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Namaste, India

Implications to India of Britain’s alleged telecommunications spy base.

The Register reports on Britain’s covert cyber surveillance program in the Middle East.  The report is unconfirmed and there’s really no way to verify the veracity of any of the Register‘s claims, but it does make for interesting reading.  The report claims that Britain’s submarine Internet cable surveillance program is based out of Muscat, Oman (at Seeb station).  It further claims that “probes” are installed on optical cable networks belonging to two British telecommunications heavyweights — BT and Vodafone, thus allowing snooped data to be accessed by cyber-surveillance personnel in the UK.

According to documents revealed by Edward Snowden to journalists including Glenn Greenwald among others, the intelligence agency annually pays selected companies tens of millions of pounds to run secret teams which install hidden connections which copy customers’ data and messages to the spooks’ processing centres. The GCHQ-contracted companies also install optical fibre taps or “probes” into equipment belonging to other companies without their knowledge or consent. Within GCHQ, each company has a special section called a “Sensitive Relationship Team” or SRT. [The Register]

This is particularly interesting because two of the four eastbound submarine cables from Seeb station in Muscat (GIBS and FLAG FALCON), provide backbone connectivity to western India via Mumbai (wild guess, probably at Prabhadevi).  This map will better illustrate the route of the eastern half of Seeb station’s connectivity.  The report alleges that BT and Vodafone are two top earners of secret payments from Britain’s SIGINT organization, GCHQ.   Lest we forget, India represents Vodafone’s largest customer base and the company’s second-largest country in terms of data traffic.

This begs the question: if any of this is true, just how badly compromised is India’s Internet and telecommunications data if the integrity of two of its ingress and egress points is in question?  The Luddites among us, I’m sure, look on with barely-concealed glee.

 

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Syriasly?

Despite the Syrian ambassador’s claims, India does not have a horse in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The Syrian ambassador to India ruffled a few feathers when he commented during an interview with The Indian Express that Indian jihadis were involved in battling al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  Excerpts from the interview follow:

“Indian fighters are waging Islamic jihad, along with fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan and other countries,” the ambassador, who was handpicked by Assad for the India job two years ago, said.

Asked who these Indian fighters were, Abbas said, “They are Islamic people, not Hindus, because Hindus don’t wage Islamic jihad… Why are you surprised?

“There are people in India who support Muslim brotherhood’s ideology… They are very dangerous,” Abbas said.

According to Abbas, the fighters traveled to Turkey from India before entering Syria. “Some of them have been killed, some have been caught alive,” he said, adding, “One of them has been shown on Syrian TV, caught with an Indian passport.” [Indian Express]

The ambassador’s claims appear incredulous considering that there has simply been no historical precedent to suggest that Indian citizens sympathize with pan-Islamist causes to the extent that they would move to foreign countries to participate in conflict. The ambassdor’s statements appear even more incredulous considering that the ongoing civil war in Syria has significantly limited his ability to communicate regularly with the embattled al-Assad regime.  Given this, how exactly did the ambassador ascertain that some combatants involved in the conflict held Indian passports?

Dr. Abbas’ comments have surprised Indian officials who have said that Syria has failed to provide details of these Indian “jihadis” battling the regime in that country.  One “senior official” is reported to have told the Hindustan Times:

Abbas’ statement is most irresponsible and mischievous as we have checked our records and found no Indian national involved in jihad in Syria. We are cross-checking facts before we formally take up the matter with Syrian ambassador… [Hindustan Times]

Once the Syrian ambassador’s statements hit mainstream media, he attempted damage control by claiming that he had been approached by families of persons of “Indian origin” in repatriating citizens and that some of these persons held UK passports.  He then very conveniently chose to blame media propaganda for wrongly characterizing his statements.

Based on publicly-available information, we can deduce that two very separate efforts are underway to seek Indian support for either of the two belligerents in the ongoing  civil war (i.e., the Syrian regime or their rebel antagonists).  The British prime minister, David Cameron, in seeking support for military operations in Syria claimed in his address to the parliament that India was among those countries that pointed the “finger of blame” for the situation in Syria to al-Assad’s regime.  India, rightly, pointed out to the UK that it articulated no such position to the prime minister.

The anonymous “senior official” of the government of India made absolute sense in pointing out that India was investigating the Syrian ambassador’s claims and that it would formally take up the issue with him.  If India’s investigation finds that Dr. Abbas’ statements are without merit, it should publicly disavow his claims.

Let’s be clear: India’s interests in Syria are limited.  We have already abandoned the oil fields in that country that we once had a stake in.  Short of seeing an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria purely on humanitarian grounds, we have no horse in this race.  India should be prepared to work with whoever ultimately emerges as being in charge of affairs in Syria.  We will rebuild relationships if necessary, or forge new ones as warranted.  The U.S. appears to be inching towards some sort of military operation while many of its allies (primarily the UK) have voted against it.  It is not India’s place at this point in time to pick a side in the civil war.

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India at the UNSC on Libya

India’s 50-50.

