Dormant Saarc

Updated 26 Sep 2020

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THE regional grouping of South Asian countries that promised so much once has been reduced to an instrument of politicking and brinkmanship. This reality hit with full force once again as foreign ministers of the member countries met informally and virtually this week, in honour of the tradition that has been bringing them together on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly session.

Islamabad reiterated its commitment to hosting the 19th Saarc summit “in the spirit of regionalism and as per Pakistan’s commitment to the Saarc platform”. The 19th summit has been on hold since 2016 because of New Delhi’s refusal to participate. As a result, the regional bloc has been more or less dormant in an era in which neighbours are exceedingly dependent on each other, regional cooperation is considered crucial to national development and close economic, cultural and social linkages are essential investments in peace between countries divided by geographical boundaries.

India accused Pakistan of escalating ‘cross-border terrorism’ as it ruled out a regional summit four precious years ago and is sticking to more or less the same position, barring the addition of some emphasis here or a smirk there.

The current belligerence was in full view during the latest meeting of foreign ministers when Indian representatives allowed undiplomatic words such as “pernicious” to escape their lips. This was reflective of the old desire to somehow overwhelm and conceal any mention of what has to be their most embarrassing side — a glaring act of encroachment, the use of force and denial of the people’s rights and aspirations in India-held Kashmir.

Just how sensitive the Narendra Modi government is to any talk of the occupied land can be gauged from the fact that the Indian press, briefed obviously by officials, said that Pakistan had tried to raise Kashmir — even without naming it — three times at the foreign ministers’ meeting.

This, according to the logic applied across the border, constituted a breach of the Saarc principle which discourages taking up bilateral questions on a regional platform. This is quite a strange position for India to take — one big country with the capacity to impose its veto on others is accusing another state belonging to the same regional group of promoting cross-border terrorism. Does this not constitute bilateralism? The emphasis should be on saving the institution. Something created with so much difficulty must not be allowed to be held hostage to jingoistic chatter.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2020