IN the first week of January, even as tensions between India and Pakistan kept rising, New Delhi played host to two important visitors. The first was British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He was followed by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Peres is a frequent visitor to India, so to speak. He came to the country three times in the past twelve months. Tony Blair, who has shown a penchant for playing the role of an international trouble-shooter, visited the subcontinent in September 2001, after the terrorist attacks in the United States. Blair's visit in January was the first ever state visit to India by a British Prime Minister in 12 years.
More high-level visitors are expected in the next few weeks. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due in New Delhi in the third week of January, and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji came on January 13 for a three-day visit.
The invitation to the British Prime Minister was extended in late 2001 and his itinerary was planned a couple of months ago. However, the escalation of military and political tensions between India and Pakistan added more significance to the visit. Before leaving for the subcontinent, Blair said that an important goal of his visit was to douse the tensions. Pakistan is a key ally of the West in its "war against terrorism". The Indian government too has given unqualified support to the U.S.-led war.
Hence, it was no surprise that Blair walked a diplomatic tightrope when he visited India and Pakistan. Before arriving in New Delhi, he had conceded the importance of the Kashmir issue in the politics of the subcontinent. He said that Pakistan had a "strong point" on Kashmir. In New Delhi, he focussed on the importance of the resumption of a "comprehensive" dialogue between India and Pakistan. He conceded that for talks to be meaningful, all terrorist activity should stop. "There are two sides to the equation. On the one hand, there has to be complete rejection of terrorism and an end to support to it in any form. And then meaningful dialogue can begin," Blair said.
The British Premier welcomed the steps taken by Islamabad in recent months to combat terrorism. At the same time, he emphasised that there should be "complete rejection of acts such as December 13". He advised the Indian government to resume the dialogue with Pakistan provided "the threat of terrorism was lifted". Replying to Blair, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee reiterated the Indian government's position on the issue. He said that India was ready to resume the dialogue with Pakistan on all issues including Kashmir. However, he added that he doubted Islambad's commitment to end "cross-border terrorism". Islamabad has so far refused to recognise New Delhi's characterisation of cross-border terrorism. The Pakistani government spokesperson had reiterated in Kathmandu on the occasion of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, that the Line of Control (LoC) did not constitute an international border and that freedom fighters could not be characterised as "terrorists".
Vajpayee told Blair that Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf had not used the word "terrorism" even once in his speech at the SAARC conference, and pointed out that it was a "big omission". Indian officials seemed to be quite aware of the fact that after September 11, the West no longer differentiated between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. The treatment being meted out to the Palestinians by Israel with Western acquiescence is seen by many as an instance of the new tough stance adopted by the West.
In Hyderabad, Blair told mediapersons that the starting point of any dialogue between India and Pakistan had to be "the complete rejection of terrorist attacks witnessed on October 1 and December 13". The reference was to the terrorist attacks on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building in Srinagar and the attack on Parliament House.
At the end of Blair's short visit to the capital, a "New Delhi Declaration" was issued. The highlight of the Declaration, which covers all aspects of bilateral relations, are the four basic principles that united the two countries in the fight against terrorism. The Declaration says that terrorism cannot be justified on any grounds and that it should be "condemned unambiguously and eradicated wherever it exists". The Declaration says that all those who support terrorism directly or indirectly must be condemned, including individuals and groups that "finance, train or provide support for terrorists".
Both India and Britain also expressed their support for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, which explicitly condemns terrorism and calls for a united effort to eradicate terrorism. Both countries also agreed to conduct joint counter-terrorism exercises under the framework of the U.K.-India Joint Working Group on Terrorism. After his meeting with Vajpayee, Blair had a telephonic conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush on the India-Pakistan stand-off.
SHIMON PERES utilised his visit to publicise the close relations the two countries had established in the past three years. "Indo-Israeli relations are witnessing the highest and the best season," said the veteran Israeli politician. Indirectly equating the struggle in Palestine with the trouble in Kashmir, Peres said that India and Israel were joint victims of the "global scourge" of terrorism. He added that India could look upon Israel as a friend in the war against terrorism.
Peres expressed optimism about the proposed sale of Israeli-made Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft to India. He felt that given the good relations between New Delhi and Washington, the U.S. should not object to the purchase of the AWACS. Israeli media reports said that Washington had already given the nod to Israel for their sale to India. The Clinton administration had prevented Israel from selling them to China on the grounds that it would endanger U.S. security interests. Diplomatic sources say that the AWACS may be used by India mainly to gather intelligence about China. On the other hand, Beijing would have deployed them near Taiwan, where the U.S. has a strong military presence.
Peres even advised India to apply for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership. His rationale was that the only enemy NATO was fighting these days was terrorism. "The world is no longer divided between the East and the West, the North and the South. The new division is between countries that harbour terrorists and countries that fight them," he said.
Peres said that countries like Iran would have to decide on which side they were. In recent months, Israel has been proclaiming that the Islamic state of Iran is a potential threat to the West. In fact, the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, had criticised India's invitation to the Israeli Foreign Minister.
When Peres was in India, Indian security agencies arrested three Palestinians living in West Bengal on the suspicion that they belonged to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group. Even the U.S. has not banned the Hamas. Only the armed wing of Hamas figures in the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist groups. The Indian action came at a time when the Israeli government was imposing draconian laws on Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Unsurprisingly, the Arab media reacted adversely to the development. Some reports even said that India too had started handing over Arabs to third parties. The issue has been taken up with the government by representatives of Arab countries in New Delhi.