On 8 December this year SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation) –comprising India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan- will commemorate the 30th anniversary of its founding.
Launched on 08 December 1985 SAARC brought together the countries of South Asia on the principles of co-operation within the framework of the Association based on respect of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States. The objectives of the organization are:
Promoting the welfare of the people of South Asia;
Accelerating economic growth and social progress;
Providing a dignified livelihood to its people;
Promoting self-reliance amongst South Asian countries and
Building trust, and appreciation for the problems faced by member states
If it was the lofty principles of sovereign equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of member states and the belief that peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity could best be achieved through fostering mutual understanding and good neighbourly relations, then today the nations within SAARC are faced with a stark reality that relationships within the group have hit an all-time low.
When the grouping came into existence in 1985 the countries of SAARC were considered the poorest nations in the world and sections of the media deregorically referred to SAARC as an organization of beggars.
However all that has changed dramatically. Today India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. India is seen as one of the fastest growing economies second only to China.
According to U.S. scientists and quoted in Live science, Afghanistan despite being one of the poorest nations in the world is sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world, valued at nearly $1 trillion --over 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, and lodes of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium…
But some things within the group have not changed.
According to SAARC’s own estimate the region still accounts for a very high percentage of the world’s poor. The region, home to 1.567 billion people or 23.7% of the global population has a very high incidence of poverty and hunger. It is estimated that 451 million people in the region live below poverty line (ADB). While the region has 23.7% of the world’s population, it receives only 2.62% share of the global income. (FIFTH MEETING OF SAARC TECHNICAL COMMITTEE ON AGRICUTLRE & RURAL DEVELOPMENT Dhaka, 5 – 6 August, 2009).
Relations betweenmember states of SAARC are at very low ebb, with relations between the two major powers in the bloc –India and Pakistan- having deteriorated alarmingly to almost a point of almost no return.
Kashmir has been the source of the Indo-Pakistan dispute. The dispute is linked to the partition of India under the Indian Independence Act and Partition Plan of 1947 which divided the then British colony of India into two sovereign states of India with a Hindu majority and Pakistan with Muslim majority.
Under the partition plan, the then princely states were to be given the choice to join either India or Pakistan, based on demography and geography.
Kashmir despite having a Muslim majority was ruled by a Hindu maharaja. Tribal forces from Pakistan fearing the maharaja would opt to join India attacked and occupied parts of the state.This in turn led to the maharaja signing an agreement of accession of the state to India. The entry of Indian troops into the disputed territory of Kashmir led to the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947or to what is now referred to the ‘First Kashmiri War’.
India invited the United Nations to mediate the problem. Finally under the UN Security Council Resolution 47 of 22 April 1948, the war was brought to an end in December 1948, with the Line of Control dividing Kashmir into territories administered by Pakistan (northern and western areas) and India (southern, central and northeastern areas) on the basis of ceasefire positions.
However whereas in 1948 India took the Kashmir issue to the UN and was ready to hold a plebiscite, by the 1990s it hid behind the Simla Agreement -which brought to an end the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. India has since thwarted all attempts by the UN or third-party to mediate the issue.
Thus the UN Security Council resolution 47 of 22 April 1948 calling for a plebiscite on Kashmir was never implemented and Kashmir remains a flash point in relations between the two countries.
Even today, Kashmiris commemorate October 27 as ‘Black Day’ in remembrance of Indian troops entering and the continued occupation of Kashmir.
Relations between India and Pakistan took a further beating in October (2015) when present Indian premier Modi on his first visit to Bangladesh openly admitted at Dhaka University that India had played an active role in dividing Bangladesh from Pakistan(92News HD).
Other countries in the region too have been subject to Indian interventionist policies.
Almost from the time it gained independence Sri Lanka earned Indian ire when it took stances opposed to that of India on international events such as at the Bandung conference in April 18–24, 1955 , again when SL refused to get involved in the Indo-Pakistan war which led to the division of Pakistan and shortly after independence when Sri Lanka disenfranchised the Indian Tamil estate workers who had been imported into the country by the British colonial rulers.
Indian intervention in Sri Lanka peaked in the post 1983 era when India began supporting the Tamil insurgency. Rather than playing a role to create peace between the government and the Tamil people, India provided political support, training camps, arms and funds to the insurgents.
Indian intervention in Sri Lanka ultimately led to an over two-decade war in the country (Sri Lanka), the loss of over a hundred thousand lives, a decimation of its economy and worst, a deep polarizing of its peoples along religious and ethnic lines. It also led to the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil insurgent group the LTTE.
Similarly in Nepal, India’s response to the adoption of the republic’s new constitution has not gone down well with the Nepali government, the Nepalese and the media of that country.
Rather than supporting the new constitution -passed by the majority of the elected members of the Nepali Constituent Assembly (CA)- India has again expressed support to groups opposed to the new constitution.
"The main problem preventing SAARC from growing to its full potential is the issue of Kashmir. This problem needs to be settled with justice to the Kashmiri people. Kashmir was not part of India or Pakistan at independence. It was a ‘princely state’ the then princely states were to be given the choice to join either India or Pakistan, based on demography and geography."
Mallika Shakya of the New Delhi-based South Asian University notes in an interview in ‘The Diplomat’:“India’s intervention was considered to have had a polarizing effect among Nepalese. It should on the contrary be a unifying factor in Nepal’s politics...”
