Singh & Gilani Agree To “Normalize” Indo-Pak Ties

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI:  The much-awaited talks between Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani were held last week on sidelines of 16th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Thimpu, Bhutan (April 29). Though the two sides still retain differences over several issues, including Kashmir, the high-level talks are viewed as a “positive breakthrough.” The key point is their agreement to revive the Indo-Pak dialogue process, practically put on hold since Mumbai-blasts in 2008. Though the two prime ministers last met at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt in July 2009, Indo-Pak dialogue has yet to be brought back on track. Till date, it has been held back because of terrorism, sources said. While concern about terrorism still remains high on agenda of both the countries, the positive outcome of talks in Thimpu is that they agreed to “normalize” Indo-Pak ties and decide on dates for talks to be held at various levels.

Briefing media persons on Singh-Gilani talks, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said: “They discussed all issues in a free and frank manner. They agreed that India-Pakistan cooperation is vital, if the people of South Asia are to realize their destiny and if SAARC is to become an effective and powerful instrument of regional cooperation. They agreed that relations between the two countries should be normalized, and channels of contact should work effectively to enlarge the constituency of peace in both countries.”

Singh voiced India’s concern about terrorism to Gilani. “India,” Singh told Gilani, “is willing to discuss all issues of concern with Pakistan and to resolve all outstanding issues through dialogue, but that issue of terrorism is holding back progress,” Rao said. On his part, Gilani told Singh, “Pakistan would not allow Pakistani territory to be used for terrorist activity directed against India.”

“The meeting was an exercise in mutual comprehension because there is a lack of mutual trust in the relationship impeding the process of normalization. The two sides have agreed on the need to assess the reasons underlying the current state of relations, or current state of affairs of the relationship and to think afresh on the way forward. They have agreed that the foreign ministers and the foreign secretaries will be charged with the responsibility of working out the modalities of restoring trust and confidence in the relationship and thus paving the way for a substantive dialogue on all issues of mutual concern,” Rao told media persons.

To a question on dates for taking forward the process of Indo-Pak talks, Rao replied: “The two sides have agreed to meet as soon as possible.” While dates have yet to be decided, Rao said: “The instructions of the prime ministers are that the foreign ministers and the foreign secretaries should meet as soon as possible.”

When asked on whether Pakistan gave any “commitment” to India regarding terrorism, Rao said: “Prime Minister (Singh) was very emphatic in mentioning that Pakistan has to act on the issue of terrorism, that the terror machine, as he termed it, that operates from Pakistan needs to be controlled, needs to be eliminated.” Gilani’s stand, according to Rao, was that Pakistan was “equally seized of these concerns, that terrorism has affected Pakistan’s well-being also, and that they want to address this issue comprehensively and effectively.”

In a separate press briefing, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that the two prime ministers’ meeting had played a major role in improving the atmosphere between the two countries. The “outcome” of their meeting has been “more than expected,” Qureshi said. “It is a step in the right direction, a concrete development and we will build on it,” he stated. Dismissing prospects of any major breakthrough in immediate future, Qureshi said that “trust deficit” between India and Pakistan has to be bridged through “confidence-building measures.” “We have to be realistic and pragmatic. It (bridging trust deficit) will not happen in a day, it is a process. If we allow the process to continue, obviously with passage of time, the deficit will be narrowed down,” Qureshi said. “There was acknowledgment about deficit in both sides. The two prime ministers have to bridge that divergence and build confidence,” Qureshi said.

Islamabad will be hosting the SAARC home ministers’ meeting this year on July 26. On this, Qureshi said: “We welcome Indian home minister to take part in that meeting.”

Rao and Qureshi held separate press briefings in Thimpu soon after Singh-Gilani talks, which lasted for about an hour and a half. Both described Singh-Gilani meeting as comprehensive, cordial and friendly.

Notwithstanding the fact that diplomatic tension still prevails between India and Pakistan on issues such as Kashmir, their agreement to take forward the dialogue process and “fight terrorism” together is viewed as a major development in their bilateral ties. While in some quarters, this has been described as a “firm, strong step – finally taken,” others view it simply as a “thaw” in Indo-Pak ties which had been “frozen” since Mumbai-blasts.

