AMBASSADOR ISHRAT AZIZ is an academician-turned-diplomat. He holds a Masters degree in the English Literature from Aligarh Muslim University, where he also lectured for four years. Then he opted for Indian Foreign Service and served as diplomat in Baghdad, Rabat, Beirut, San Francisco. He served as India’s Ambassador in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Tunisia. At the time of Gulf War I he was at the helm of affairs in Saudi Arabia. He dealt with the situation in a remarkable manner and did not let the panic set in. He single-handedly supervised the repatriation of Indians.
What are the salient features of India’s foreign policy?
India’s foreign policy all along has been based on two fundamental principles: India’s perception and its self interest. Particularly after the World War II when the world was divided into two opposite and hostile camps and the world was experiencing the Cold War, India’s national interest was best served by Non-Alignment. Since India is a very large country, so it was not necessary for India to align with any country. The second significant point to remember is that in Nehru’s vision the most important strategy for India’s progress, in a situation when the world was divided into two hostile camps, at that very point of time was to pursue the Non-Aligned Policy. Actually, had India aligned itself with one camp or the other, it would not have been able to take decisions independently in its self interest. These are some of the most vital and basic tenets of India’s foreign policy.
But consciously or subconsciously didn’t Nehru drift towards the Soviet Union?
It is not like this. It so happened that at that time the Soviet Union was very supportive of India’s policies including that of Kashmir for its own reasons. So that created a sort of affinity. To sum up we can say that we had a very strong relationship with the Soviet Union not because of ideological affinity but because of our own self interest. Also the Soviet Union accepted Non-Alignment much more than the Western countries. It’s very simple: “You are either with us or against us. There is no middle position. Non-Alignment is not a moral position”. But we believe that Non-Alignment is a moral position because there is no need to further aggravate the tension between the two sides by aligning ourselves with one or the other.
What is India’s foreign policy towards West Asia/Arab World?
India’s foreign policy towards West Asia/Arab world not only serves our self interest but is also based on some very fundamental concepts and principles. Much before India attained independence, when in 1917 England announced a homeland for the Jews in the mandated territory of Palestine by importing people from outside and displacing the local Arab population the leaders of the Indian freedom movement opposed the idea. After 1948, against the backdrop of partition, India felt that irrespective of the background it is better to accept the reality and then proceed further rather than to keep looking at the past and lose the future. Nehru permitted for the opening of an Israeli Consulate in New Delhi precisely because it was an acceptance of a situation that has been created and not possible to undo and, therefore, it was best for the two sides to live together in peace.
Maulana Azad was made the In-charge of the West Asian/Arab World Section in Foreign Ministry although Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was himself the Foreign Minister because as you know Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru very rightly believed that there are certain insights that Maulana Azad can give on the Arab World because of the fact that Maulana Azad knew this region well and he had his own perceptions about them. Due to all of these factors Maulana Azad’s advice would be very credible. In my opinion it was the right strategy adopted by Jawaharlal Nehru.
What kind of a new international order is emerging post 9/11?
It is a fact that today’s World Order is not what it was before 9/11. But what shape it is taking is really anybody’s guess. Let us be very clear that it has set in motion a churning process but what shape will it take I really do not know. As a consequence of 9/11 America has got involved and bogged down in two wars in which there does not seem to be any possibility for a clear-cut victory. These are not the kinds of war that cannot be won. It has created a new situation. It is sapping the energy of America. If America today has suffered an economic meltdown, the part of the reason is these two wars and all of the expenditure that is involved in these projects. War on terror had become the main focus everywhere. In this way we can say that the World Order has changed.
What is your considered opinion on international terrorism?
I must say that there is no attempt to really understand the true causes of terrorism because unless you diagnose the disease correctly, you are not going to find a right remedy. If people think that terrorism has a religious basis, I disagree with this. Unless you attend to the social and economic aspect of the roots of terrorism, you will not be able to deal with this monster. It is not right to assume that fundamentalism or extremism or terrorism has substituted democracy, education and prosperity.
India is collaborating with Israel to fight terrorism while on the other hand New Delhi also extends moral support to the Palestinian struggle. But for the Israelis Palestinians are terrorists. What is this dichotomy?
We do not think of Palestinians who want a State of their own as terrorists. We started formal relations with Israel in 1994. This was only when the Palestinians were talking in terms of making peace with Israel. We have many areas of cooperation with Israel. But this does not distract us from our support to the Palestinians for a State of their own. So, the cooperation with Israel and our support to the Palestinians are two positions apart. There is no reason to believe that we cannot pursue both of these policies together without one coming in the way of the other or contradicting the other.
In your view why the Indian Muslims are lagging behind the other communities despite being the second largest majority?
The real challenge is to create a level playing field and not the distribution of benefits so that you have the opportunity to attain whatever you deserve. Distribution of benefits is a very easy task, however, creating a level playing filed is the most difficult challenge because even defining what is level playing field is very problematic and also how to achieve it is also very difficult. The approach of Indian Muslims should be very clear that we want level playing filed and not the distribution of benefits. This should be our goal. This should be our philosophy that we must profess and propagate. I believe in the philosophy ‘you can do without what the others can do for you but you cannot do without what you can do for yourself’. This is the heart of the problem. You have to get out of this mentality. I reiterate that the question is not how we can distribute the cake rather the question is how we can increase the size of the cake. The problem is not so much external as it is internal. Even if the opportunities and level playing field are provided, Muslims themselves have to do a lot for themselves.