Dwindling SAARC

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Abdul Hadi Mayar

If it is really the issue of cross-border terrorism, Bhutan has never faced any trouble from Pakistan’s side

Pakistan and India blame each other for the failure of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). But the fact remains that the culprit is their mutual political rivalry dragged into the fold of this platform meant to boost regional harmony.
Earlier this month, Pakistan Foreign Office Spokesperson Asim Iftikhar accused New Delhi of making SAARC dysfunctional. He was responding to an earlier diatribe of Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, who blamed Pakistan for not holding the SAARC Summit since 2014.
“You are aware of the background as to why SAARC Summit has not been held since 2014. There has been no material change in the situation since then,” Bagchi told a press briefing while responding to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s offer to India to hold SAARC Summit virtually if it persisted to refuse to attend the meeting in Islamabad.
Pakistan was scheduled to host the 19th SAARC Summit in 2016 but the conference was never held because India, supported by its allies i.e. Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan, refused to attend, accusing Pakistan of promoting cross-border terrorism and interfering in the internal affairs of member-states.
Though none of the group’s member countries enjoys veto power, the participation of all of them is mandatory for holding any summit.
“India’s myopic attitude is rendering a valuable platform for regional cooperation increasingly dysfunctional,” Iftikhar said in a statement.
It is not only India blaming Pakistan for rendering the regional group nonfunctional through its alleged sponsorship of terrorism. Islamabad is also accusing New Delhi of indulging in state terrorism and human rights abuses in the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
Previously, Pakistan and India traded such barbs alone. Now Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have also joined the fray, virtually initiating grouping within SAARC. Like India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh also have a history of bitter relations with Pakistan.
But Bhutan putting itself in an anti-Pakistan camp is surprising. If it is really the issue of cross-border terrorism, Bhutan has never faced any trouble from Pakistan’s side.
India and its allies cannot solely be held responsible for trouble inside SAARC. Pakistan has, for its own reasons, also been trying to score points against India at the platform, otherwise meant for the promotion of cooperation and regional harmony.
Whatever might be the state of bilateral and mutual relationship and politicking among member states, sustenance and promotion of a regional alliance, like SAARC, require all sides to overlook minor vested interests for the sake of larger goals.
Historic trade and cultural linkages among the South Asian countries foretell that SAARC has a good potential to integrate this important region of the world. Progress over the initial decades after the creation of the group also indicates that there is a good scope for boosting cooperation among the member states.
It is not that the founding members of SAARC were not privy to the entrenched hostilities between arch-rivals, like India and Pakistan. Bangladesh – whose then President Ziaur Rehman, supported by Nepal’s King Birendra, was the moving spirit behind the establishment of the group in 1985 – had violently separated from Pakistan just 15 years back and both sides still had sore relations.
India and Pakistan were both sceptical about the designs of some member states about the formation of the group even at that time. India feared that the comparatively smaller countries of the neighbourhood were aligning themselves against itself while Pakistan thought India and Bangladesh were uniting the South Asian countries against it.
Despite those fears, the leaders succeeded to kick launch the group to promote trade linkages, promote agriculture and telecommunication and boost people-to-people contacts throughout the region.
When the Foreign Ministers of the seven founder members signed SAARC’s Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) in 1983 – even before the formal launching of the group – their consensus was on boosting cooperation in the five fields of agriculture, rural development, telecommunication, meteorology and health and population activities.
No political or even security issues were ever on the agenda. Bilateral issues between any member states were not even to be discussed in the summits. The issue of terrorism was certainly included in the agenda when the scourge blew out of proportion during and after the Afghan war but no politics were played even on this issue.
It was on account of such un-slanted terms of reference (TORs) that despite mutual rivalries among its member countries, SAARC made good progress in its initial years.
In its twelfth summit in Islamabad in 2004, the alliance signed the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) intending to liberalize trade among the member countries, envisaging reduction of duties on imports by 20 per cent by 2009.
Earlier in 1992, the alliance had launched a visa exemption scheme to promote people-to-people contacts, under which, special travel documents were to be issued to 24 categories of people. These included dignitaries, parliamentarians, high court judges, entrepreneurs, journalists, senior officials and athletes.
The group also announced several awards for the promotion of literature, art, science, tourism and many other fields. In a recent study, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has estimated that inter-regional trade among SAARC member countries has the potential to boost agricultural export from $8 billion to $22 billion.
It was on account of such initial gains that while Myanmar, another regional country, expressed its intention to join the group, China formally submitted a request for the purpose.
Had the flow of such constructive measures not been disrupted, the group would have now been taking big strides, bringing people of the region closer to each other and attracting more countries in the region into its fold.
Time is still in the hands of the member countries, particularly India and Pakistan, to rethink their prejudices and spare at least some areas of cooperation from their political rivalries to save the people of this impoverished region from abject poverty.