Campus & Community

India defense minister tackles security issues

4 min read

The Indian defense minister, Pranab Mukherjee, presented his country’s perspective on a long list of security issues, including nuclear technology in India and Iran and the war on terror, in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School of Government Monday (Sept. 25) evening.

His appearance came in a week when the leaders of two of his Asian neighbors, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, met [Sept. 27] in the White House with President Bush to discuss security issues.

Mukherjee remained diplomatic, but clearly registered his unhappiness that although Pakistan has cooperated in international efforts to control terrorism on its western border, with Afghanistan, it “has done precious little to dismantle terrorist infrastructure on its eastern border,” with India.

He defended Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology, within the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and urged the Security Council of the United Nations not to “close the door” on dialogue with Tehran.

He defended India’s own right to nuclear weapons as necessary self-defense in a hostile neighborhood, and defended India’s record on preventing nuclear proliferation – his country has effectively met the requirements of the NPT without being a signatory to it, he said.

He also hailed the Bush administration’s initiative to share nuclear technology with India as “a welcome departure from earlier policy,” and a move that will make India “a partner, and not a target, of global nonproliferation efforts.”

In response to a question from the floor whether the vexed issue of Kashmir would be resolved “within our lifetimes,” the septuagenarian minister responded to his young questioner with a prediction that it would be, “not only within your lifetime, but within mine.”

And even as he criticized Pakistan, he also hailed the recent Indo-Pakistani summit in Cuba Sept. 23, at which Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to set up a joint agency to combat terrorism, and to continue peace talks on Kashmir – talks halted after the July 11 bombings in Mumbai, for which India blamed the Pakistan-based Islamic terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Mukherjee described an India confident of its new place in the world, developing strategic partnerships with players around the globe. He spoke of an India proud of its robust economic growth and long tradition of “soft power” – as “a wellspring of human intellectual and spiritual achievements,” including the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, the centennial of whose nonviolence movement was marked earlier this month.

He mentioned how India’s policies of self-reliance, developed in the difficult first years after independence and partition, set it in good stead to benefit from the globalization of the economy in the 1990s.

Sugata Bose, director of Harvard’s South Asia Initiative, which was a co-sponsor of the event, introduced the minister as a “son of rural Bengal” who has become a “distinguished statesman on the global stage.” Mukherjee is the longest-serving minister in the Indian government, the No. 2 in his country’s cabinet, and the leader of its delegation to the current session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Among the several issues discussed by the minister were his country’s relationship to China (a “high priority”); the fragility of certain states in India’s “neighborhood”; and the role of the Indian Ocean as a stage for conflict, terrorism, and traffic in drugs, arms, and humans.

“A very informative tour of a very large horizon” was the summary that moderator Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, gave as he opened the floor for questions.

To Xenia Dormandy, a former National Security Council staff member who is now the executive director of research at the Belfer Center, Mukherjee’s agenda of security issues read much like the U.S. agenda for that part of the world, albeit with some shifts of emphasis. Dormandy suggested that this is connected to the fact that the Indo-U.S. relationship has gotten so much closer over the past several years.

“He’s a diplomat,” Dormandy observed in a brief interview after the minister’s speech. “He defended the Indian policy line,” she said, expressing regret that in such a public forum, officials always have to be so careful about what they say. “But he did it very well. … He laid out the issues very clearly.”

She noted, though, that it’s “always disappointing” to hear Indians and Pakistanis ascribing intransigence to each other.

To Dormandy, the fullness of the house at the forum Monday and the number of questions from the floor that came from students, were clear indications of a new appreciation on the part of well-informed Americans of India’s importance in the world. “Would you have had this full a house even three years ago? No way.”