June 17, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/George Fernandes

'When terrorism stares you in the face, you can't sit back'

As the visits of US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw India and Pakistan pull back from the brink of war -- at least momentarily -- Union Defence Minister George Fernandes said an understanding had been reached on how to deal with the immediate problems, which would help in creating a better atmosphere in the subcontinent.

In an exclusive interview with Sheela Bhatt, Fernandes explained that Indian troops held back because the government wanted to have the most cost-effective way of dealing with the crisis with Pakistan. Excerpts:

What are India's objections to joint patrolling of the Line of Control? Also, why did you goof up in Bangalore, when you rejected the prime minister's proposal for joint patrolling made in Almaty?

There was no goof-up. I was in Bangalore to attend a meeting of the consultative committee of the defence ministry. After the meeting the media told me that the prime minister had said we should have joint patrolling of the border. I said: "There cannot be joint patrolling at the border. I don't see how the prime minister can make such a statement. Have you seen the statement?"

It has come on television, they said. I had not seen the statement, so I said I couldn't comment on it. I said as far as I can see it's not possible to patrol these borders. Because patrolling has a certain connotation. And I can't see how it is possible, given the terrain and the fact that we are today in a situation of confrontation.

It was around 1 o'clock, and the matter ended there. I had lunch. I asked my Delhi office to find out what the prime minister had said exactly. They confirmed that he did make such a statement. He said we should try and make an effort in that direction. I was in Singapore when a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security had discussed this issue. The prime minister left for Almaty when I was not in Delhi, so there was no way we could have interacted.

What are India's major objections to joint patrolling?

I believe that when troops are on the border, the idea of our discussing both countries' troops holding hands and walking up and down is not possible. You can't be staring at each other in joint patrolling! It means you are obviously walking and working together. You are finding somebody and you have a common approach to the problem. Therefore, it's not possible for an army that has been positioned eyeball to eyeball to suddenly turn around. We are not robots!

The human mind is a human mind. Our soldiers don't use the word jawan [soldier] for them [Pakistani soldiers], they use the word dushman [enemy]. They are trained to fight the dushman. Today they are eyeball to eyeball and tomorrow how can they go cycling together?

Why did the prime minister not give a thought to it?

It's not just the prime minister's decision. It's a collective decision. There is nothing wrong with the proposal as such. It has been made in the past also. Joint patrolling is not being done for the first time. It's [just] not possible in the circumstances in which we are living. It's not possible for the simple reason that men who were eyeball to eyeball till yesterday cannot be pulled out and asked to do joint patrolling.

India is cementing its ties with Israel further, that too worries Pakistan.

We have very close military and strategic relations with Israel. Why should it worry Pakistan? The tension is not because of our closeness with any other country, it's because of what Pakistan is doing.

In case of a full-blown war with Pakistan, what do you think China's attitude will be?

I don't think China will get into any fighting on behalf of Pakistan. They are helping them with nuclear weapons, in missile technology, giving them money and so on. It's okay. So what? But China has its own concerns and India is no pushover.

I don't believe Pakistan will dare to take us on, but if they do India is capable of dealing with Pakistan. China will not go with Pakistan. My logic is that China would not want enmity with India. Our trade last year with China was US $4 billion. And it's growing by the day.

In Kashmir recently, Vajpayee said we would write a new chapter of victory. You too made hawkish statements. But India did not launch an attack. It's said that the Indian Army's mindset since 1971 is that of a defending army.

Between defence and attack, the dividing line is hardly visible.

Retired army chief General V N Sharma says Hindus are not aggressive enough.

(Smirks) Hindus are not aggressive, who says so? I think the number of killings we have in India says it all. It will be hypocritical to say that [Hindus are not aggressive].

As defence minister you said you were not perturbed by Pakistan's missile tests in the last week of May. Was it really so?

What else was expected from me?

