0615 GMT February 17, 2020
At the invitation of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), a number of journalists and media personnel from the member states of the Indian Rim Ocean Association (IORA) paid a one-week visit to India during November 11-18, 2017 as part of a familiarization program.
They were from Iran, Australia, Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, the Union of Comoros, Mauritius, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Seychelles and Madagascar.
Established on March 7, 1997, IORA is a 21-member intergovernmental organization which seeks to expand regional economic cooperation and strengthen mutually beneficial collaboration through a consensus-based approach.
The vision for IORA originated in 1995 during a visit by the late South African president Nelson Mandela to India, where he said, “The natural urge of the facts of history and geography should broaden itself to include the concept of an Indian Ocean rim for socioeconomic cooperation.”
This sentiment and rationale underpinned the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative in March 1995, and the creation of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (then known as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation) two years later, in March 1997.
The Indian Ocean Rim defines a distinctive area in international politics consisting of coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean. Home to nearly 2.7 billion people, in addition to Iran, other IORA member states are Australia, Bangladesh, Union of Comoros, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, the UAE and Yemen.
Indian visitors walk through the courtyard of Jama Masjid amid heavy smog in the old quarters of New Delhi on November 8, 2017.
As an Iranian journalist, I was given the opportunity to be part of the multinational media team visiting India. A few days prior to my trip to New Delhi, I read the news that the Indian capital had become the most polluted city on earth in early November, as air quality had reached epically bad proportions.
Some monitoring stations reported an Air Quality Index of 999, way above the upper limit of the worst category, hazardous.
Although being a citizen of the Iranian capital, Tehran, which, as other metropolises, suffers from temperature inversions and air pollution, particularly during the cold season, the news about New Delhi’s contaminated air had intimidated me to some extent. However, tempted by the prospect of visiting India, a country of numerous wonders and mysteries, and broadening my life experience, I decided to take the trip.
Having disembarked the plane at Mahatma Gandhi International Airport, I noticed that New Delhi’s sky was indeed the extension of the odor I had sensed in the plane’s cabin as we had entered the city’s airspace – completely covered with thick smog. A few hours later, however, the smog was not a nuisance anymore.
Taj Mahal in Agra, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India
It was almost 5:30 a.m. when I arrived at the hotel. One of the hotel’s receptionists told me that the entire team was required to be ready in the lobby by 7 a.m. for a day trip to Agra. Fortunately, I had not been told that going on this visit was optional; otherwise, I would have exchanged it for a day-trip to bed.
Following an almost four-hour bus trip, we were in Agra, at the gates of the marvelous Taj Mahal. Being among the New Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white marble mausoleum, located on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra, was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628-1658), to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess who died giving birth to their 14th child, Gauhara Begum.
The tomb is the centerpiece of a 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall.
As explained by the tour guide, there are three entrance gates to Taj Mahal, known as the eastern, western and southern gates. The patterns on the walls and gates of Taj Mahal, featuring flowers and leaves, look like color paintings, but amazingly, no color has been used in their creation, and no one has painted them. They have all been created using colorful jeweled stones – marble inlaid with semiprecious stones. The writing on the walls of the historical building are verses from the Quran.
It is said that on the nights of the full moon, Taj Mahal flaunts its white shine under the luster of soft moonlight. Watching the view of softly glowing white marbles from a distance is very eye-pleasing. Being inside the tomb on a full moon night is a more splendid experience. Imagine the sheer beauty of this monument, standing beside the river, illuminating white moonlight.
The next stop was Agra Fort. A historical fort in the city of Agra, it was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort is about 2.5 kilometers northwest of its more famous sister, the Taj Mahal. The fort can be more accurately described as a walled city.
Agra Fort in Agra, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India
The splendor and mysteriousness of Agra Fort reminded me of Red Keep – the castle at King’s Landing – in the Game of Thrones.
Panda, Gokhale present purposes
Joint Secretary of the MEA’s IOR Sanjay Panda (L) and MEA’s Secretary (economic relations) Vijay Gokhale (2nd L) brief a media group from IORA member states on the goals of their mid-November familiarization visit to India at the MEA on November 13, 2017.
The second day of the trip included a number of meetings with various Indian officials. The day started with a session between the media team and the joint secretary of the Indian Ocean Region Division (IOR) of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Sanjay Panda.
Speaking at the meeting, Panda said this is the first familiarization visit for media contingent from the IORA countries.
Providing the group with a brief background on IORA and its activities, he added that it was last year (October 27, 2016) in Bali, Indonesia, when the 16th meeting of the Council of Ministers was held.
“In that meeting we debated how much attraction IORA has got and how much progress it has made. We asked ourselves whether the association has really been successful in reaching a wider audience, not just within its member states, but even outside.”
He said after examining the issue, it was understood that there was a lack of understanding about what IORA is all about, what the association has been doing, and the attraction that it has gained since 2011.
“During the last two years, when Indonesia held the association’s chair, the country did a really wonderful job, pushed the envelope very far and organized the first leaders’ summit in Jakarta, in March 2017.”
