By Venkkat G & Sobia Hamid Bhat
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC as it is popularly known, is a regional inter-governmental organisation of countries in South Asia. It was established on 8th of December, 1985 in Dhaka, Bangladesh to promote peace, prosperity, and regional integration in the South Asian region. It currently comprises of eight members states viz. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives, with Afghanistan being the latest entrant to the original tally of seven. It’s secretariat is established in Katmandu, Nepal, and it oversees the normal functioning of the organisation. Despite occupying merely 3% of the world’s area, it is home to 1.7 billion people or 21% of the world’s population. It maintains an observer status at the United Nations, and several other extra-regional countries like China, Japan, European Union, USA etc. in turn have observer status at SAARC.
However, despite its huge potential, the region also faces several challenges. South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. The intra-regional trade accounts for merely 5% of its total trade, compared to 25% for ASEAN and 60% for EU. It is also one of the world’s most poverty stricken regions with 33.4% world’s extreme poor, closely behind that of sub-Saharan Africa. Its social indicators like hunger and nutrition, health and education, drinking water and sanitation fare poor in the UN Sustainable Development Goal matrixes. The region is ill famed for its heinous social ills like gender discrimination, social exploitation, raging inequalities, subaltern marginalization, and communal conflicts. It is also one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, and is a hot spot of global refugee crisis hosting about 3 million refugees.
In addition to all the above socio-economic challenges are the even greater political issues. The region is fractured with territorial disputes, unresolved boundary conflicts, frequent ceasefire violations, cross-border terrorism, insurgencies and secessionist challenges. It has borne witness to numerous inter-state conflicts (1984 Siachen conflict, 1999 Kargil Conflict, 2019 Balakot airstrike etc.) and even instances of all-out war between nations (1948 Kashmir war, 1965 Indo-Pak war, 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War etc). The magnitude of the danger is enhanced multifold by the presence of two nuclear armed neighbours pointing their warheads at each other, with open threats of annihilating the ‘other’. SAARC as a regional organization appears to be poorly equipped to deal with the problems of this gravity, and according to most critics, has badly failed in most regards.
However most of this criticism, although partially valid, is ill founded. SAARC is a regional grouping of its constituent member states, and is merely a reflection of the nature of relationship that exists amongst them. An organization cannot be expected to be more perfect than the society which it is a part of beyond a certain extent. The failure of SAARC is more a reflection of the collective failure of its constituent members as a whole rather than the failure of the organization per se. More often than not, it has been held hostage by the bitter contours of the India-Pakistan relations since its inception. But despite its limitations, the organization has been instrumental in steering the relationship between the arch enemies-cum-brothers towards a more amicable direction. This paper seeks to chart out the above mentioned mutual interdependence between SAARC and Indo-Pakistan relations. It first talks about how SAARC has played a positive role in maintaining India-Pakistan relations, after which it dwells on how Indo-Pakistan relations have negatively affected the functioning of SAARC. Finally, it evaluates the future prospects of SAARC in the backdrop of deteriorating Indo-Pak ties.
Role of SAARC on India-Pakistan Relations
SAARC has played a pivotal role in bolstering India-Pakistan ties since its inception. It has served as a platform for the leaders from the two countries to meet on a regular basis, initiate dialogue, seek solution and resolve differences. Such summit diplomacy between the heads of governments re-energizes the relationship between states, and serves to set in place a top-to-bottom framework for the diplomatic establishments in both sides to act upon. This political will, complemented by bureaucratic support, drives forward the agenda agreed upon at the summit, and serves to maintain the bilateral relations at the official level. It is for this reason that “unofficial meetings between leaders of India and Pakistan at the sidelines of SAARC summits often got far more focus in media than official meetings of the organization.”[i].
