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Opening remarks by External Affairs Minister at the First India-League of Arab States Media Symposium
Distinguished friends from the Arab & Indian media, representatives of the League of Arab States, Ladies and Gentlemen Ahlan We sahlan.

I welcome you media personalities, opinion-makers and thought leaders from India and the Arab world to this dialogue of ideas that seeks to widen the arc of knowledge and understanding between our two regions, our respective societies and cultures.

In engagements between nations and regions, nuanced knowledge and understanding of each other is critical to nurturing ties. Governments and international organisations hold talks, take decisions and initiate policies. However, in today’s wired world, the media has a vital role in collectively shaping how these decisions and policies are seen by the people. I am, therefore, happy to be inaugurating this idea-exchange forum amongst media practitioners seeking to build an enduring knowledge bridge between India and the Arab world.

At the outset, let me stress that India and the Arab world are not new friends and partners; our relations go back centuries. I am not a scholar or historian, but I am a student who enjoys reading history because the past gives us a sense of connectedness and tells us who we are and where we come from.

The idea of India has figured in the Arab imagination for centuries, and the Arab civilisation, with its philosophical depth and entrepreneurial energy, has effortlessly intersected with Indian civilisation all these years.

Our thinkers, scholars, philosophers and traders have interacted across centuries. The Arabian Sea washes the shores of our two regions, and this has created a rich intermingling of ideas, beliefs, customs and language. Arab scholars like Alberuni have,in their writings , documented Indo-Arab cultural links including Indian contributions to Arab thought and culture.

Archaeologists have found evidence of trade links between the Harappan civilization and that of Dilmun in the Gulf. Some archaeological sites in Sharjah show the ancient links between the Indian sub-continent and the Arabian Peninsula. I am told that many illustrious Arab families have the surname al-Hindi. ‘Hind’is still a popular name being used by many Arab women. The very famous Indian sword in the Arab world was called ‘Hinduana’ and ‘Mohannad’. It gained a great reputation these for being very flexible and sharp. Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry refers to it in many poems.

The decimal number writing system of India is said to have spread to India through Arab Civilization. In agriculture we in India still describe the cycle of crop ‘Kharif’ and ‘Rabi’ which I understand are Arabic words. On the other hand Astronomy was introduced in the Arab world in 8th century through the Indian Sanskrit book ‘Surya Sidhhanta’. The famous Indian works transalated in to Arabic were Charaka Samhita, Mahabharata, Susrud etc.

Continued business and trade between the two peoples enriched the two cultures. For example, Indian Cinema, Cuisine, music and Education is very famous in Arab World . Bollywood films are widely watched in the Arab world Many of the Indian films are now shot in Oman , UAE and Egypt.

Even during their National independence movements Indian and Arab nationalists maintained close relationship. When Gandhi passed by the Suez Canal on the way back from the Round Table Conference in 1931, Ahmed Shawki, the famous Egyptian poet wrote an entire poem praising him. He said:

"Oh sons of Egypt Raise the Laurel and salute the Indian hero He is like the apostles in defending right and virtue He called on Hindus and Islam to intimacy and friendliness.”

These are but a few examples of the flow of ideas, words and experiences between the people of India and the Arab world.

As this is the first interaction many of you are having with the new Government of India, let me outline briefly how we in India look at this age –old relationship, which is pivotal to our national development goals as well as regional peace and stability.

First, let me underline my government’s unflinching commitment to sustaining and expanding relations with the Arab world that is bound to us by centuries-old cultural and civilizational ties.