My job is to see that the nation's morale and the morale of the troops is high. Dr Ram Manohar Lohia used to say the army is the fist and the people are the arm, if the arm is weak, the fist cannot be strong. That was a gimmick that man [General Musharraf] tried. He was firing a missile a day. It was a joke and I treated it as such.

Do you think Pakistan has tactical nuclear weapons?

As nobody has access to our military secrets, I don't think anyone has access to Pakistan's military secrets. It's speculation.

There is no military solution to Kashmir. Israel is a classic example. Wars do not bring results. Do you agree?

War is not a final solution to any problem. For that matter, violence is no solution for a domestic problem. To take your argument to its logical end I'll have to tell Pakistan: 'Why are you indulging in such things? Let's eat, enjoy and sleep well. Why fight?'

Pakistanis will think I have gone mad. I have frontiers to guard. If those five terrorists had blown up Parliament or if they had entered room number 5 and shot at the prime minister and the home minister in room number 9, what should have been our response? When terrorism stares you in the face, you can't sit back.

For the past five months we have been holding back. By not attacking in spite of being bled in Jammu & Kashmir, we are proving that military action won't get us the solution we are seeking.

We are holding back because we would like to have the most cost-effective way of dealing with the crisis. There is a crisis, a challenge. And we are still trying to resolve it in a most cost-effective way.

It is believed that India has lost the initiative to go to war because the time and place are no more a surprise.

Both sides are in the same bracket. Neither we nor Pakistan have any initiative. But we have the strength. In a confrontation, along with disappointments there are many opportunities too.

The next generation of reporters might ask you why did you not hit back when Parliament was attacked and in spite of the public sentiment favouring war?

Hitting back is not playing cricket, war is not cricket.

Are these tough times for you?

I sleep only four hours a day. In my heart I have no worries. I have no tension. The moment I hit the bed I fall sleep.

America is active in the crisis because of their interest in Afghanistan and the presence of their army on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

As soon as this situation developed in the United States, Americans started coming to India as also European diplomats and dignitaries. When they met me I would tell them my own experience of my trade union days amongst the port workers.

In the mid-fifties, in the port of Mumbai I was secretary of the dock workers union. The workers who were loading and unloading the heavy materials in the hatches were mostly Pathans from Afghanistan. Our union had secured a job, higher wages that they deserved, and many other benefits. We got this settlement through a tribunal. Workers won a lump-sum package, which went to their bank account.

In our union office there was one activist who was a tandel, meaning head of a gang of nine. His name was Sikander Khan, a Pathan from Afghanistan. He had two little kids. One was 10-11 and the other was 6-7 years old. They lived in a small place near the union office. I lived and slept in the union office itself.

Sikander used to come daily to the union office along with his two kids and we chatted every evening. A very pleasant personality. When we won the fight and the day of settlement came, I told Sikander Khan: "Now that you have enough money, please send your kids to school. They are smart kids, don't teach them the work of the godi [docks]."

He smiled at me and said: "Sir, Pathan ke bachche ko kabhi school nahin bhejna, Pathan ke bachche ko school bhejega to voh pehla sochega bad main marega! Pathan ka bachcha aisa hona jo pehla marega bad main sochega. [A Pathan never sends his child to school. A school-going boy will think first and then strike. A Pathan's child always strikes first and thinks later]."

I conveyed this experience of the mid-fifties in early 2002 to all these American generals and American ministers. I told each one of them. Even in Singapore I met many defence ministers. I conveyed to them also when they asked me: "What's your assessment of the Afghan situation?" I said: "Well, my assessment is that when you enter Afghanistan, generally you don't come back. You are not in a hurry in any case."

In Afghanistan, Americans are based and are stuck there. They will be there for a long time. Unless, of course, they quickly hand it over to the Afghans themselves to fight amongst themselves and come out of it.

You can read the full transcript of George Fernandes's interview with Sheela Bhatt in the latest issue of India Abroad. Subscribe today!

Designed by Dominic Xavier

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