Kashmir and SAARC: Cooperation, a dream unfulfilled

Views from Srinagar

Dr. Javid Iqbal

SARRC stands for South Asian Association of Regional
Cooperation. Cooperation among South Asian nation
states has remained a dream unfulfilled. The region is beset with bilateral disputes having multilateral impact. The attitude of regional countries remains the part of the problem, rather than being a part of solution.
Given the background, it was more with scepticism than enthusiasm that Mehbooba Mufti’s latest plea for making Jammu and Kashmir a model for SAARC reaching out to Central Asia was noted. The plea appeared to be more a sentimental appeal than a substantial one. Plea apart, Mehbooba Mufti has hardly the needed political instrumentality to work-out a change, given the limited sphere of her work and role. SAARC reaching out to Central Asia by making JK the hub of connectivity would test the mettle of national leaderships across the divide. The divide is deep and diverse, stretching across LoC and LoAC.
Mehbooba is reported to have stated in New Delhi venue of India Ideas Conclave-2017 that geographical positioning of the State makes it gateway to the Central Asia and it ought to be used for opening up its people to the outside world. “By re opening the traditional and historic routes in the State, we shall be writing a new history”, she reportedly added. What she remains unmindful of is a stark fact—traditional routes have been held captive to questionable geo-strategic considerations. Such considerations and calculations hinder cooperation amongst SAARC countries. The countries are not tuned to concept of collective security that has made European Union a huge success. The concept is buttressed by securing security through NATO. NATO might be a security alliance of USA and European States, but such an alliance in built on the bedrock of common economic interests. ASEAN is developing on similar lines. SAARC remains bereft of such considerations.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti alluded to LoC, urging to, ‘’go back to the era of Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee through whose initiatives cross LoC routes were opened, ceasefire on LoC was ensure for a decade or so and peace prevailed as a consequence in the State and between the two countries.’’ LoC is symbolic of what bedevils relations between India and Pakistan. The very line marks the dispute and the deep divide within the SAARC. In fact the very idea of SAARC was initially doubted by India, by Pakistan as well, when it was first mooted by Bangladesh in early 80’s of 20th century. As it found support among smaller countries in the region, India doubted smaller countries might gang-up against her. Pakistan on the contrary doubted that India might use the organization against it. Last year—2016 SAARC summit in Pakistan was in fact sabotaged, as India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan boycotted it. The effort to isolate Pakistan had her move beyond the region for diplomatic succour. Such is the state of SAARC.
High in the Himalayan ranges, where Mehbooba Mufti is seeking connectivity to Central Asia, Indian and Pakistani armies remain locked face to face on forbidding heights of Siachen. LoC beyond its northernmost point remains ill-defined, hence the faceoff on snowbound peaks where more soldiers die of inclement weather than of enemy fire.
Not far-off from Siachen Indian and Chinese armies remain watching each other across another disputed line—Line of actual control (LoAC). China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is another bone of contention as India claims erstwhile JK State as her sovereign territory.
Given the contentious security scenario, how could the clogged traditional routes open, unless the issues are sorted out? China is already deeply involved in South Asia, investing heavily in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
The investment is widening to the extent, where ruling out China out of an association of South Asian states is becoming increasingly impossible.
SAARC continues to be contentious instead of working to build consensus on raging disputes between nations in South Asian association. This is in spite of physical constraints that beset the region. The region holds 21 percent of global population with barely 3 percent of world’s area. The population exploding in a landmass much less than what it needs is increasingly facing shrinking of agricultural spaces, hence challenges to food security might be burgeoning future scenario.
Countries like Bangladesh are densely populated. Given the physical constraints, there is demographic spill over in neighbouring Indian states—Bengal and Assam. In Assam especially, it is a live political issue. As if it were not enough, religious disparity plays a role. While as religiously akin are welcomed, the diverse are resented. This results in accentuating communal issues in the region. Given its demographic profile, the region could hardly afford a communal divide. Yet, it remains a divisive element in relations between nation states, as well as within nations.
Is there a way out? SAARC needs to be broader based than its present structure. Afghanistan is more a Central Asian country than South Asian. However, it is already in SAARC, as it affects geo-strategy of South Asia. China might be Southeast Asian, yet it weighs heavily in South Asia.
Broad-based regional association oriented to conflict resolution between nation states, taking on board the aspiration of people in conflict zones might serve South Asia better than SAARC in its present shape. The conflict ridden region in its present shape with 21 percent of global population holds barely 3.8 percent of global economy. As long as dispute and conflict prevails, it is difficult to see clogged traditional routes open for free movement.
—Courtesy: GK
[Yaar Zinda, Sohbat Baqi [Reunion is subordinate to survival] [Writer: iqbal.javid46@gmail.com]

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