M Nawaz Khan
The current century dawned with a gloomy picture for the present and future generations of South Asia. The region presents the group of the poorest countries of the world where poverty, water scarcity, population explosion, hunger and illiteracy reflect under-development and backwardness of its people. The South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) was established in 1985 to increase regional cooperation and promote good neighborly relations so that the socioeconomic problems could be resolved.
The SAARC could not promote mutual relations among member countries for the following reasons. First, tension between India and Pakistan is the most fundamental. Their relations are dotted with history of mistrust, wars, conflict and acrimony. Currently, India’s long persisting intransigence to resolve J&K issue and its increasing military influence in Afghanistan are too most contentious issues impacting their bilateral relations. The second issue is the differences between India and the rest of the member countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. The smaller states are always concerned about border disputes with India and the latter’s unsolicited intrusion into their domestic affairs. The third one is India’s big size and military power compared to its neighbors. Consequently, such challenges do not allow the SAARC to become an influential institution which can weld the member countries in closer cooperation.
Furthermore, these effects also gradually damage the social fabric of the affected countries that may evoke violence when the security and welfare of the masses are endangered by the aggressive attitude of the major power. Resultantly, the prospects of faster economic growth, poverty alleviation, increase in employment level, economic interdependence, infrastructure development, energy cooperation and regional connectivity, effective mechanism for science and technology, education and regional water cooperation, people-to-people contact, agriculture development, tourism cooperation, global warming and disaster preparedness and cooperation in combating terrorism, are being hampered.
The SAARC has been a victim of Indian domination. India always tries to make decisions according to own interests and it does not take into consideration the interests of its neighbours. Such an attitude does not bode well for the overall peace and stability of the region. The most recent instance of Indian antagonistic attitude is its attempt to sabotage the 19th SAARC summit that was to be held in Pakistan in November 2016. In fact, it was an Indian effort to isolate Pakistan in the region. In this context, while propagating that Uri attack was sponsored by Pakistan, India influenced Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, etc to deny attendance of the SAARC summit because of which the SAARC secretariat had to cancel the summit. In this context, the Indian effort of creating sub-regional grouping also indicates that India is using its ascendancy to weaken the SAARC forum.
The differences and conflicts among the member countries could not be resolved without strong political relations based on mutual trust. One of the major political implications of cancelling the SAARC summit would be that the South Asian countries would start considering the SAARC as a means of creating Indian supremacy and weakening regional cooperation. This would mean that security and prosperity such as cooperation in counter-terrorism and sharing the benefits of regional connectivity in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) would remain elusive. It is believed that if India had played a leadership role, the situation would have been different. Instead of encouraging cooperation among the SAARC countries, Indian policy is either to dominate the smaller countries or divide them in the sub-groups.
Conflict between states can induce mistrust; if the conflict becomes violent, it creates hindrances between smooth interstate relations. History tells us that territorial disputes and trans-border conflicts, which India has in the region, are not only Pakistan and China centric rather; other neighbouring states are also affected by Indian hegemonic design. Some of the examples are Sino-Indian border disputes, territorial conflicts (Kashmir and Siachen) and water dispute with Pakistan, military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987, and border conflicts and water dispute with Bangladesh too. Because of these disputes and India’s efforts to establish its supremacy, mutual cooperation among the SAARC states is lacking. These factors have acted as a serious barrier to the regional growth. That’s why, trade amongst SAARC nations is only 3.5% of their total trade volume. Similarly, the SAARC countries have been unable to get the benefits from SAFTA.
Indian hegemony based on its size and military dominance has contributed to a mistrust and classic security dilemma in the SAARC region, thus negatively impacting regional cooperation. This has led to an unhealthy arms race, including nuclear weapons development. Since last about eight years, India’s signing of a nuclear deal with US and its declaring of India as a major defence partner, have further added to India’s arrogance. These moves would further expand Indian domination that would create fear in the SAARC region of New Delhi’s potential expansionism and unsolicited intrusion into their domestic affairs.
The political will and political action can positively contribute towards breaking the vicious circle of conflict, insecurity and underdevelopment in South Asia. There is a dire need that India should take steps to promote peace and cooperation and make the SAARC an effective and influential regional organization such as: First, India should not interfere in any of its neighbouring countries’ internal affairs, second, Indian policies should in principle be based towards the SAARC countries on the basis of equality, third, it should display flexibility in resolving unsettled disputes with its SAARC neighbours, four, it should avoid using divisive politics at the SAARC level and encourage people-to-people contact in the region. This will help in leading to greater understanding by removing mistrust and promoting goodwill and mutual cooperation.
—The writer works at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.