Second, we see West Asia as a vital part of India’s extended neighbourhood. The region, situated at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, is crucial to our national interests in myriad ways.
It accounts for over 60 per cent of India’s oil and gas requirements, making the region a sturdy pillar of our energy security.
Over 7 million-strong Indian diaspora has made the region its work place, and has enriched the region with their enterprise, untiring energy and dedication. In the Indian idiom ‘Bharat’ is their ‘Janm Bhoomi’, the Gulf is their ‘Karm bhoomi’.
These 7 million Indians have formed a powerful bridge-builder and economic connector, and send home more than US$ 40 billion in remittances annually.
Collectively the Arab world is India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade increasing to over US$ 180 billion in 2012-13.
Oil dominates India’s imports from the region, but recent trends show the trade basket becoming more diverse across the region ranging from Oman to Egypt, Sudan and beyond. The Maghreb region is a major source of phosphatic and other fertilisers, a significant factor in our food security. New economic areas have been identified in that region such as pharmaceuticals, automobiles, infrastructure, power and renewable energy.
In essence, economically, relations are expanding by the day. The possibilities of growth are virtually limitless.
Economic ties are being complemented by enhanced two-way flow of people between the two sides. Travel and tourism have taken wings – there are 700 flights a week between India and the UAE alone!
Looking ahead, one can identify India’s infrastructure sector as a major growth area for Arab investments. Our government has made infrastructure upgrade and the creation of smart cities major national priorities. In this context, the sizable Sovereign Wealth Funds of Gulf countries can offer significant platform for operations of Indian companies and prove to be a game-changer in India’s quest for world-class infrastructure.
Third, with this web of win-win opportunities emerging in multiple areas, continued peace and stability in the region is in our mutual strategic interest. India has been watching post-"Arab Spring” developments very closely. India continues to be guided by the principles of being non-interfering, non-prescriptive and non-judgmental. In other words, India remains ready to provide any support, but strongly believes that it is for the Arab countries to decide their destiny, without any external interference or diktats from outside. Being a longstanding partner of the Arab world, we in India are also deeply concerned with the rise of fanaticism, extremism and terrorism in parts of the region. We are concerned for the stability of these countries where terrorism and fanaticism are tearing apart the fabric of societies and also concerned over the spill-over effects on regional stability. This concern is but natural as the fates of our two regions are intertwined in many ways. Our national and energy interests are certainly important; but more important is the human bond. The continued captivity of 40 innocent Indian workers in Mosul and the holding of 7 Indian sea farers in prolonged custody by pirates in Somalia have brought home to ordinary Indians searing impact of regional instability in parts of the Arab world.

Fourth, let me clarify India’s position on the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict that has created conflicting interpretations in sections of the media. On such a sensitive issue, there is no room for confusion or misunderstanding. Let me repeat, and underline, once again: There is no change in India’s policy of extending strong support to the Palestinian cause, while maintaining good relations with Israel. India is deeply concerned at the loss of large number of civilian lives in Gaza. We have called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and work towards a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue. Apart from strong political support to the Palestinian cause at international, regional and bilateral levels, India has been contributing budgetary, economic and developmental assistance to Palestine and its people.

Friends, our government is committed to advancing the relationship with all countries in the region to our mutual advantage. To make this possible, we need to make a conscious effort to understand each other’s positions and sensitivities. In these times of challenge and ongoing transitions happening in various Arab countries, the need for a constructive dialogue has never been greater.

India’s media landscape is vibrant, diverse and multi-layered. We have more than 90,000 registered publications; 850 registered TV channels of which more than 400 are focussed on news and current events; nearly 400 FM Radio stations broadcast news; more than 100 million social media users whose number is growing exponentially by the day.

It is therefore essential for practitioners from this segment of civil society to brainstorm on ways and means to cooperate and collaborate closely in creating mutual awareness. The India-Arab Media Symposium is a laudable step to keep each other informed and engaged about crucial political and socio-economic developments taking place in our two regions and their implications for the present and future stability and prosperity of each other. As an Arabic saying goes ” wujuuduna fee haaza al ala sharaaka, wa asharaaka annajiha allati tubnaa ala atta'aawun” meaning ”Our presence in this world is a partnership and a successful partnership is built on cooperation.” I wish this flagship event of India-Arab League Partnership all the very best.
21 August 2014
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