SAARC also provides an opportunity to help “defuse tensions, mange crises, begin or resume parleys and negotiate or sign important bilateral agreements.”[ii]. The same can be shown by tracing the role individual SAARC summits have played in landmark developments in the Indo-Pak relations. The very first summit in Dhaka in 1985 was held just a year after the 1984 conflict at Siachen glacier, and it had aided in normalizing the ties between the two countries after the clash. Similarly, the Non- Nuclear Aggression Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan on the eve of 4th SAARC summit in Islamabad, and was reached following a series of informal talks on the sidelines of the previous SAARC summits in Dhaka, Bangalore and Katmandu.
The 10th SAARC summit at Colombo in 1998 was held just a few weeks following the nuclear tests conducted by both India and Pakistan in May 1998. Despite the initial skepticism, the informal meeting between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif helped to break the ice and paved the way for Vajpayee’s famous bus diplomacy to Pakistan and the eventual signing of the Lahore Agreement in Feb 1999. Equally auspicious was the 11th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu in 2002 after a delay of two years following the 1999 Kargil conflict, 2001 Indian Parliamentary attacks and the subsequent military standoff (Operation Parakram) at the borders. Again, the summit proved to be highly effective in diffusing the tension and normalizing the ties between the two neighbors, as represented by the symbolic handshake between Musharraf and Vajpayee in the sidelines.
Its success was soon emulated at the 2004 Islamabad summit, which saw the signing of the pivotal SAFTA agreement to enhance the economic integration amongst the South Asian neighbours. The Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting at its sidelines also paved way for initiating a “composite dialogue process” covering major irritants in Indo-Pak ties like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, nuclear security, cross-border terrorism, etc. It was also followed by a series of confidence building measures (CBMs) from both sides, including launching of a new train service connecting the two countries (Thar express), a new bus service connecting the two parts of Kashmir (Srinagar–Muzaffarabad Bus), promotion of people to people contacts, and furthering trade and economic cooperation. Similarly, the 16th SAARC summit held at Thimphu in 2010 helped to reopen talks and initiate a thaw in the bitterness that ensued after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Perhaps, unarguably the most promising role that SAARC has played in the India-Pakistan relations is not at the political level, but rather at the societal level. It has enabled more concretely to conceptualize a South Asia identity cutting across the national borders and generating a sense of regional brotherhood. It has laid down a common vision that its people can aspire to, one of peace, prosperity and regional integration. It has also provided platform for a multi-dimensional cooperation across various sectors that has significantly enhanced the people-to-people contacts between the two countries. Various initiatives like SAARC Regional Centres (for Agriculture, Tuberculosis, Human Resource Development, Coastal Zone Management etc.), SAARC Food Bank, SAARC Development Fund and South Asian University, etc. have outgrown SAARC so to speak. The organization did also pave the way for the growth of regional civil society that aided in finding “regional solution to local, national and regional problems.”[iii]. Some of the examples include the Himal Southasian magazine started by Kanak Mani Dixit in 1987 which aims to provide coverage of the issues affecting the region as a whole.
The role of SAARC in strengthening India-Pakistan relations can also be seen from a purely theoretical perspective of International Organizations in general. Liberal scholars, particularly the liberal-institutionalists, are of the firm conviction that “IOs can really transform the world politics by inhibiting conflicts and promoting cooperation among states.” According to them, “IOs provide forum to the states to discuss issues, negotiate and conclude agreements as they provide information, address collective action problem, reduce transaction cost, brings transparency and promote trust among the participants.”[iv]. Equally convincing is the communication theorists claim that “construction of, say, people-to-people, academic and societal interlinkages are basal to correct the distortions of reciprocal representation lying at the base of political non-cooperation at the institutional level.”[v]. A very convincing example in this regard can be given that of establishment of the South Asian University (SAU), which aims to “create a center of excellence and produce leaders who identify themselves as citizens of the region with a common vision of success for both their home country and the neighbours”[vi].
All the above, in one way or the other, illuminates the role SAARC plays, recognized or unrecognized, in steering the Indo-Pak relations in a positive direction.
The authors are political commentators