The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an organisation which has never been to the liking of the Indian establishment since its birth in Dhaka in 1985, is being crippled from time to time by the powers-that-be in New Delhi, irrespective of the party in power.
Boycott of summits, for one reason or the other, has been the main weapon in New Delhi’ armory in its long-drawn-out war against the organisation started by Ziaur Rahman, a Bangladeshi president who was not seen in South Block as a friend of India.
Interestingly, India uses and breaks the SAARC charter when it scuttles a summit.
The charter says that every member of the association must be represented at the head of government level for a summit to take place. This stipulation is used by New Delhi to stay away and automatically scuttle a summit.
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The charter also says that members shall not raise bilateral issues and conflicts in SAARC in order to focus on collective concerns. But this is brazenly broken by India when it wants to scuttle a summit.
Most of the bilateral issues which have scuttled SAARC summits pertain to India-Pakistan relations.
SAARC has been held hostage to India-Pakistan disputes, the core of which pertains to Kashmir – the incessant violent happenings there, Pakistan’s role in the Kashmiri movement for azadi and cross-border incursions by Pakistan-based terror groups.
The net result is that the SAARC charter is in tatters and the association is in a shambles.
Even meaningful work done at the lower official and experts’ levels fail to bear fruit because of a divided leadership at the heads of government level.
Threat to boycotting Islamabad summit
Very recently, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj dealt a body blow to SAARC by categorically stating that India will not accept Pakistan’s invitation to attend the organisation’s summit to be held in Islamabad.
If India does not attend, the summit cannot be held, because, according to the SAARC charter, all governments will have to be represented for a summit to be held.
India cited cross border-terrorist attacks and the bombing of a Nirankari shrine in Amritsar by a Pakistan-based outfit as reasons for the boycott. “Terrorism and talks cannot go together,” Swaraj said recently.
Strangely, the boycott announcement came close on the heels of very encouraging statements from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan, in connection with the start of the construction of a road between two Sikh shrines, one in India and the other across the border.
Modi said that the road link will shatter barriers between India and Pakistan just as the breaking of the Berlin Wall broke down divisions between East and West Germany. And Imran Khan said that if India takes one step towards peace and understanding, Pakistan will take two.
Political circles feel that while the building of the corridor is meant to help Modi’s BJP get back Sikh support in Punjab which it lost in 2017, the anti-Pakistan tirade and the boycott of the SAARC summit are meant to keep the Hindu votes with it. Indian parliamentary elections are due to May 2019 and every action has a political import.
Be that as it may, politics has again harmed SAARC, further crippling an already crippled organisation by preventing dialogue and meaningful cooperation between neighbours to bring peace and economic development to a backward region.
Not the first time
This is by no means the first time that a SAARC summit will not be held because of a boycott. Pakistani scholar Dr Manzoor Ahmad has made some interesting observations on the subject in his paper on boycott of SAARC summits entitled ‘SAARC Summits 1985-2016: The Cancellation Phenomenon’.
The first summit was held in 1985 (December 7–8) when SAARC was officially launched. Since then, only 18 summits have been held: 10 in the first 15 years (1986–2000) and eight in the next 15 years (2001–2016), he says.
Summits were cancelled in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, he adds.
In the first decade (1986–1995), only seven summits were held. Summits could not take place in 1989, 1992 and 1994. The venues were changed in 1987 and 1988.
Political and security tensions between New Delhi and Colombo over the Tamil issue undermined the summit process from 1988 to 1991. Sri Lanka refused to host the summit until India withdrew its troops. Consequently, the fourth summit was shifted to Islamabad in 1988. The fifth summit was to be held in Colombo in 1989. But again Sri Lanka refused to host it in protest over the continued presence of the IPKF on its soil.
The 1991 summit in Colombo was postponed at the last minute when Bhutan’s King Jigme SingyeWangchuck announced his inability to attend because of unrest and violence in his country.
According to Ahmad, SAARC members were willing to go ahead with a representative of the Bhutanese king, but India opposed, declaring that it would be a violation of the charter.
The summits in Bangladesh (1992) and India (1994) were postponed till 1993 and 1995, respectively.
The 1992 summit in Dhaka was postponed when the then Indian PM P V Narasimha Rao refused to attend, saying that the security situation in Bangladesh was bad with Muslims protesting against the demolition of the Babri masjid on December 6, 1992. This was the first occasion when India refused to attend a summit.
The eighth summit was to be held in Pakistan in 1994. But it was cancelled because of the India-Pakistan row over Kashmir. While Pakistan accused India of suppressing Kashmiri Muslims and wanted to be involved in finding a solution to the Kashmir problem, India said that the violent incidents in Kashmir were the handiwork of Pakistan inspired and funded terrorists. New Delhi also insisted that Kashmir’s integration with India could not be questioned.
India and Pakistan, which had started a dialogue in 1990, suspended it between 1994 and 1997. However, a summit was held in Delhi in 1995 with Pakistan’s participation.
In the second decade (1996–2005), only five summits were held. They could not be held in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003. The reason was, once again, India-Pakistan tension.
However, at the 1997 summit in the Maldives, Pakistan’s the then PM Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart I K Gujral got along famously, pledging to settle all disputes as per the 1972 Simla agreement.
But the rapprochement was short lived because of the Pakistan army’s covert capture of hill posts in the Kargil sector of Kashmir in 1999. There was also a military coup in Pakistan which further aggravated ties with India.
Therefore, the 11th summit was delayed till 2002. The 42-month gap between the 10th and 11th summits was the longest in the history of SAARC.
The 11th summit, which was to be held in Kathmandu in November 1999, was postponed to 2002 because India did not want to sit with Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf.
The 12th summit was to be held in Pakistan in 2003. Using trade liberalisation as a lever, India refused to participate in it, saying that until Pakistan agreed to make substantial progress in trade liberalisation there would be no interaction.
This was the fourth time New Delhi precipitated a summit postponement, Dr Ahmad says. But after Pakistan agreed to trade liberalisation, the summit was held in Islamabad in 2004.
The Dhaka summit to be held in 2005 was delayed because the then Indian PM Manmohan Singh refused to attend, citing undemocratic actions of the Nepal’s King Gyanendra who had declared a state of emergency after sacking the elected government in February 2005.
In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party government had turned anti-Indian and was using Islamic radical groups to target Indian interests.
This was the fifth time in the then 20-year SAARC history that New Delhi had caused a delay in the summit. The Dhaka summit was finally held in November 2005 after a nine-month delay.
In the third decade (2006-2105) also, SAARC continued to witness long delays and cancellations. Only five summits were held during this period. No summits were held in 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
In 2014, SAARC heads decided to meet once in two years and not once a year, perhaps looking at the ground realities.
In the fourth decade (2016-) there has been one cancellation. The summit, which was to be held in Pakistan in 2016, was cancelled because of a boycott by several countries, led by India.
India accused Pakistan of using its agents to attack an army base at Uri in Kashmir. Other countries were persuaded to boycott giving their own reasons. Bangladesh and Afghanistan had issues with Pakistan (alleged interference in their internal affairs) but Sri Lanka and Bhutan chose to toe the Indian line due to geo-political compulsions.