End the month-long standoff, hold direct talks. That's the message United States Secretary of State Colin Powell took to nuclear rivals India and Pakistan this week. Powell says India and Pakistan are pulling back from the brink of war. Are they?
With the Indian view is Defense Minister George Fernandes. He joins us now from Washington.
Mr. Fernandes, good to have you on Q&A. Thanks for being with us. Is the threat of war between India and Pakistan over?
Fernandes: Well, it is difficult to answer that question. All that I can say is that India is making every effort at the diplomatic level, and has for quite some time now, to see that we don't have to get into any kind of hostilities between our two countries.
Verjee: So you're suggesting there is still a possibility.
Fernandes: I'm not making that suggestion. What I am suggesting is that we would very much like to have this matter settled through diplomatic channels.
Verjee: Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, has said, quote, "I am confident there won't be a war." Why can't India be that confident?
Fernandes: For the simple reason that we have been at the receiving end of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism over a long period of time. And all efforts in the past to put an end to it through dialogue or through other means have failed.
And more recently, on the 13th of December, we went through harrowing times when an effort was made by, again, Pakistani-sponsored terrorists, to liquidate the entire political leadership of India, both in the government coalition and in the opposition.
Against that backdrop, it is difficult for us to take anyone's word unless it is backed by deeds.
Verjee: So you're saying you don't trust what Pervez Musharraf is saying?
Fernandes: Well, he has done a good job when he made that famous speech of his a few days back, insofar as his own domestic problems are concerned. But he has not addressed the issues that we have raised over a period of time, and particularly in the aftermath of the 13th of December.
Verjee: You talk about Pakistani-sponsored terrorists being responsible for that, but this issue has come up before and I will ask it again. What evidence is there to prove that?
Fernandes: Well, we have given all of the requisite evidence to the Pakistani authorities.
Verjee: But I'm asking you to tell us on Q&A what evidence you have. I mean, can't you spell it out? Don't the Indian people have a right to know what that evidence is?
Fernandes: Well, that evidence has been presented to the Indian people also to the extent that it was felt necessary by the president.
Verjee: So what is it?
Fernandes: The evidence is that all of those, the five terrorists who came, they belonged to Pakistan. They...
Verjee: How do you know that?
Fernandes: For the simple reason that the identities that our people were able to establish shows it.
Verjee: How were you able to establish their identity?
Fernandes: Their identities were established by all of the weapons that they were carrying, the kind of uniform they were wearing, and the kind of action they got into.
Verjee: So that constitutes India's evidence, that's it?
Fernandes: No. And we also have evidence of the telephone calls that were made before and after the incident.
Verjee: What kind of conversations were made in those calls?
Fernandes: The conversations -- we are not privy to the conversations, but we know where those phone calls were made and those phone calls went via Pakistan to various places.
Verjee: So where were they made, though? And they went -- they were made in Pakistan or somewhere else through Pakistan?
Fernandes: They were made from Delhi minutes before the incident and thereafter.
Verjee: All right. As you mentioned earlier, Pervez Musharraf's historic speech that he made a few days ago, and Pakistan has, as you suggested, taken some positive steps toward cracking down on militant groups and so forth. But what can India actually do itself to diffuse tensions?
Fernandes: There is nothing that India can do. There is nothing that we have done. We are not carrying on any kind of violence against our neighbor. There is nothing that we can do. It is for Pakistan to act.
After all, you have seen, he now has said that he is doing away with terrorism. He is banning these organizations. In fact, he has banned two of them the day he made his speech. And so on.
So all that we are suggesting is, please now let us go in for action on the basis of what you have said.
Verjee: But India is a very big player in the region, as you know that. It's a big democracy and it should bear some responsibility of course to what unfolds in the Indian subcontinent. So why can't the larger, the stronger country here, take some initiative to diffuse the situation? Why can't you do that?
Fernandes: Well, I don't think size of countries have anything to do with this. After all, the United States is a mighty nation. It is the most powerful nation in the world, both in terms of its military capabilities and its economic power. And yet, when the United States -- what it did, that great tragedy on September 11th, the United States decided to act.
So therefore the size of a country has nothing to do with this. We are dealing with terrorism. Terrorism is terrorism. And like President Bush has said, no matter -- there is nothing called good terrorism and bad terrorism.
Verjee: Making a suggestion here -- why doesn't India take steps to, say, allow the flights of Pakistani airlines across Indian airspace or start the bus service again between Lahore and Delhi. I mean, wouldn't that be some kind of step India could take?
Fernandes: Well, there is a solution for action, and I leave it at that.
Verjee: Why won't you reduce your troops at the border?
Fernandes: I beg your pardon?
Verjee: Why won't India reduce its troops at the border?
Fernandes: For the simple reason that Pakistan has its troops on the border and those troops are very, very close to our borders. There isn't much depth as far as they are concerned.
As for as our troops, these stations are far, far away from the border.
