Mr. Sanjay Verma is the current ambassador of India to Spain. Mr Verma is a specialist in Asian affairs and in this interview he draws a detailed map of the relations that strengthen India in various matters in the Indo-Pacific region
Dear Ambassador, thank you very much for attending us. We would like to have some information regarding to the Indian performance in the international arena. India is a global payer, so we would like to have some information about your country, because here, in the Spanish media, we are having a problem, because everything that is coming from abroad is biased and the information is partisan. So, we would like to have firsthand information about those issues
A very warm welcome to the Indian embassy. We are happy to meet you. Season´s greetings. We are also pleased to take your questions.
Thank you very much. In recent weeks in India there are protests because of a law on the acquisition of citizenship. There are communities that claim to be discriminated against with this new law. The simplified echo we have here is that Muslim community is being discriminated. How would you explain the citizen bill to the wide audience?
There is an historical continuity to this process. The Indian citizenship act has changed over the last 30-40 years to deal with situations, for example we changed the citizenship law when Indians were thrown out from Myanmar and Uganda. So, law has seen changes. This change is also a legacy. In 1947 India suffered an unfortunate partition and the new amendment tries to deal with the leftovers from that historical fracture of India. This is not a prospective act; it is a retrospective act. All persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who came to India until five years ago i.e., 31 December 2014, will be fast tracked as citizens, these number about 30-31 thousand persons only. Muslims from these countries are excluded only in the fast tracking, but can be considered, on a case to case basis. India is a liberal country. For centuries we have received people. I think is a misreading of the bill, without realizing it retrospective-ness and the historical context.
Also, at the moment India seems to have problems in the border with Pakistan and China. We would like to have more information about the situation in Kashmir….
Let me begin by saying that the problems with China, and problems with Pakistan with respect to the boundary, or the border, are distinct. There is, however, some overlap because of Indian territory ceded by Pakistan to China. Otherwise, with China the border issue is more historical, while with Pakistan it began in 1947 with the partition of India. With China we have several bilateral mechanisms to deal with border issues. On the other hand, with Pakistan we are trapped in a vicious circle of dialogue-disruption-dialogue-disruption. We can talk more about it.
That’s the reason we would like to have more information, because it seems that is overlapping several issues at the moment. In the Kashmir region there are taking place military interventions even today, it seems there was a dialog before… how is the coexistence between inhabitants in the region, it there a parallelism between the political situation and the civil life? Or is the coexistence friendly and the problem is only political?
Well, for the unfamiliar, Kashmir appears as a place with one distinct identity and geography. But, Kashmir in reality has three distinct parts. Ladakh, which is Buddhist, Kashmir valley which is Muslim majority, and the third part of the state is Jammu with a Hindu majority. Recently, the government of India within our internal laws re-configured the special status State of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories – Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir, to be under direct federal rule.
Kashmir today is largely Muslim because about 200, 000 Kashmiri Hindus were forced out from their homes by separatist militants in the late eighties and early nineties. As explained earlier, Kashmir is Muslim majority, Jammu is largely Hindu, and Ladakh Buddhist. Your readers need to remember that there are no issues as such between communities because Hindus were expelled with the support of militants from across the border by creating a fear psychosis.
Which are the reasons for the current violence escalation? How has everything started again?
There have always been skirmishes at the line of control as the Pakistani military gave fire cover to let their militants infiltrate into India. We have also faced regular attacks on our military and air force bases in the Kashmir region by infiltrators from Pakistan. In a major incidents in February 2019 in Pulwama, a suicide bomber blew up around forty Indian paramilitary forces. India is a pacifist nation; we are historically not an offensive country. India has not attacked unless provoked.
Which was the main reason to change the status of the Kashmir region?
