs is that the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of an understanding achieved in 2005 that settled areas would not be the subject of any border realignment in future?
M K Narayanan: I think it’s a way of looking at some of the language which was used. For instance we have talked in terms of due interest of the settled population and there are what I call terms and the nuances of that are different. I think the Chinese would like certain areas with settled populations to be brought within the system.
We have under the political parameters and guiding principles a certain understanding. That’s why we are negotiating.
Karan Thapar: Do you have a problem here or is this in fact once again a result of the media not being fully aware?
M K Narayanan: I wouldn’t say that this is totally a media issue. There are issues that are coming up but I think both sides understand where we are and that’s the whole purpose in our prolonged negotiation.
Karan Thapar: So at the moment you are not worried or perturbed about this?
M K Narayanan: No, not at all.
Karan Thapar: People say, and I want to put this to you deliberately and bluntly, that India is reluctant to face up to China. That India thinks of excuses or justifications to explain away Chinese behaviour. Do we have a China complex particularly after the 1962 war?
M K Narayanan: I don’t think so. We are careful. I think we are careful partly because what happened in 1962, that we should not provoke a situation which we do not wish to have. I do not think anybody in India wishes to have a conflict with China and I think that goes also for China.
I think both sides are therefore careful but there are issues in the two countries. I don’t think we have all the answers to these issues but the whole purpose of dialogue is to see where the areas of congruence are and where are the differences.
Karan Thapar: But you’re saying to me quite clearly and I just want to repeat this that although there may be issues and although no one wants to provoke a situation that leads to another 1962 like conflict there is no sense of appeasement or hesitation or fear in India when dealing with China?
M K Narayanan: No, at least I am not aware of anything of this kind and may be, as I said, since I was there in 1962 I should be more conscious of that. Yes, we are careful and that’s important and imperative. We do not wish to get into a situation that we do not want to be in.
Karan Thapar: People also say that China is disdainful of India that China doesn’t treat India as an equal - is that your impression?
M K Narayanan: No, China certainly sees us as a rival. They wish to be numero uno in this part of the world. I think the more the rest of the world sees India as a rising power, more importantly as a democratic power, as a country with a tremendous future in terms of not merely its GDP growth but the fact that it is a young population and a tremendous intellectual capability, therefore there is rivalry.
Q: But no disdain from the Chinese?
M K Narayanan: Nobody can disdain a country like India. I think it is important - today India cannot be disdained.
Karan Thapar: Let us come to Pakistan; at Sharm-el-Sheikh the Prime Minister agreed that dialogue was the only way forward and that the two foreign secretaries should meet as often as necessary. But six week later he said relations with Pakistan are currently not conducive for the two sides to have talks at any level.
To many people that sounds as if he has done a complete U-turn?
M K Narayanan: I think what the Prime Minister at Sharm-el-Sheikh said is clearly the policy that is laid down; that dialogue is the way forward. We are not talking in terms of a conflict with Pakistan. Now it depends on what context this particular statement is made.
The whole problem is that you can take a statement out of context. I think even with regard to Sharm-el-Sheikh people took certain words or lines out of context and it can give a different meaning.
I think quite clearly dialogue is the way forward. At the moment, the issue is the dialogue should be essentially confined to discussing terrorism. We need comfort on this issue. Apart from Mumbai there are other issues and therefore we will not expand the range or the scope of the dialogue till there is a fair amount of comfort. That is more or less the context in which the statements have been made by the prime minister or others.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying to me that media reports or suggestions that the Prime Minister, because of the criticism he faced over the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement, has perhaps lost his nerve or changed his mind--that is not the case?
M K Narayanan: Many people know the Prime Minister better than I do. But I think there is steel in the Prime Minister.
Karan Thapar: And he is committed to dialogue?
M K Narayanan: When he says something he stands by it. He is committed to the dialogue; he also understands the limits of the dialogue at different stages or phases. And therefore I do not think there is any contradiction in what he says in place A or at place B or elsewhere.
But in the overall context of a particular conference or meeting or whatever the same views gets expressed in different terms.
Karan Thapar: If then the Prime Minster’s thinking or attitude has not changed presumably the problem lies in the response and the attitude of the Pakistanis. I want to explore that with you and let’s first start with Hafiz Saeed.
The Home Minister, in his interview to Al Jazeera, has made perfectly clear the extent of detailed evidence that India has connecting Hafiz Saeed to the Mumbai terror attack. What is Pakistan’s response to that specific detail?
M K Narayanan: Pakistan’s point is that whatever information or evidence that has been provided by India is inadequate to nail Hafiz Saeed and they say that if we did go up and try to get a conviction it will be thrown out, the Supreme Court will sort of condemn us. It’s really a question of how you are willing to marshal the evidence that has been given and put it in court.
I think in one of our earlier interviews, if I remember right, sometime in 2006, when you asked me about the evidence that we had with regard to the Mumbai serial blast which took place in the suburban trains, I made a statement for which I suffered because you took it out of context perhaps. I said that we have evidence which is as good as you can get in a terrorist case and beyond that it’s difficult to say.
