By Kamran Reza Chowdhury;
The latest India-Pakistan armed tension in the line of control (LoC) in Kashmir and the subsequent impasse over holding the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Islamabad have once again raised a question about the regional grouping’s future. Bangladesh is among the first countries to say no to the Islamabad summit accusing Pakistan of interfering into Bangladesh’s domestic affairs — especially over Newaz Sharif government’s sharp reaction after execution of 1971 war crimes convicts.
India is the first country that expressed its inability to turn up to the Islamabad summit after the Pakistan-backed militants killed 17 Indian soldiers and in its wake the skirmishes along the LoC, the de facto border between the Indian-administered Kashmir and the Pakistan-ruled ‘Azad’ Kashmir. Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka also snubbed the summit.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was asked whether she wanted a death of SAARC as arranged a press meet over her Canada and US visit last week. Being the head of the government of the country that piloted the SAARC idea in 1985, Hasina said she alone could not talk on this issue —with a hint that Bangladesh did not want to see SAARC’s demise despite the bilateral problems mainly between the two big players, India and Pakistan.
The common people in Bangladesh have hailed her stance, I think.
SAARC, one of the most dysfunctional regional grouping meant for changing the lots of the common people in eight countries through cooperation and people-to-people contact, was instituted amid the bitter Indo-Pak obsessive enmity — a phenomenon that had been on since partition of the Greater India in 1947 when the British rulers left.
The military ruler and the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Major General Ziaur Rahman, who was highly anti-Indian in approach and close to Pakistan, floated the idea of SARC —South Asian Region Cooperation. His friend and Bangladesh’s second military dictator, Lt Gen H M Ershad could finally make agree all leaders to form SARC, which was later turned into SAARC.
The leaders agreed to form the SAARC, admitting that there would be hostilities among the members, but they must sit at the negotiating table, too.
So, we have seen in the past that the leaders of India and Pakistan in presence of other five heads of state or heads of the government shared the same podium and talked for cooperation among them, though the reality was different.
So, should we kill SAARC? I think no. The member states have created an agreed platform where the top leaders of India and Pakistan sit. Apart from any bilateral meetings, can anyone make the premiers of India and Pakistan sit at the same table costing billions of dollars? They can sit because of the platform, SAARC. We should not waste this unique forum that has brought many areas and issues related to lives of more than a billion people living in the region for cooperation.
Also, SAARC makes an exclusive retreat for the heads of the government or state. Usually, the leaders take breakfast in the next morning of the summit; no public servants are allowed to go there. The idea is to make opportunities for the leaders to discuss the issue among themselves. And such one-to-one discussions between the top leaders definitely contribute to the improvement of bilateral relations.
We should not forget the historic impromptu handshake between Pakistan President Gen Parvez Musharraf and the India Prime Minister, AB Vajpayee at a SAARC summit.
Also, at the last Kathmandu summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Newaz Sharif had a brief talk at the breakfast. That brief meeting between Modi and Newaz got huge press coverage in the whole region.
Cutting the head to cure headache is not a solution. The hostilities between India and Pakistan are realities in South Asia, given Pakistan’s state policy of harbouring militants active in entire South Asia. Pakistan should revisit its security dynamics to contribute to the efficacy of the regional forum.
We have to accept the reality and try to march forward to enhance people-to-people contact, one of the major goals of SAAARC, and only increased people-to-people contact can force the leaders to end the hatred among members.
Shutting the door for neighbours or stop talking cannot be the solution to any problem. Let us hope that all of our leaders would be cordial enough to bring SAARC from a labyrinth.