United States has welcomed the decision of India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue. “Obviously there is a long way to go. But certainly, the de-escalation of tension between the two countries would help in fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in Washington (April 30). Earlier, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said: “We always think that when leaders of countries, particularly countries with the unique history of India and Pakistan, anytime they can get together for high-level constructive dialogue, that is good for the region, and we support it.” On whether US had played any role in making Singh-Gilani meeting possible in Thimpu, Crowley replied: “We have encouraged the leaders of Pakistan and India to restore direct dialogue that has been characteristic of the relationship between those two countries within the last few years, and we’re encouraged that they are taking steps to do that.”

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Indo-Iran Diplomacy: Women As ”Cultural Ambassadors”

February 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Notwithstanding all the noise being made against Iran over its nuclear program, Indo-Iranian ties have not backtracked. What is more amazing is the definite impact made by women in this field. This month began with Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao visiting Iran, during which she held extensive discussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Economy and Finance Minister Seyed Shamseddin Hosseini and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili. It was Rao’s first visit to Iran as Foreign Secretary. During her visit, both sides emphasized the need for expansion of economic ties. Besides, Rao laid stress that both countries should also give more importance to tourism in keeping with their rich history and tourist attractions.

Rao’s visit is, however, just a minor indicator of the importance India and Iran are giving to strengthen their ties. This point is supported by cultural diplomacy playing a crucial role in bringing the two countries closer. The ministry of cultural diplomacy in the present Indian cabinet setup is one of the few ministries exclusively headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It has not been allocated specifically to any cabinet minister. This also implies that diplomatic steps being taken forward in the cultural field have the direct consent of the Indian Prime Minister.

Interestingly, Iranian women are playing a crucial role regarding cultural diplomacy. The Iranian puppetry troupe- Apple Tree- performed a traditional puppet show, The Bald Hero in New Delhi, Mumbai and Gurgaon. The all-women troupe was invited to the annual Ishara International Festival, which began in New Delhi on January 27 to continue till February 15 in Mumbai. Majid Giahchi, head of Apple Tree group, said: “The group includes four sisters who have been awarded for their brilliant performance of the puppet show throughout the world.” “The traditional play has been forgotten for years, but the Apple Tree troupe was able to revive the art form after carrying out research on it in 2005,” Giahchi said.

Giahchi adds a diplomatic importance to such puppet shows as well expects them to help promote these arts financially. “When a troupe attends an international event, it acts as an ambassador of the art and culture of Iran, so it needs to be supported financially,” Giahchi said.

Against the backdrop of a largely negative image projected about status of women in Iran, The Bald Hero prompts Indians to naturally think otherwise. By visiting India to participate in the puppet show and also other countries of the world, the Iranian women have not simply played the role of diplomatic ambassadors. They have also conveyed the message that Iranian women should not be presumed to be as suppressed as presented largely by the international media.

In an attempt to change this impression, a silent movement has begun. Though there is no denying that women in Iran still face considerable discrimination and are yearning for more rights as well as greater equality, several facts cannot be ignored. Women across the world, including in the so-called liberal, democratic countries, have not gained much prominence in the political arena and similar areas, which continue to be dominated by men. However, their numerical position in Muslim countries such as Iran is tended to be projected negatively as a sign of their being kept backwards by religious extremists. Yet, if facts and statistics released by reliable sources are studied, they convey a totally different picture.

Of these, perhaps the most significant is that the health minister in Iran’s cabinet is a woman, Marziya Vahid Dastjerdi. Besides, Iranian women acquired the right to vote and started becoming members of the Parliament more than fifty years ago. Since then, even though their representation is fairly small, they have managed to secure entry into the Parliament defeating all the speculations raised about the command of fundamentalists in Iranian society. The same point is also proved by women’s population in Iranian universities being 52 percent, more than that of men’s 48 percent.

Several figures also defy the impression that Iranian women’s role – behind the veil- is restricted to being home-makers. The number of women employed by the government in 2006 was 788488, which was 14.53 percent more than in 1997. In addition to Iranian women being employed in government departments, they have moved forward in other areas also. There has been in 2007, 80 percent increase in the number of books published by Iranian women writers in around a decade’s time. During the same period, there has been a 58 percent increase in number of women film makers whose work has been recognized in international film festivals outside Iran. Similarly, the number of women athletes has increased by 47 percent. The last point is further supported by the formation of women’s football team in 2006. The team visited India to participate in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the first team in October 2007.

Women must certainly be credited for playing a major role in taking forward Indo-Iranian diplomatic relations, culturally and in other areas, including sports. Indian Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Iran is a symbolic indicator of Indo-Iranian ties being on the upswing.

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