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Saturday, February 17, 2024

SAARC’s failure: held hostage to whims of India?

South Asia remains one of the world’s poorest regions, with over 20% of the world’s population and 40% of the poverty-stricken.  Political strife, distrust and occasional clashes undermine integration in a region with a history of territorial disputes and military conflicts.

Accountable democracy remains elusive, the deficit stemming from a feudal mentality among the ruling elite that does not allow the common citizen to participate in governance at the local level. This when combined with the apathy of the largely illiterate masses leads to the reluctance for resolving mutual problems.

SAARC: Set up to help make South Asia great

Established in 1985 SAARC’s progress remains stunted; despite having the great potential to improve prosperity in South Asia, to promote the welfare and improve the quality of life of people,  slow progress and modest achievements have retarded its effectiveness.

Yet there are many impediments restraining SAARC and its way forward: from Kashmir, IDPs, Indus waters, Non-state actors, to local separatists in many of its countries.

Kashmir: A pungent dispute

A conflict resolution mechanism within SAARC is necessary to keep such issues from simmering out of control

Peace remains a dream in this politically unstable region, among major impediments the unresolved issue of Kashmir and the Indian violations of the Indus Basin Treaty.

To get military assistance to put down a popular insurgency Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir bargained his soul signing a controversial ‘Instrument of Accession’ despite Kashmir being a Muslim majority state.

Occupation of Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) by the Indian Army is the core issue bedeviling our relations. Not considering India’s claim as legally valid, the United Nations (UN) recognizes Kashmir as a disputed territory.

Kashmiris must have the right of self-determination in line with UN Resolutions. A conflict resolution mechanism within SAARC is necessary to keep such issues from simmering out of control. Addressing bilateral disputes in SAARC will energize regional politics in an environment of peace.

Read more: A crisis the world wants to ignore

Separatist movements in SAARC Countries

The influx of refugees and internally displaced people, especially between Pakistan and Afghanistan and India and Bangladesh are also hurdles, allowing external powers opportunity to intervene. Separatist movements and insurgencies have increased manifold in many states such as India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In India a festering social revolution, labeled by former Indian PM Dr. Manmohan Singh as the single greatest threat to India, led by Naxals continues to exercising control, even collecting revenues in more than 70 districts. Sustained moral and material assistance from India notwithstanding, both insurgency and terrorism which turn the island paradise into hell, were eliminated in Sri Lanka. No major step has been taken to promote trust amongst member nations still in conflict.

Dr. Rifaat Hussain has described the many violations of the Indus Basin Treaty by India and how it could act as a flashpoint for a future war. With local terrorism and insurgency not confined within national boundaries, non-state actors (NSAs) are able to sow the seeds of mayhem and conflict, without even moving across borders by using modern technology.

Read more: Indian Blustering On The Indus Water Treaty

Role of South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA)

Trade among member nations make up a meager 5% of their total transactions, in comparison, NAFTA is 52%, Asia Pacific region 32% and ASEAN 22%

The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) was considered to be a most comprehensive mechanism for economic cooperation but this optimism was short-lived and not well-founded. SAFTA came into being on Jan 1, 2006. As of today, it remains a non-starter due to many reasons, not least because of a lack of connectivity, weak border infrastructure (land customs stations, warehouse facilities, highly dysfunctional border authorities, etc. Regional blocs need to be a trading bloc to be successful.

Trade among member nations make up a meager 5% of their total transactions, in comparison, NAFTA is 52%, Asia Pacific region 32% and ASEAN 22%. India’s selfish attitude can be gauged to its vehement opposition to anything that accelerates economic development on its periphery e.g. the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The regime change in Sri Lanka after the war saw the new govt cancel at India’s insistence, almost all the Chinese-funded infrastructure development projects. Three years later, with no signs commensurate funds from Indian, the Sri Lankans have had to go back to the Chinese hat in hand.

India: A regional hegemon

The asymmetry between India and the others is reflected in their economic and technological development as compared to India being almost negligible.

A number of Chinese academics, among them Professors Chu Yun of the International University and Lin Minwang of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University have commented on Indian interference in Sri Lankan affairs, because it is worried about losing its influence in the Indian Ocean. A case in point is the Hambantota Port unnecessarily made controversial by Indian dictation. How long will the Sri Lankan govt stomach this? At least the intelligentsia and the masses cannot!

Why should NSAs hold the future of well over a billion people by their actions?

India’s intransigent behavior has brought SAARC almost to a standstill. The 19th SAARC Summit to be held in Pakistan on Nov 9 last was canceled when India used the “Uri” attack pretext to first opt out and then pressurizing Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Afghanistan to also boycott the meeting.

Using the machinations of non-state actors (NSAs) to derail dialogue is unacceptable. Why should NSAs hold the future of well over a billion people by their actions? Sharing borders with all member countries, barring Maldives and Afghanistan, India has had problems with all on one pretext or another over the years.

India’s security model is based on the principle of dominance and enlarging its security parameters to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a world power. From treating SAARC as irrelevant, India is using this platform to further its own agenda.

Read more: Modi rebukes Pakistan: ‘India alone cannot walk the path of peace.’

SAARC must not be held hostage to the whims of its strongest member, to work as a dynamic and potent forum, the issues making it non-functional must be addressed by ensuring that that trade is fair and equitable for all and not skewed in just one country’s favor. Unless the growing economic discrepancies and discrimination are countered through reform and justice, SAARC’s utility as a vibrant organization will remain debatable.

Without Kashmir being resolved, peace will remain an illusion and SAARC will eventually become meaningless. The use of pellets to blind Kashmiri protestors; can we be blind to the fact that the turmoil will only become more brutal? We may never be able to come to an agreement over Kashmir, what is stopping us from coming to an arrangement? Without that one can then think of the unthinkable, SAARC might just as well be dissolved.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.