Its survival can be assured once India and Pakistan end their acrimony

SAARC To Crumble?

The words of political astuteness hardly die. In complex political situations, these spontaneously start ringing up in the minds of political observers, commentators and historians. Historian Ramachandra Guha, starts chapter titled ‘A Valley Bloody And Beautiful’ of his magnum opus ‘India After Gandhi- the history of worlds largest democracy’ with a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru and ends it up  with four quotes from Hary Gardy, United States Ambassador to India 1948, General A.G.L. McNaugten, UN mediator for Kashmir 1950, Richard Symond British author 1950 and Ralph Bunche, senior UN official February 1953.  Every quote cascading with political wisdom, even after six decades fits in the situation as obtains in the Subcontinent in 2014. Given to constraints of space, it may not be possible to reproduces all the quotes in full. Nevertheless, a common thread binds all the quotes, ‘Kashmir is a situation you could never localize if it should flare up…. It is one great problem that can cause downfall of India and Pakistan…So far as dispute over Kashmir continues it is a serious drain on military, economies of the two countries….It is the Kashmir dispute that has poisoned every aspect  of India and Pakistan relations….It would influence the whole Muslim World. It is potentially most dangerous in the world.’

Guha rightly called these statements as ‘prophetic’- ‘They are as relevant today as at the time when made.’ On the inaugural of the 18th SAARC Summit at the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, India and Pakistan Prime Ministers passing as strangers was a grim reminder that Kashmir continues to a spoke in their wheel. The two day summit from November 26 to November 27, 2014 attended by the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, the Presidents of Afghanistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka was literally held hostage to the acrimonious   relations between Islamabad and New Delhi. The careworn and brooding faces of the leaders of two key South-Asian players lent a cold war ambiance to the Summit. And it much trumpeted theme, ‘Deeper Integration for peace and Prosperity’ was lost in the frigid atmosphere.  

Narendra Modi, invited Nawaz Sharif, along with other South Asian leaders on his installation as Prime Minister. This more or less was an expression of New Delhi’s privilege of being leader of the South Asian region. Nonetheless, it was seen by peaceniks and some commentators in Pakistan as a good beginning and had spawned optimism in the tribe- popularly called as Aman ki Asha clan. The briefest bonhomie between the two countries came to an abrupt end after India cancelled foreign secretary-level talks in August. Again the cause for termination of the talks was Kashmir. India raised an objection to Pakistan High Commissioner inviting leaders of the Hurriyat Conference for consultation before starting of formal talks with India. This was not something unprecedented. The exercise was almost in practice since 1964. And during NDA government, when the Hurriyat leaders were talking to New Delhi they were more than often encouraged to meet Pakistan leaders during their visit to New Delhi. And were also encouraged to travel to Islamabad. The UPA government also followed this practice.  

The strained relations have not only been impacting the two countries but have been holding entire region as hostage. To say it politely virtually there was no breakthrough at the 18th SAARC summit. No substantial business for the development of the region was transacted at the summit. To the disappointment of other members of the organization, the leaders failed to take any decisions on flow of investments for pushing the economies in the region. No agreement could be reached on   cross border road and rail traffic. On the last day, when after two days chilled atmosphere Modi and Sharif shook hands, an agreement on the electricity-sharing in the region was signed. The Summit failing to go ahead with its business as had been envisaged showed the weakness of the SAARC, where regional solidarity is captive to dispute between over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. To see the region come out of this war of attrition, it has become incumbent on SAARC counties in their own interest to play a pro-active role in fixing relation between the two neighbors. 

The idea of creating a regional forum for cooperation was mooted first by Bangladesh in 1980. Nepal and Sri Lanka immediately supported the idea. India and Pakistan for their hostility over Kashmir suspected the move. ‘Islamabad was apprehensive lest the forum be used by India to realize its dream of hegemony over the region.’ New Delhi doubted that ‘neighbors under umbrella of this forum might gang up against India’.  Finally, after ‘four years intensive preparation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formally launched at a summit at Dhaka in December 1985. Agreeing that bilateral and contentious issues should be excluded from the forum, it identified lofty goals for fruitful cooperation not realizing that without resolving the disputes between members the goals could not be realized.

 The SAARC has in reality been a failure.  ‘In its 30 years of existence, it failed to hold eleven Summits.  The forum has eight States as members and nine States have been granted observer status. Besides others these include USA and China. ‘Pakistan has been pleading for raising China’s status from that of an observer, to a full member. Nepal, Sri Lanka and other states have been supporting the move. India, has been opposing China’s inclusion on the plea that geographically that country is not part of the South Asia.  This plea suffers a contradiction, in 2007 Afghanistan was allowed to join the SAARC ‘despite being a Central Asian country’. ‘India’s unexpressed fears are on two different counts,’ writes S.D. Muni an Indian commentator, ‘“As a full member, China will get a veto in SAARC affairs as SAARC decisions are taken unanimously. China may therefore block projects that may offer strategic and economic advantage to India.” India despite Pakistan and other countries supporting China’s entry in the forum will resist it- this wrangling threatens the very existence of the SAARC.