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The tizzy caused by Modi's proposed gift!

August 06, 2014 13:47 IST

SAARC satelliteB S Prakash takes a tongue-in-cheek look at what India's neighbours think about Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking Indian scientists to develop a SAARC satellite, which can be dedicated as a 'gift' to the neighbours. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

LeakyWeeks, the Web site that exposes confidential documents has revealed how India's neighbours reacted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's proposal of a SAARC satellite.

Speaking at the launch of the PSLV last month, Modi had offered that the Indian satellite could potentially be used by all its SAARC neighbours.

What did the neighbours think? America's National Security Agency -- made famous by Edward Snowden's disclosures -- was listening to the telephone conversations, bedroom whispers, bathroom singings and toilet flushes of all the key people in all SAARC countries, as indeed everywhere else.

The listening is more intense in Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite the disturbances of bomb blasts and bombast, which makes recording difficult.

But since the NSA has been directed by the White House to make its coverage universal and non-discriminatory (except in client States like UK and Australia) the agency monitored the reactions in every SAARC country.

Its top secret draft report, summarising the responses based on recordings, editorial comments etc, was accessed by a 22-year-old Sri Lankan working as a record sorter in the caves in the Utah mountains where the data is being stored. Recognising the word SAARC on the box, he apparently sold the tapes to LeakyWeeks.

Here is the draft report, with notations by the editor, technical director etc:

Afghanistan: As soon as the Indian offer was made, President Karzai was heard (that is, overheard by the NSA systems) telling his advisers: 'We should welcome it as another gift from India' and in a long line of gifts including the highway, the hospital, the power project, and the Parliament building.

When and how will the Satellite come, he inquired. Told that 'No, it was not a physical gift that was expected any time soon; and that it was not envisaged that he or his brother could lay their hands over it', his enthusiasm seemed to wane.

After realising that he was not likely to be the President anymore, Karzai said that the future government should ensure that the satellite capture the images of Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line (separating his country from Pakistan), and that the line itself should not be visible. Will he be invited to India for the next launch, he asked wistfully.

Bhutan: The technical director has recorded that the NSA had much difficulty in compiling reactions from the Himalayan kingdom. First, there were very few telephone conversations. (Possibly, because there were not too many people, the intelligence experts felt).

Second, it did not have even one 'listener' who could understand Bhutanese. The few nuggets it heard were: The King reflecting how the use of the satellite could enhance the GNH-Gross National Happiness, and the prime minister telling his advisers that since the idea had come from India, they were bound to welcome it, irrespective of what it was. They would request that the satellite should not do too much mapping of their mountains; they prefer to be left alone.

Bangladesh: The editor notes that in contrast to Bhutan, the NSA's listeners were overworked. 'Bengalis gossip too much and talk too long,' as Charlie Wilson, its veteran Bangladesh watcher, explained. But, no problem, they had a whole battalion of Bengalis working on H-1 B outsourced visas and hence listening was ample and accurate.

Surprisingly, the first reaction came from the Opposition leader Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who called the offer an 'Indian conspiracy'.

'It is an attempt to distort the data on Farakka barrage, the Teesta flows, and to deny us the enclaves. Take that line,' she was heard telling her spokesperson.

According to our analyst, this put Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a difficult position, as usual. Nevertheless, displaying her characteristic courage, she welcomed India's offer. There can be benefits for us as long as the satellite does not track the migration patterns, legal or illegal, she told her foreign minister.

We can work on a negative list of what the satellite should not do -- river water flow data, physical features, border crossings, but we can discuss it all with the Indians in a new working committee for the next ten years, as we do in the other committees, he was heard explaining.

We should also ask India to send a Bangladeshi into space, next, the labour minister commented: It is a vast and unmanned territory, as yet, fit for settlements.

Pakistan: The NSA director notes that the 'electronic chatter' was so heavy immediately after the Indian offer, that the Agency found it challenging. There are also separate encryption systems used by the government of Pakistan, its armed forces, the ISI, and the militant outfits, and they were all consulting each other about the 'outrage of an Indian offer', as one senior official put it.

But the editor notes that the NSA's superior technologies were able to decipher the main thrust of Pakistan's reactions. The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, the most important authority in the country, seemed furious.

On the nation's most secure line, he chided the ISI chief: 'You got the Indian PM all wrong in your assessments. You had assured me that this Modi will never extend his hand. We were banking on it. He first invites Nawaz Sharif for his inaugural and is now making an offer to use his satellites,' the general thundered. 'Tell Nawaz, not to react,' he was heard telling the chief minister of Punjab.

'When do we do our own launches of the Ghazni satellites?' he asked the air force chief and was peeved when the air chief said that satellites were different from missiles.

'What next? There will be images of the LoC and our border intrusions. It is a serious threat to our work,' agreed the ISI chief. 'As a first step, we must insist that any such proposal should be discussed in the UN,' advised the foreign secretary.

The CIA chief has made a significant contribution based on his sources:

'Pakistan is not too pleased with the Indian satellite,' he has reported.

Sri Lanka: 'Why is the Indian space programme run by Radhakrishnans, Madhavans, Chidambarams, and only Tamils like that?' was President Mahinda Rajapaksa's first reaction.

Told that it was not so, that some names were that of Keralites and some others were in charge of the nuclear programme, the President's anxieties seemed to ebb.

'Can the satellite track the Tamil Nadu fisherman crossing and coming over to our waters?' was the next question. 'Anyway, make sure that Tamil Nadu has nothing to do with the launch or the satellite. The rest I will manage, leave it to me and my brothers,' the all powerful Rajapaksa was heard telling his cabinet colleagues.

Maldives: The NSA faced problems akin to Bhutan: Too little conversation. To compound it, much of the talk that was recorded was in German or French and it was later found out that most of the 'chatter' was by visiting tourists.

'I hope GMR has not built it,' was one significant comment by the President's office. 'We can go along, but say that the satellite should monitor the rising sea levels,' the foreign minister was told.

Nepal: 'Has China made a similar offer? If so, say yes to both and tell them that we remain equidistant,' said a powerful Maoist personality, outside the government. 'We will react when we have reached an agreement on the constitution and then on the government, likely in another ten years,' said a Nepali Congress leader.

'We should take care that no such thing ever happens; they will steal all our Himalayan and hydro data for dams which we have safeguarded from being built for four decades,' said a strategic expert. 'Tell India, that it should be a project under the SAARC secretariat, that is the best way to bury it,' advised a veteran diplomat.

B S Prakash is a former Indian Ambassador. You can read more of Mr Prakash's columns on Rediff.com here.

B S Prakash