India clarifies, then clarifies more…

Ref: India has said its prime minister Manmohan Singh’s recent remarks about Bangladesh were by no means intended to be judgmental and it recognised the stability of the democratically elected government in its eastern neighbourhood.

“India recognises the stability of the democratically elected government and is committed to non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states…,” the ministry of external affairs of the Indian government said in a statement issued here on Saturday.

The statement is seen as part of the damage-control exercise that New Delhi resorted to after Singh’s remarks about Bangladesh during an interaction with newspaper editors, startling many in India and Bangladesh.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) earlier posted a ‘corrected’ transcript on its website after deleting Singh’s remarks that took the diplomatic community in Delhi and Dhaka by surprise.

According to the original transcript posted on the after the interaction on Wednesday, Singh told newspaper editors that political landscape could change anytime in Bangladesh.

He also said that 25 percent of Bangladesh’s population swore by ‘anti-India’ Jamaat-e-Islami, which was often influenced by the Pakistani spy agency Inter Services Intelligence.

Singh’s remarks about possibility of a change in political landscape in Bangladesh apparently reflected India’s concerns over vulnerability of prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government in Dhaka.

“Our attention has been drawn to some off-the-record remarks attributed to the prime minister during his interaction with editors in New Delhi. It is clarified in this regard that these attributed remarks were by no means intended to be judgmental,” read the statement issued by Vishnu Prakash, the official spokesperson of the Indian government’s ministry of external affairs (MEA).

“The prime minister and his government and the people of India have the greatest affection for the people of Bangladesh and hold our relations with Bangladesh to be of the highest importance,” it added.

The Indian prime minister’s controversial remark came at a time when Dhaka and Delhi are busy doing the groundwork for his proposed visit to Bangladesh. Dhaka is set to play host to a number of dignitaries from Delhi in the coming weeks.

India’s external affairs minister S M Krishna is scheduled to reach Dhaka on July 6 for a visit to Bangladesh. India’s water resources minister Salman Khurshid may also visit Dhaka soon for a meeting with his counterpart Ramesh Chandra Sen. Sen and Khurshid are expected to give final touches to an interim agreement on sharing of water of Teesta.

President of India’s ruling party Congress Sonia Gandhi is also expected to be in Dhaka on July 25 next to attend a special conference on disabled and autistic children.

Gandhi, who also chairs the ruling United Progressive Alliance, accepted an invitation from Hasina to attend the conference.

“The focus on both sides has been development, cooperation, poverty alleviation, capacity building and education. It is in this context that the external affairs minister of India is undertaking an official visit to Bangladesh. We are fully committed to our bilateral relationship with the people and the government of Bangladesh,” read the statement issued by the MEA on Saturday.

Singh, who himself is also likely to go to Dhaka on a state visit to Bangladesh within the next few months, made the remark on the eastern neighbour when he was asked by a senior editor to comment on the situation in the neighbourhood of India.

He started his reply to the question admitting that he was worried by the situation in the neighbourhood. “Well, neighbourhood worries me a great deal, quite frankly.”

He first spoke about Sri Lanka and then on India’s relation with Bangladesh.

“Our relations (with Bangladesh) are quite good. But we must reckon that at least 25 percent of the population of Bangladesh swear by the [Jamaat-e-Islami] and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI,” he said.

“So, a political landscape in Bangladesh can change at any time. We do not know what these terrorist elements, who have a hold over the [Jamaat-e-Islami] elements in Bangladesh, can be up to,” said Singh.

Significantly, the Indian prime minister’s remarks on Sri Lanka too were unusually frank.

“You have a situation in Sri Lanka. The decimation of the LTTE was something which is good. But the Tamil problem does not disappear with the defeat of the LTTE. The Tamil population has legitimate grievances. They feel they have been reduced over the years to second-class citizens,” he said.

“And our emphasis has been to persuade the Sri Lankan government that we must move towards a new system of institutional reforms, where the Tamil people will have a feeling that they are equal citizens of Sri Lanka, and they can lead and live a life of dignity and self-respect. It is not easy because within Sri Lanka’s population, there are hotheads, Sinhala chauvinism is a reality,” the Indian Prime Minister said.

“But we have to find a difficult balance because what happens in Sri Lanka has a domestic dimension also. The Tamil Nadu government and assembly have shown great worry about what is happening.

“Our challenge is to keep the Tamil Nadu government on our side. And I have had good cooperation with Jayalalithaa-ji (chief minister of Indian state of Tamil Nadu). I raised this matter with her the very first time. What she asked of me was moderate. Whatever be the resolutions that were passed in the assembly, I found her fully conscious of the complexities and the realities of managing this relationship,” he added.

“The prime minister’s remark was off-the-record. We put it out by mistake. It has been corrected now.” Singh’s media advisor Harish Khare was quoted by The Indian Express newspaper on Saturday.

But Singh’s comments on Sri Lanka, unlike those of his on Bangladesh, was not deleted from the transcript, which was on the website of the PMO for more than a day. He made the remarks on both neighbours of India in response to a single question.

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