Article 370 of the Indian constitution dealt with Jammu and Kashmir. This article was changed, or abrogated, because it was the only ´´temporary´´ Article in the entire constitution of India. This temporary article stayed with us for 70 years but failed to serve the true interests of the people of Jammu and Kashmir as the state increasingly got isolated and lagged behind the fantastic socio-economic changes the rest of India was benefitting from. By removing Article 370 we bring Jammu and Kashmir on par with the rest of the country. So, welfare and economic benefits and democratic privileges will apply to Jammu and Kashmir. 70 years is a very long period for a temporary Article. If you recollect, the British were in India for over 200 years, but the Crown ruled India directly only for 90 years! We gave Article 370 seven decades … it did not work. Our approach has changed. By abrogating Article 370 the government of India is reorienting itself in providing a solution to the Kashmir issue.
There are international organizations trying to get in into the issue, as the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP)? Does its presence make sense?
Let us remember the context of a referendum supervised by UN in Kashmir. The fact is that when we offered a referendum on Kashmir, people of that state would have overwhelmingly voted to stay in India. But the situation was changed completely by Pakistani occupation, by its support for cross-border terrorism and by infiltration. Demography changed when 200,000 Kashmiri Hindus were pushed out. So, when you change the whole ethos of a place, you cannot talk of a referendum promised 7 decades ago, it doesn’t make sense. Moreover, when Pakistan signed the Shimla Agreement in 1972 with India, it agreed that the Kashmir issue must be resolved bilaterally. So, the UN doesn’t really have a place in Kashmir.
India has announced the realization of military exercises at the border. Can this lead to an escalation of tension with the Pakistani authorities?
I hope it doesn’t.
India has over the years offered a hand of friendship and dialogue to Pakistan. Dialogue and talks have begun several times, but only to be vitiated and derailed by elements based in Pakistan which are conveniently labelled as non-state actors. Until that pattern is broken, I don’t think we can have a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan.
India has carried out military exercises with the French army. Would France be an ally of India in a hypothetical war with Pakistan?
Let me say that India has military exercises with several countries, including the U.S., France, Australia, Japan etc. Conducting peace time military exercises is part of the engagement between defense forces of countries with whom we have good relations.
Recently a corridor has been opened at the Kartarpur border so that the believers of the Sikh religion can access their temples. Do you think this can lead to greater cooperation in other matters between the two countries?
India has welcomed the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Indian pilgrims. We worked closely with the Pakistani government on the Kartarpur Corridor. This is a positive development as it serves the need of the significant minority Sikh community of India. While this was a positive engagement, one can safely assume that only if you have a series of such positive confidence-building measures, undisturbed by forces which destabilize the relationship, its only then that we can anticipate a durable peace process. But Kartarpur, without undermining it, I hope is not a one-off event. It has to be sustained by continuous, credible and durable peace process.
On the other hand, India also has border disputes with Nepal. India and Nepal share a long border, and there seem to be disagreements with the border region in Kalapani and the Susta area in southern Nepal. How is coexistence among the different communities living in the area?
India-Nepal relationships are unique. We share a long border (over 1700 kms), but one which is also Open. Not many are aware that Nepalese and Indians don’t need visa to go to each other´s country, our peoples can just walk across with any identity document like a driving license and on a daily basis hundreds of thousands do so. The international border is however affected by geography. At some places the border is defined by rivers which changes course, becoming closer to Nepal or to India. Because of these unique geographical features some small areas may have differences of opinion on where the boundary between the two countries lies. Having said that, these are not major issues, but which can be blown out of proportion because of emotional reasons or local politics. The larger reality is that an Open border exists and that is the biggest sign of confidence and friendship between the two countries. There are millions of Nepalese living in India, and they do not require any special documentation to work or study. The General of the Nepal army is the Honorary General of the Indian army, and vice versa. This is the level of our close relationship. All these reports on differences are minor matters.
Also, the border with Bangladesh suffers tensions; recently the country's border guard has shot at an Indian guard. What are the reasons for tensions with this neighboring country?
We don’t have any significant outstanding border issues with Bangladesh. We had a longstanding issue until two years ago of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and Bangladeshi enclaves within India because of historical reasons. We resolved that by changing the configuration of the boundaries. Now there are no significant outstanding boundary issues with Bangladesh. If there have been some incidents, they are not connected to serious differences on the border.