Verjee: Pakistan says its troops are there because the Indian troops are there. They say you mobilized first and you have these massive troops mobilizations and weapons and so forth and they only did that in response to what India was doing.
Fernandes: Well, there is a general saying that truth becomes the major casualty in situations of this nature. And unfortunately in this case also truth has become the major casualty.
Verjee: Your parliamentary affairs minister, Pramod Mahajan, said that Indian troops at the border will lessen if Pakistan hands over 20 suspected militants. Do you agree with that? Is that what it would take?
Fernandes: Well, I have consistently held, and it has been the government's position, that (a) cross-border terrorism must be brought to an end and (b) those...
Verjee: But I'm talking specifically about these militants. If you got those 20 militants, or some of those 20 militants, would India reduce troops at the border?
Fernandes: Let me make the point that if those 20 people are surrendered and the cross-border terrorism continues, then the purpose is not served. We are back again to square one.
Verjee: But there's not even any extradition treaty between your two countries. Pakistan says it's not handing over any Pakistanis. So why are you pursuing what looks like a dead end there?
Fernandes: I think in the kind of global coalition that we are in, these questions of extradition treaties, etcetera, I don't think have been important factors in deciding how we get rid of terrorist menace.
Verjee: Mr. Fernandes, a question for you from the streets of New Delhi. Please take a listen.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is his impression about his visit to America, whether the Americans are with us on the terrorism or this is all a cosmetic performance.
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Verjee: Mr. Fernandes?
Fernandes: Yes. I have had a very good visit here until this morning. We have had discussions at the level of the defense secretary. I've had meetings with the vice president. I have had meetings with the national security adviser. And in all these meetings, we have been able to appreciate each others concerns.
I have no doubt that this visit is going to give us the kind of support that we today look for through the global coalition.
Verjee: Do you mean military support? Because there is a lot of talk about a new strategic and military relationship between India and the United States that's a long-term strategic alliance.
Fernandes: Yes. Our long-term strategic alliance is not discussing any kind of military involvement. But we are going to have cooperation at various levels. We are going to have joint exercises. We are going to have exchange of senior officials into our respective higher defense studies institutions. And in matters of overall stability and global security we intend to work together.
Verjee: Is this alliance, as you suggest, a long-term strategic interest between India and the United States, a strategy to counter the influence of China in the region?
Fernandes: I think the United States has the best of relations with China where economic matters are concerned and even on other political issues. The relationship between the two countries is on a very good basis.
Verjee: But how do you see it? I want to know how you see the role of China in the region and its influences on the United States and Indian policy.
Fernandes: Well, at the moment the relationship between China and India is correct and is very friendly.
Verjee: What do you mean by correct?
Fernandes: Correct in the sense that we don't have any kind of gulf between precept and practice, and it is also friendly. We have problems in our borders in terms of border claims. Also territorial claims. But we don't have an incident, we have not had one for more than the last three years. And we have been meeting regularly, alternating those meetings between Beijing and Delhi, and discussing our border problems and how to go about resolving them.
Verjee: On something more specific here -- is the United States delaying India's efforts to secure what is know as the Falcon Airborne Warning and Control System from Israel? That was an issue that has been discussed quite frequently in the past few days. What did you learn from your visit?
Fernandes: Well, I heard it for the first time on the 15th evening in New Delhi, where a correspondent of one of the television networks said that such a decision had been taken by the United States.
Verjee: Has it?
Fernandes: No. Before I left India, I spoke to Ambassador Blackwell from the United States who was at that time in Rajasthan for some meeting.
Verjee: So are you going to get that? The Airborne Warning and Control System, from Israel.
Fernandes: Yes, we are.
Fernandes: It's all there. It's never been -- the United States has given us the sanctions and...
Verjee: But they were worried about the timing of this.
Fernandes: No. All those were stories that were floated by people that had perhaps some other interest.
Verjee: Are you suggesting Pakistan?
Fernandes: I don't think so. I don't think Pakistan would have planted such stories in any kind of television network.
Verjee: But there were reports, though, that Pakistan would be concerned that India would receive equipment like this.
Fernandes: No, I don't believe that Pakistan was behind spurring this story. This story has been found to be absolute rubbish.
Verjee: OK. Last question: your government almost collapsed because of an alleged corruption scandal in the Defense Ministry. You were implicated in that. You resigned. You are now back as defense minister. Has anything changed in your ministry? What have you actually done to make it more transparent?
Fernandes: Well, I brought transparency the day I entered that ministry. And there are people who will not accept transparency, and they are the ones who ganged up against me along with a whole lot of others who had their own vested interest.
There is not a single charge made against me by anyone.
Verjee: George Fernandes, India's defense minister -- thank you, sir, for speaking to us on Q&A. Appreciate that.
Fernandes: Thank you very much.
Verjee: You're welcome.
(Courtesy, Indian Embassy in Washington)