He added the leaders’ summit was actually of great assistance in giving a little direction to what IORA is all about.
Panda said, “We are currently thinking in terms of building a core media strategy for IORA as media focus has always been a missing element for the association. India has initiated this project and is receiving all the support from IORA secretariat based in Mauritius.”
He stressed that the vision of IORA is to reach through the media, which is a very important element, to a wider audience.
“We are also thinking of establishing an e-media group to continue to interact electronically.”
At the MEA, the group’s next meeting was with the ministry’s secretary (economic relations), Vijay Gokhale.
Addressing the meeting, he said, “The Indian Ocean for us is a growing area of importance as it is home to 2.7 billion people coming from diverse cultures, civilizations, religions and ethnicities all connected by a single ocean.
“As we move from visualizing ourselves as land-connected towards looking at ourselves as ocean-connected, this association, IORA, gains a lot of relevance and currency, because countries are not distinct anymore. In that sense, the connectivity is direct because the oceans are global commons. We also have common concerns, aspirations and interests. The IORA, as a platform, is intended to bring these ideas into fruition by getting all of us on the same page.”
At present, the media stream has become important to IORA to both educate people in the member states of the association about what the organization is and project it outside.
This year at the United Nations Ocean Conference in June, the IORA was called as an entity to attend the forum which shows that the association is gaining in recognition and salience.
Six priority areas were identified by IORA in the IOR-ARC 11th Meeting of the Council of Ministers in Bangalore, south India, on November 15, 2011, including trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk management, tourism and cultural exchange, academic, science and technology and blue economy, which are all important.
“The role that media plays in disseminating information about these [priority areas] is important for building a consensus. We are a consensus-based organization and, given our diversity, have to remain a consensus-based organization. The more all domestic population of the IORA member states know about this organization and the challenges it faces in the seas and oceans in terms of connectivity, investment, maritime safety and security, the easier will it be to build that consensus which will hopefully take the association to the level of other international organizations and platforms we have seen in the region called Indo-Pacific – because of the connectivity between the two oceans.”
He expressed hope that during their stay in India, the journalists from IORA member states would manage to see a bit of the South Asian state and learn more about the country’s diverse ethnicities, religions and languages.
IDSA’s Deputy Director General Alok Deb addresses a meeting between IDSA members and the media group from IORA member states at the institute in New Delhi on November 13, 2017.
Following the meetings at the Ministry of External Affairs, the media team was taken to the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA).
According to the institute’s website (idsa.in), IDSA is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defense and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defense and security-related issues.
The core values that serve as the institute’s guiding principles are: Integrity and honesty, commitment, professionalism, pursuit of excellence, teamwork and innovation and creativity.
At the institute, a meeting, chaired by IDSA’s Deputy Director General Alok Deb, was held between a team of experts from the institute and the media group which involved a large number of questions asked by the latter and answers provided by the former.
Commenting on the cooperation between Iran and India in the fight against terror, Adil Rasheed, an IDSA research fellow, said as two IORA member states, the two countries are collaborating with each other in the fight against terrorism.
India has been cooperating with many of the Persian Gulf countries, including Iran, in the war on terror, he added.
Rasheed noted that it is a part of India’s mutual relations with Iran, adding the two countries have had a lot of collaboration to this end.
The last meetings of the day were held at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). There, the media team met the NMF’s director, Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, and executive director, Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana.
According to maritimeindia.org, based in New Delhi, NMF was established in 2005 as the nation’s first maritime think-tank for conducting independent research on ‘matters maritime’.
It was inaugurated by the then defense minister of India Sh. Pranab Mukherjee, (later the president of India) on February 15, 2005. While it is an autonomous think-tank, its intellectual and organizational development is supported by the Ministry of Defense and the Indian Navy. Since its inception, the NMF has grown from a fledging organization into an established intellectual institution with robust academic linkages within the country and overseas.
The genesis of the NMF lies in a long-felt need to redress India's historical neglect of its maritime domain and to fill an acute intellectual void, by providing a common platform for discourse between maritime related institutions, organizations and disciplines, countrywide. It was also envisaged that the Foundation would provide an open forum for professional debate amongst the various stakeholders within India’s maritime domain, while serving to heighten maritime awareness amongst India's policymakers and intellectual elite, as also civil society at large.
To be the foremost resource center for the development and advocacy of strategies for the promotion and protection of India’s maritime interests.
Chauhan and Khurana both had very engaging personalities which helped make the meetings very interesting. During the session held between Chauhan and the team, the members of the media group were all ears.
Speaking at the meeting, Chauhan said, “In the whole IORA ambit, we feel that individual nations will progress on the single principle that if the tide rises all boats will rise with the tide. If you choose one boat to rise, then it will be a suboptimal solution.”
NMF’s Director Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan
Memorable Meal at MEA
Finally the day came to an end with a memorable dinner at the MEA. The dinner ceremony was attended by a number of Indian officials including Panda and Chairman of Trade Promotion Council of India Mohit Singla.