Bilateral meetings with China are being developed to resolve border issues as well; China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of southern Tibet. How do you expect the meetings to end?
India-China relations in several ways is a mature relationship. We understand that there are outstanding boundary issues, but I think that since the 1962 border skirmish with China, one of our greatest achievements (same for the Chinese) is that we been able to treat our differences with the maturity. Along with some differences, we also maintain a thriving economic relationship with China. Our bilateral trade is around US$ 95 billion per year. There are thousands of Chinese companies in India, and there are thousands of Indian companies in China. We have been adept in not allowing differences to impact our economical and commercial relations. Moreover, there are around thirty bilateral mechanisms to resolve issue and build relations between the two countries on various issues, including on the boundary issue. Last week our National Security Advisor met his Chinese counterpart on the boundary issue, this is a regular process. Indian Foreign Minister recently suggested that 70 years is too long a time for us to continue living with boundary issues. India has a strong intent to solve these issues. This is where the India-China relations stand.
On the other hand, India recently does not seem to want to be part of an FTA promoted by China, the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). What are the reasons for refusing to join that FTA?
There are strong economic grounds as we believe that the terms of trade and services in the agreement does not suit us. I have to share with you that of the fourteen countries in the deal, we have bilateral trade agreements with many of them. So, we will be dealing with them at one level or another. Currently, RCEP in its present form is not acceptable to my government, but if there are favourable changes in the terms and conditions there will no reason why India may not join at a later date.
It is being commented that India does not have technology applied to production to compete with the RCEP countries. Is there an industrial development plan in progress?
About 60% of India´s GDP comes from its service sector. It doesn’t come from industry; it doesn’t come from agriculture. But agriculture sector has strengths. We are amongst the largest food producer in the world. We also have some globally competitive industrial and manufacturing sectors like pharmaceuticals, textiles, space, automobiles etc. On RCEP, my sense is that we may not have got such a great deal in the service sector, and we also have concerns about one or two of our primary and industrial sectors because of which we are not signing the agreement.
However, there are products such as gems and jewelry, chemicals, engineering goods, and pharmaceuticals, which have increased their profits. Is India going to concentrate efforts on boosting these sectors, or is planning to make a structural boost of Indian production?
I think that is a given. We are one of the world biggest crude oil refiners and exporter of refined oil products. IT, space, auto, pharma, gems and jewelry, textiles, agro and food related sectors, entertainment industry, our films, our music… these are also sectors India wants to focus on.
Which is India's global commercial strategy?
To put it simply, to make sure that the global structure for trade and investments is not dismantled, and that it doesn’t become a victim of one or two countries´ approach to global issues. It has to be truly multilateral. WTO arrangement brought prosperity to the world in the best phase of globalization. Such arrangements must not be disrupted or tuned to any specific interests.
At a more functional level we would like to economically and commercially engage with the world . At the same time, we also look for opportunities overseas where there are solutions to India´s pressing developmental needs in the area of environment, water, sanitation, energy etc. We would like to engage with countries that have appropriate technologies and practices in areas of interest to us.
Will India boost agreements with the EU, as FTA, or will promote bilateral agreements, for example, with Spain?
The India –EU agreement is under negotiation. One of the stumbling blocks, apart from the tariff structure, is also Europe opening up to our service sector. Regarding Spain, we have a healthy trade relationship at over US$ 6 billion in 2018. In terms of investment we have about US$ 4 billion in bilateral investments, we are in good spot in the commercial relationship, but more can be done.
What would you propose to improve the relationship with Spain?
I think we need to exchange more trade delegations. We need to excite our companies to look at each other. There are over 180 Spanish companies in India, and over 50 Indian companies in Spain, but we need more traffic there.
Mr. Sanjay Verma has been developing his diplomatic career for decades, began his work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India in 1990. Since then he has been the diplomatic head of India in Hong Kong (Economic and Commercial), Manila (Second Secretary - Press, Political and Consular), Kathmandu (Counsellor - Press, Information and Culture), Beijing (Head of the Economic and Commercial Wing), Dubai, Consul General, Ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti and the African Union.