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Give Pakistan time and space to act on terror, says U.K. Under Secretary Simon McDonald

The UK is consistently engaged in speaking to India and Pakistan about tensions following February’s Pulwama terror attack, indicated Britain’s top diplomat Simon McDonald, who was in Delhi this week for Foreign Office Consultations. In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. McDonald spoke of the “concessions” they needed to give in order to ensure Masood Azhar’s designation at the UN Security Council, and urged India to give Pakistan more time and space to act on terror groups.

You are here for India-U.K. foreign office consultations, the first in several years. Why has there been such a delay in meeting and what was at the top of your agenda?
There are multiple lines of communication between Delhi and London, so I don’t think there is anything particularly remarkable in the break. The key point for me was that we had an extremely constructive set of discussions, we talked about the full range of issues, and found widespread agreement and came up with a programme of things we can do together.

There has however been very little movement on several issues, however, even since PM Modi visited the U.K. in 2018. One of those is the issue of the MoU on returns of illegal migrants, something both sides announced in January 2018, but haven’t yet cleared?


Returnees are an issue between India and the U.K. but we have made some progress on that. What we have made progress on during these consultations is facilitating more visits. Visas are much less of an issue now, and India generates the second largest number of visitors to the U.K., more than half a million last year.

Compared to the strides we have seen in India-U.S., France-India and India-Russia relations in the last few years, there is a sense the relationship with the U.K. has lagged, like the delay in the foreign office talks. How do you see the India-U.K. strategic partnership in the next few years?
In a word, close. You are right, that India has close relations with a number of countries, but we have a very close history with India. The relationship is today based on the present and future, and whether it is people-to-people or commercial, defence, academic, scientific ties, we are going great guns.

Is the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit (U.K. exiting the European Union) the reason for the perceived lag? Many in India fear that Brexit may mean the U.K. will be less open to Indians…would you agree?
No. The [U.K. government] has made it clear that U.K. would be leaving the EU in order to be more open to the rest of the world. The EU was absorbing all our capacity for openness, and former FS Boris Johnson felt that we should have greater choice with countries like India. I think post Brexit, the U.K. will consciously devote more resource to key relationships beyond Europe, and India is one of those key countries.

On the defence partnership, tell us about India-U.K. plans? There have been reports about cooperation on an aircraft carrier, as well as U.K. technology support on a 6th generation fighter aircraft, but no major deals announced yet. Has the U.K. taken a back seat on defence ties with India too?
You’re emphasising a back seat, but I am emphasising progress. Just this week we saw BAE systems and TATA open a factory in Hyderabad. BAE is our biggest defence contractor, and we are working on a closer defence partnership. Our aircraft carrier will be coming to the Indian Ocean, India is our main destination for that visit, and we have discussed the need for the U.K. to be involved in the Indo-Pacific.

What is the U.K.’s role in the Indo-Pacific, given it has no direct geographical or military connections as do the U.S., Australian, Japan, or even France?
You are overlooking the fact that the biggest military base in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, is a British-American base. We have a historic role and have defined ourselves as a global power for 200 years. Freedom of navigation is very important to us and we act to ensure sea routes remain free. With India we foresee joint ventures, joint training, joint missions [in the Indo-Pacific] as we all with U.N. missions.

On terrorism cooperation: How much of a part did the U.K. play in the designation of Masood Azhar at the U.N. Security Council 1267 committee?
A central part. I know that is not necessarily the story around the world. I can tell you this was a collective effort, but the U.K. played a central part in the designation. It was the right thing to do and we were proud to play that central part.

In India, there has been a controversy over the wording of the designation. The original proposal from the U.S., U.K. and France included a reference to the Pulwama attacks and to terror attacks in Kashmir carried out by Masood Azhar as leader of the JeM, but the final listing did not mention them. Given that India is the biggest victim of his terrorism, why was the reference dropped?
I would focus on the fact of the [Masood Azhar] designation. The detailed rubric is secondary to the fact that he has been designated, that was an Indian priority and it has been achieved. So focus on the prize rather than the rubric.