The Maldives too has had its share of nasty experiences of India’s big brother attitude towards smaller neighbours.
The Maldives economy is almost totally dependent on tourism and though the country has Maldivian Rufiyaa as the official currency, a large amount of day-to-day transactions are carried out in US dollars which are a legal tender in the Maldives.
In 2010 Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed signed a contract with an Indian firm GMR to develop and operate the airport for 25 years. The airport was previously operated by Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL). When MACL was operating the airport all dollars earned remained in the country.
However once GMR took over the operations of the Male airport, there was nothing that prevented GMR from remitting its earnings in Indian banks.
This resulted in an outflow of hard currency and led to a shortage of dollars in the Maldivian market which was dangerous as the country operated its business mainly in dollars.
Faced with this situation on November 27, 2012, the Maldivian government cancelled the agreement with Indian firm GMR.
In retaliation the Indian government froze its $225million aid package to the island.
Subsequently in February 2013, India intervened in what was basically a Maldivian problem when former Maldivian President Nasheed took refuge in the Indian High Commission in Malé.
"It’s time for SAARC to grow up. It’s time to petty disputes out of heart and mind. If the states of Europe could do it, cannot the states of SAARC with so many resources –human and material- can join hands to take their populations out of poverty and deprivation?"
It led the Maldivian Home Minister Mohamed Jameel Ahmed urging New Delhi “not to protect an individual who stands charged with a serious crime.” He went on to add that “What’s happening now gives us an indication of the extent and level of interest some countries are prepared to take in our internal matters.”… (N Manoharan Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies)
There have also been allegations of India meddling in the Bhutanese electoral process in 2013.
At the first election in 2008 under the present Constitution, Bhutan’s Peace & Prosperity Party (DPT) won the elections, and initially enjoyed good relations with India with the manifesto of the DPT even stating “…above all India is our most dependable and generous development partner…”. But by 2013 the situation changed.
India became suspicious of the Bhutanese government after it purchased buses from China, and called for a renegotiation of hydro power tarrifs and subsidized LPG and kerosene from India.
In the first round of voting in the 2013 election held on 31 May, the ruling DPT received 40% of the popular vote, while the opposition PDP received 30% of the vote. As it did not meet constitutional requirements the vote had to go into a second 2nd round.
At this point relations with India became an electoral issue.
At the 2nd round of the vote held on 13 July the opposition PDP –People’s Democratic Party- a party supportive of India won the election receiving 55% of the vote (Bhaskar Balakrishnan, ‘The Hindu’ business Line, 16 Aug. 2013).
On 25 Aug 2013 kuenselonline.com commenting on the election results reported: “…On Monday the 29th July, 2013, the first working day of the new Bhutanese Government, the Prime Minister of Bhutan along with his whole Cabinet ended up officially receiving Indian Ambassador V.P. Haran to Gyalwang Tshokhang the Seat of Bhutan Government…
"Unless India and Pakistan settle the Kashmir dispute, and show respect toward fellow member states, there is little chance of SAARC moving forward even in another 30 years."
Nowhere in the world is an Ambassador officially received by a full delegation of Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister let alone on its 1st official working day...”
Afghanistan the newest member of SAARC has repeatedly accused Pakistan of permitting al-Queda terrorists to use Pakistani territory to carry out attacks against it…
Pakistan also stands accused of supporting terrorist groups in Kashmir and terror attacks on India itself. The most nefarious acts being the terrorist raids in Mumbai on 10 November 2008; and the attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001 by the Lakshkar-e-Taiba (Let) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists.
It is now 30 years since the founding of SAARC and nearly 70 years since India and Pakistan’s won independence. Unless and until the two ‘super powers’ within the group are able to settle the dispute over Kashmir, the lofty principles formulated by SAARC’s founding fathers will become more or less ‘a dead letter’.
The main problem preventing SAARC from growing to its full potential is the issue of Kashmir. This problem needs to be settled with justice to the Kashmiri people. Kashmir was not part of India or Pakistan at independence. It was a ‘princely state’ the then princely states were to be given the choice to join either India or Pakistan, based on demography and geography.
Though Pakistan was initially responsible for allowing the conflict to escalate when tribal leaders from its border states entered the then kingdom of Kashmir and occupied it, the right of the Kashmiris to decide whether they want to join with Pakistan, India or whether they want to rule themselves has to be accepted.
It is simply a matter of nationalistic pride that keeps both India and Pakistan occupying Kashmir without the consent of the Kashmiri people
Unless India and Pakistan settle the Kashmir dispute, and show respect toward fellow member states, there is little chance of SAARC moving forward even in another 30 years.
Germany twice invaded the states of Europe, committing countless atrocities during those times. But, the countries of Europe have been able to put past differences behind them and work together for their common good. In fact Germany is today the unofficial leader of the EU --the first among equals.
It’s time for SAARC to grow up. It’s time to put petty disputes out of heart and mind. If the states of Europe could do it, cannot the states of SAARC with so many resources –human and material- join hands to take their populations out of poverty and deprivation?
Cannot India be as magnanimous as the European nations and start afresh by helping to re-establish trust and appreciation for the problems faced by SAARC member states…
Can India provide leadership to SAARC to bring a turnaround to the very high percentage of poverty among the people of SAARC?
Only time and a change of attitude will tell.