Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SE Asia: Self-Help or Western Interference

KARACHI: Former Indian external affairs minister Jaswant Singh minced no words when criticising western presence in the region, arguing that the nations of South Asia should solve their problems themselves rather than depending on western help.

Mr Singh said this on Tuesday while talking to the media in Karachi. The senior politician and former central leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was in Pakistan to promote his book Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, which had raised a furore when it was released in India last year and led to his expulsion from the BJP due to its positive portrayal of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Jaswant Singh, who also served as finance and defence minister, called for greater efforts to promote peace in South Asia as well as a relaxation of the Byzantine visa regime existing between Pakistan and India.

In reply to a question about the Afghan situation, he said he had “a serious problem” with the ‘Af-Pak’ neologism. “Who came up with it?” he asked, speaking to the local media in a mix of English, Urdu and Hindi.

While addressing the United States he said “you live 8,500km away. We live eight-and-a-half minutes away from each other. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India need to solve their own problems.

“Nato stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. What has the North Atlantic got to do with the Pamirs?”

Mr Singh said that if countries of the region kept looking to the West as saviours they risked losing their independence. He said that though he was on a literary tour of Pakistan and was not here on a political mission, “politics inevitably intrudes on our lives. Issues demand attention.”

He said the reception his latest book has received both in India and Pakistan was “very gratifying. As an author I am satisfied in the interest.”

With reference to the mini-firestorm the book caused in India, including book burnings and banning of the book in parts of that country, the senior Indian politician said: “A book is like a child for the author. When books are burnt it feels like a child has been burnt. But that is part of life.”

Answering a question, he said that Indian reviews were mostly positive but a “small section (of the population) had a problem with it.”

He said the solution to the Kashmir issue lay in dialogue, adding that “excellent relations are the wish of the people. Without excellent relations we shall be devoured by poverty and there can be no peace. The people should take the first step. Peace is our first priority”.

Regarding the problems faced by common citizens in getting visa for the other country, he said “the visa issues of the poor” should be resolved in order to “reduce the distances. We should revert to the pre-1965 situation. Break down this Berlin Wall. This is the voice of the people”.

Mr Singh added that when he was foreign minister he had suggested that city-specific visas be abolished for certain categories. However, he claimed that officials from the Pakistani side did not warm up to the idea.

He said the media of both countries should continue to play a positive role as they were “part of the constituency of peace.”

Coming to the issue of terrorism, which has poisoned relations between the two states, he said that “without reining in terrorism we both get hurt. It is very important that questions raised by the (2008) Mumbai (attacks) are answered”.

He quoted John F. Kennedy to bring home his point: Never negotiate out of fear; but let us never fear to negotiate.

Mr Singh noted that it was the responsibility of both the state and civil society in the two countries to work together against terrorism.

Recalling the Kargil episode of 1999, he said the ink had not dried on the Lahore Agreement when the incident took place, which resulted in a limited conflict between Pakistan and India.

Asked what he felt was the major stumbling block in Pakistan-India peace, Mr Singh replied that it was “the shadow of history.”

From here.

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