Surely the fact that Indians were the victims of the terror attacks by Azhar and his group should have been mentioned? If it was there in the original proposal and not there later, does that mean it was dropped, a concession made to a country like China, who opposed it?
Anything that comes out of the U.N. is a negotiation, and in a negotiation, a side has to make concessions in order to achieve the prize. It is our very clear view that we achieved the prize, and that we think the prize is what India was most focused on. The detail of the negotiation is now historical, and I don’t think it is where your focus needs to be.

Well India has also been focused on action on these groups. The U.K. played a role, it was said publicly, in bringing down tensions between India and Pakistan after the Indian Air Force carried out strikes in Balakot. How close to an open conflict were the two countries?
I don’t want to dwell on the counter factual of how things might have gotten even worse, but it is correct, that the U.K., with very good links and lines to Delhi and Islamabad was able to play a role. Only the U.S. and U.K. have the strength of relationship in Pakistan to get the access at the time of the tensions, and the attention of the senior leadership that is necessary, and we did that, and I am sure that we helped.

In fact, your officials said they had conveyed to Pakistan the need for action on terror groups after the Pulwama attack. In your assessment, has Pakistan taken the action it needed to take against groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad in these past two months?
I think this government in Pakistan, and this leadership Prime Minister [Imran Khan] and Chief of Staff [General Qamar Bajwa], gets it, knows this is something Pakistan has to tackle. This kind of issue, terrorism issue takes time. The U.K. knows that, we had our own domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland for decades. It takes time to sort it out. So the fact that things haven’t enormously changed in two months is no surprise, these things must be judged over a period of time, but the early statements are promising. India may judge that action is not being taken quickly enough, but the journey has been started.

The same statements have been made for 30-odd years. The question is what is the specific action against the JeM that the U.K. feels is promising? Action on the group, arrests of leaders, or anything else you may point to…
There are a series of actions the Pakistanis need to take. They know they need to take them, and we are talking to them about the detail. But here I would urge that they be given some space. The fact that it doesn’t happen on the turn of a dime is not a surprise, but what this government is saying, is worth working with.

Because the fear would be, in the time it takes for this action, there could be another attack, and India may feel it needs to carry out more strikes like the ones on Balakot…
We are in touch with both sides. This is potentially very dangerous. The escalation ladder has the ultimate end and so we don’t want to see incidents that lead to an escalation, which is our message to both sides. We know Pakistan has to take action and we are talking to Pakistan about that action.

The Indian government has officially complained about the presence of Khalistani separatist groups in the U.K., especially ahead of a so-called referendum in 2020. What kind of cooperation are India and the U.K. proposing on this issue?
The U.K. is a country of law, and one of those laws is around freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. But there are laws around incitement, and we are talking to India and have some good exchanges about this issue. Our understanding has improved, and this was a constructive part of our foreign office [consultations]…My opposite number [Vijay Gokhale] made it absolutely clear [what Indian expects] and in a confidential exchange of views, I heard and took note.

In the last few weeks we have seen some movement in the cases against economic fugitives from India like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi. How soon do you think Mr. Mallya will actually be on a plane back to India?
The British judicial system is independent. It moves quickly, but there are many steps in the system. As you say there has been recent progress in both these high profile cases, but I am not going to speculate on how quickly they will be resolved, as that is not in my power.

Another issue, which has seen sensitivities in India, is the issue of a British apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. This year marks 100 years since it happened, but despite hopes in India, the British government came short of an apology. Why is it so difficult?
We have expressed profound regret and that captures the U.K.’s feeling about this terrible episode in our history. I know this is the hundredth year, and there is continued interest in the U.K. saying more, so I note that the year has not ended.

You’re not ruling it out. Because some have suggested that a full apology would lead to a demand for reparations to India, and that is what is holding it up?
Well, that is a reason to hesitate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that, and it is in that area that we are exploring further statements.

In your talks in Delhi, did the issue of Iran come up, and specifically the issue of finding alternate financial systems that would circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran after it walked out of the JCPOA?
Yes, we did discuss Iran, which is an important country and relationship to both the U.K. and India. There is a lot of agreement between us, but I won’t disclose more. I am involved in this personally, because we have created a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to help trade with Iran in non-sanctioned goods. The U.K. has been active in trying to keep the JCPOA alive and help the world keep trade with Iran going.

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