Traveling to India: Juxtaposition of towers and slums

NEW DELHI— A media delegation from Iran visited India on August 24 as part of a “Familiarization Tour” organized by the Indian embassy in Tehran in collaboration with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The Iranian media delegation included the Tehran Times correspondent. His observations from the week-long excursion are as follows.

Our journey began on August 24 at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport.

At 1:30 a.m., I met my colleagues at the airport. We couldn’t sleep because of our pre-trip worries. We were all excited to learn more about India, despite our anxieties about visiting such an exotic country with so many untapped potentials. As a college student who spent three years in Mumbai, I was familiar with Indian culture, food, and other mutual similarities between the two ancient civilizations. However, because I had never left Mumbai, I was eager to see New Delhi and compare India’s political and economic capitals.

After being away from India for nine years, I couldn’t wait for the clock to hit 5:30 and board the Emirates plane bound for Dubai, followed by a connecting flight on the same airline bound for New Delhi.

My colleagues were all nervous because it was their first visit to India. They had various legitimate concerns about the spicy Indian cuisine (which I understand). I personally enjoy spicy cuisine, but it takes some getting used to, as well as the distinct Indian accent when they begin speaking English. I did my best to calm them down and advise them to follow my lead and consume the meal according to my instructions. That certainly soothed some worries, but the fear of encountering an ancient civilization like India lingered.

When we arrived in New Delhi, we were met cordially by two MEA officials who took us to our hotel (Le Meridien), which was located in a somewhat modern area of the city called Janpath. Despite my cautions, my friends were taken aback by New Delhi’s hot and humid weather. When we got to the streets, though, the weather didn’t bother them as much as the honking of Indian vehicles. They had scribbled “Blow Horn” on the back of their vehicles, which quickly drew the attention of the Iranian journalists.

We checked into the hotel and rested. I went out to explore New Delhi (of course, within the walking distance). When I got off the street, what struck me the most was that, despite the hotel’s location in a pretty advanced area, there were people living in slum dogs.

I was eager to learn about India and the opportunities for establishing relationship there. However, the humidity made it impossible for me to walk that far, so I returned to the hotel after taking a few videos on my phone.

We went for dinner with our colleagues and discussed our plans for the next day, which included an off-the-record meeting with the Indian Foreign Secretary, Mr. Vinay Mohan Kwatra. Anxiety peaked the next morning (Aug. 25), when we gathered in the hotel lobby to meet Mr. Kwatra. We had no idea what we were about to hear.

The meeting began with Mr. Arindam Bagchi, the MEA’s official spokesperson, who greeted us warmly. The tension had dissipated, and we were all looking forward to meeting Mr. Foreign Secretary.

The meeting was flawless from start to finish. He listened to our questions and responded candidly. We all believe that Iran-India relations can and should be strengthened further.

However, several concerns were raised immediately after I left the meeting. How may India strengthen ties with Iran while maintaining close ties with the Israeli regime? The regime is assisting New Delhi economically, technologically, and intelligence-wise, and India would not give that up in order to strengthen mutual ties with Iran. Despite bringing it in multiple sessions, this question has yet to be solved in my mind.

From my perspective and observations, the Israeli regime’s extensive collaborations with India could negatively impact New Delhi’s ties with Tehran. However, Indians must be assured that Tehran can certainly fill the possible vacuum for New Delhi.

We continued our busy schedule and ate a quick lunch at the hotel before heading to the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), an institute in India that provides training and capacity development programs for natural disaster management.

Despite a cordial welcome and a thorough presentation of their program, my impression of the institution and its programs was that they began to work “when” the country is hit by a crisis. When I asked them about the recent flood in Himachal Pradesh, which killed 36 Indians, I realized that the institute functions as a “post-disaster management” institute, which investigates the flaws that caused the flood after it has hit the city or state, which isn’t always a bad thing, and is sometimes even necessary. However, despite one of its purposes being “flood management,” which is plainly stated on the 23rd slide of their presentation, I was unable to determine whether the institute provided tents or emergency aid packages to flood victims.

When it comes to dealing with national disasters, Iran can undoubtedly assist India. In my opinion, the NIDM officials were eager to collaborate with Iran, and the Indians’ enthusiasm should be conveyed to the Iranians.

We left the NIDM and went to the Observer’s Research Foundation (ORF) after seeing a startling headline on their website. They had made up a fictitious name for the Persian Gulf. The article was published on August 24, the day we arrived in New Delhi. The ORF officials knew we were about to visit their headquarters, and publishing an article with that headline guaranteed the think tank was about to take a punitive stance. We convened in the bus on our way to the ORF headquarters to plan how to address the matter.

The MEA employees on the bus quickly denied any culpability, arguing that the think tank was independent and did not receive orders from the MEA, and that we should therefore raise the issue with them. We did so, and the gathering quickly devolved into a furious discussion. ORF authorities were reluctant to retract or modify the article, claiming that this is not an “institutionalized position” and that they publish anything their researcher considers acceptable. This was obviously unacceptable to us, and they encouraged us to “deal with it” and take the matter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry if we had deep feelings about it. Despite repeated attempts to defuse tension, the meeting did not end on a positive note.

Professor Harsh V Pant, the Vice President of Studies and Foreign Policy at ORF, used the fabricated phrase again and refused to use the term Persian Gulf, which led me to assume that the use of the fabricated name in the headline was done on purpose and was indeed an institutionalized viewpoint. Despite being interrupted multiple times, I told ORF officials about the Tehran Times’ official protest over the headline.

Following that unpleasant meeting, we all returned to the hotel to prepare for Mr. Bagchi’s dinner ceremony.

At 8:00 p.m., we proceeded down the hall and met Mr. spokesman, as well as numerous MEA interns and media people. I had the wonderful opportunity to exchange views with intelligent young Indians who would soon be taking up positions in the MEA. Isn’t it exciting?

I quickly came to a couple of conclusions after exchanging a few words. The first is that even mentioning Pakistan, India’s -not-so-friendly-neighbor, is considered “forbidden.” They refused to debate the issue because they believed Pakistan played no role in India’s foreign and internal policy apparatus, which contradicted my understanding of India.

The second insight I had was that the fate of the Vienna talks and the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was critical for Indian media personalities, MEA staff, and MEA interns. As previously mentioned, they were looking forward to the lifting of banking sanctions on Iran in order to invest in the potentially capable country. Without a question, there was a strong desire to invest in Iran. This was particularly striking to me, because Iran and India formed a Rial-Roupee mechanism in 2014 to ease commerce and de-dollarize their commercial relations.

However, Indians were endeavoring to trade with Iran using international channels such as SWIFT (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication). I was curious to learn why there is such a desire to trade with Iran through SWIFT.

Part 1


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