There has been considerable uproar on India’s decision to abstain from voting on the imposition of a No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya at the UNSC.  Some have suggested that the decision to abstain doesn’t bode well for a nation seeking a place at the high altar in the congress of nations.  India’s non-vote however, has short- and long-term implications, which need further consideration and analysis.

UNSC’s resolution No. 1973 on Libya reads as follows:

[T]he Council authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory — requesting them to immediately inform the Secretary-General of such measures. [UN]

India, in its explanation for abstaining from the vote indicated that its reservations were based partly on “far reaching” measures adopted by the UNSC.  Indeed, there is now indication that the inclusion of the phrase “all necessary measures” went beyond what the Arab League initially envisaged when it first appealed to the UNSC for an NFZ in Libya.  The resolution, for instance, did not rule out airstrikes against Col. Qaddafi’s land forces advancing towards  Benghazi.  It also empowered a collection of states (e.g., Britain and France, the Arab League) to act unilaterally against the Libyan army as it saw fit.

There now appear to be considerable gaps in perception on approach and objectives among the primary actors, U.S., Britain and France, and the Arab League.  The question that India must answer is whether or not it is in India’s interests to see a change in regime in Libya.  To be sure, Muammar Qaddafi has been a thorn in India’s flesh for many years — on clandestine nuclear co-operation with Pakistan, on Kashmir — but how certain is India that the alternative to Col. Qaddafi couldn’t be as bad, if not worse?

For many reasons, India’s economic interests in Libya are minimal.  Bilateral trade has steadily declined over the past several years.  Libya just about figures among India’s top 50 import partners*, right below the People’s Republic of Congo (we also export less to Libya than we do to any other Arab country*). India’s energy interests in Libya are not substantial when compared to other countries in the region, and recent reports indicate that ONGC Videsh and OIL had, or were in the process of  relinquishing their stakes in at least four exploration blocks in Libya.

On security issues, Libya has had a history of cooperation with Pakistan on financing and acquiring nuclear technology.  However, under agreement with the U.S. and in an apparent bid to end its international isolation, Tripoli surrendered its nuclear weapons components —  including centrifuges, uranium and sensitive documentation —  in 2004. Though, to be fair, Col. Qaddafi’s calculations on the utility of nuclear weapons may change, should he survive the uprising.  As for Col. Qaddafi’s periodic rants about Kashmir at international forums, they are about as likely to have an impact on the status of J&K as OIC’s time-honored traditions have had of routinely issuing statements of concern at the behest of Pakistan about J&K all these years.

Taking these arguments as a whole, India’s decision to abstain from the vote may not have been imprudent.  However, the issue of whether and to what extent the ruling coalition’s stance was influenced by what it considers “domestic political compulsions” requires discussion.  In the long-term, it raises troubling questions on what sort of a role India will likely play in shaping the world’s security.

If the ruling government abstained from the Libyan vote because of domestic sensitivities, then what is to stop it from doing likewise on any future UNSC votes against nations that may happen to be Arab?  To be candid, it is not Saudi Arabia that is going to favorably influence the UNSC to grant India permanent membership, even if a UNSC expansion were remotely likely.  Secondly, if India is going to abstain from every vote on contentious issues, they why even ask for a permanent seat at the high altar?  Contentious issues will always be put to vote at the UNSC, by the very nature of the Council.  The UNSC is hardly going to sit around debating whether India should be playing an extra bowler vs. Australia in the quarter finals of the World Cup.

It is no use saying India deserves a permanent seat at the UNSC because it represents 1/6th of humanity, if that 1/6th of humanity seldom expresses an opinion.  UNSC membership is not granted based on entitlement — if it were, there would be no place in it for either Britain or France.  While it would be impractical to expect domestic political compulsions not to play a role in how India conducts itself in international affairs, it must also recognize that its aspirations to be regarded as a global actor are untenable if it is not willing to pursue those hard choices that promote its national interests, but impact international or domestic political considerations.

* Department of Commerce, April 2010 — September 2010 figures

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In Pragati: The Cameron Opening

Mr Cameron’s austerity measures may provide a mutually beneficial opportunity to both India and UK.

In this month’s Pragati, I argue that a real opportunity for India and the U.K. to forge the bonds of an important strategic relationship exists.  In order to do this, India and the U.K. first need to get past curry and cricket and focus on issues of strategic importance to each other, and the world.  Three such issues stand out: security, energy and climate change.

The first pertains to what C Raja Mohan calls “keeping the global commons open and secure for all.” The security and safety of vital commodities in transit is critical to any economy; more so to one growing at such a rapid pace as India’s. The growth of India and China, and the Southeast Asian economies will increase competition for resources and further underscore the vitality of Indian Ocean trade routes to their economic growth. Today, India is already engaged with like-minded countries such the United States in securing these high traffic energy and trade routes, from the Horn of Africa to the Straits of Malacca. An India-UK collaboration on maritime security in the Indian Ocean and beyond can significantly transform the nature of this bilateral relationship.

A related aspect involves opportunities for qualitative defence transactions between the two countries. During Mr Cameron’s visit to Bangalore, the much awaited $800 million contract for 57 advanced jet trainers was signed between BAE Systems and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

Read more about it in this month’s Pragati. (PDF ; or  HTML)

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