Now in this case if you take the Hafiz Saeed dossier that has been provided--I think maybe I have probably the longest association with terrorism in one form or the other, actually counter-terrorism not so much terrorism--I think we have marshalled almost grade one evidence.
You have the evidence from three people, three human beings, three terrorists, admitted terrorists (Ajmal) Kasab, Fahim Ansari, Sohrabuddin, who talk of how Hafiz Saeed had come, talked to them, what he had said etc apart from other connecting evidence. I agree, one can never be sure what a court would do with that kind of evidence.
But if you are not willing--in the context of saying what you said in Sharm-el-Sheikh to ensure that terrorism is stamped out--you are not even willing to test that, it certainly leaves in our mind a big question mark as to where Pakistan stands on terrorism.
Karan Thapar: And that’s the real question mark that hangs over Pakistan today. Despite the rhetoric when they repeatedly say that they will leave no stone unturned to bring the Mumbai accused to justice, they don’t act?
M K Narayanan: They don’t act and there are also other issues which we have. I think Mr Chindambaram was on record on this fact saying that there are several other credible threats. I think the Prime Minister has made the same statement. This evidence is coming from not only our agencies but from friendly intelligence agencies.
Unless Pakistan is willing to take action against the two main terrorist groups which are targeting India: the (Lashkar-e-Toiba) LeT and Jaish. The rest is all rhetoric from our point of view.
Karan Thapar: I want very much to find out a bit about these additional threats that face India. The Prime Minister spoke about them in Barmer on the 30th of August. But first on Thursday Pakistan has filed two FIRs under the Anti-Terrorist Act against Hafiz Saeed. But they are not in anyway connected with the accusations that he faces for the Mumbai terror attack of 2008.
Do you see that as a first positive step or from India’s point of view is it irrelevant?
M K Narayanan: I think the latest one doesn’t add to their credibility, in my opinion.
Karan Thapar: It does nothing to add to Pakistan’s credibility at all?
M K Narayanan: At least as far as the Mumbai terror….
Karan Thapar: So the question mark remains as strongly?
M K Narayanan: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Let us then come to these other additional terrorist threats that you’ve talked about. In fact the Prime Minister on August 30 spoke of forces working to destabilize India-Pakistan relations. He said, “I could say a lot more.” What was he referring to?
M K Narayanan: He was referring to the threats that we-- what is the sort of thought behind these threats? Primarily the intelligence that we have is they wish to strike at targets which is bound to create widespread mayhem.
There is no other particular significance of some of the targets that are being targeted. Sometimes it is a religious place, sometimes it is a building which houses a large (number of people) or a institution that houses a large number of people of different kinds etc and several others. But the basic point is that if you take the totality, the totality of what is taking place, it is to create as much destruction for the sake of destruction.
Our concern is that if you really have a problem of this kind and even in Mumbai, for instance, you could very well have had a situation where because the attack came from Pakistan, people would see it as some Muslims are responsible. That could have been but the greatness of the Indian people is that they did not accept this neither the Hindus nor the Muslims or other communities.
So that is our concern, we are worried that something might sometimes trigger off a reaction which we are not able to control.
Karan Thapar: How seriously scared are you that there could be a second major Mumbai-like strike on India?
M K Narayanan: Here you’re asking me a question that I live with in almost daily dread that something that I am looking at over in the Home Ministry, because we attend a daily meeting, the Home Minister takes a daily meeting at which I am present, we get so many pieces of intelligence which pass across our table--many can be sort of weeded out--but as I said there are quite a few which if we are not able to nip in the bud and if they escape us could have (that result).
It is difficult to say whether we’ll have another Mumbai because I think we are better prepared for that kind of a situation - but it could be quite serious.
Karan Thapar: So you live with this dread every single day?
M K Narayanan: I would say that this is something that not merely I, but I think all the members of the security architecture or security force, live with.
Karan Thapar: President Obama was once quoted as saying that Pakistan scares him. Does Pakistan scare you?
M K Narayanan: Pakistan may not scare me but some of Pakistan’s actions scare us because I don’t think they really add to anything except creating problems for us.
Karan Thapar: Given these circumstances and given the perpetual fear that we could be the victim of another terrible strike, what point or purpose is served by the two foreign secretaries or the two foreign ministers meeting at the UN or is that meeting now less than likely?
M K Narayanan: The dialogue mechanism or rather the restricted dialogue mechanism, if I might say so, will continue. We are hoping that as a civilized nation although with a civilian leadership not very much in control but hopefully anxious to do something - somewhere, sometime the forces arranged against us operating from Pakistan can be brought to book.
Karan Thapar: How realistic is that hope?
M K Narayanan: I’ve always been seen as a hawk, so I don’t want to comment on that but I live in hope anyways.
Karan Thapar: And so the foreign secretaries and the foreign ministers will meet in the hope that may be they can get Pakistan to concentrate and deliver?
M K Narayanan: Yes. Hopefully, yes.
Karan Thapar: But it is a slim hope isn’t it?
M K Narayanan: Slim hope but I think if we don’t have hope you cannot achieve anything.