Indian foreign secretary in a jam
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: The Indian Foreign Secretary is in some trouble with the cabinet because of a story run by South Asia Tribune, the online Washington newspaper, from its New Delhi correspondent quoting the Indian official on the decision to cut off assistance to Nepal.
The story from Tribune’s New Delhi correspondent Arun Kumar Rajnath appeared three weeks prior to the official announcement. He had reported that it had been decided by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to terminate aid to Nepal. He had quoted the Foreign Secretary as his source. When the story appeared, the Indian cabinet was outraged as it had no inkling of the decision. When the Foreign Secretary was asked for an explanation, he replied that he had never spoken to the Tribune correspondent and none of the quotes was his.
On Monday Feb 28, the MEA spokesman, Navtej Sarna, issued a statement in New Delhi claiming that the Foreign Secretary had never spoken to Rajnath. The Indian embassy in Washington also got in touch with Shaheen Sehbai, editor of South Asia Tribune, in an attempt to discredit the report. Sehbai also received a call from an Indian External Affairs ministry official who caste doubts on the authenticity of the report, asserting that the Foreign Secretary had never spoken to Rajnath.
Sehbai issued a rejoinder on Monday afternoon that said, “I have seen the official statement issued by Spokesman Navtej Sarna about reports filed for SAT by Correspondent Arun Kumar Rajnath from New Delhi. The statement does not mention any specific ‘misquoted statements’, which should be obligatory, but tries to cast doubts about the professionalism and integrity of the correspondent in vague and generalised demeaning terms. This is highly unethical and unprofessional and is tantamount to harassment of the journalist. It seems to be a self-serving and scandalous intimidation of an enterprising journalist by a government which should be committed to complete freedom of the Press.”
Sehbai said he had also received a call from one Rahul Chabbra of MEA in New Delhi following which correspondent Rajnath was “summoned” to meet Chabbra. He was also taken in to meet MEA spokesman Navtej Sarna. Both officials tried to lecture him on the Indian ‘national interest’ which Rajnath described ‘pure and simple harassment.’ Sarna told him that his stories in SAT were being picked up by Pakistani and Bangladeshi newspapers. He was also told, ‘The subject of Nepal is very sensitive. We all work in the national interest in different capacities. Your newspaper is web-based that is why it is in the easy reach of everyone. Whatever quotes and information you give in your stories, are used by others which is not in the (Indian) national interest.’ He was also told that if he insisted on writing such stories, ‘you should show them to me first or to Under Secretary Vipul, because this is a matter of national security.’
Shaheen said the behaviour of the senior MEA officials was to be condemned. He described Rajnath as a reliable, professional and well-informed journalist, with competent sources who had filed a large number of exclusives for South Asia Tribune. He was the first journalist to report that India had suspended all military assistance to Nepal after the King took over all powers in January. This report was published in SAT on 6 February and confirmed by the MEA three weeks later. Rajnath also predicted after the last Indian election was announced that the BJP government would be defeated.