This Article is From Sep 28, 2016

India Should Not Just Boycott SAARC, But Exit It Completely

The impending cancellation of the SAARC Summit is an opportunity to disband this sterile body and forge a new South Asian alliance. 

The 19th SAARC Summit scheduled for November in Islamabad is heading inexorably towards cancellation. It is a measure of India's overwhelming clout in South Asia that withdrawals cascaded within 24 hours of New Delhi pulling out of the scheduled summit in protest against Uri and other acts of cross-border terror perpetrated by Pakistan. In getting this regional congregation scrapped, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can rightly claim a major diplomatic triumph. India's other neighbours too have been troubled by Pakistan's support of terrorist activities directed against India often from their soil. So it is not just India's anger, but the fact that Pakistan's infamous ISI keeps aiding and abetting terrorists, especially jihadi groups across South Asia, that must have resulted in the alacrity with which most other SAARC nations followed India's lead.

Throughout its troubled history of 31 years, SAARC has rarely made any remarkable contribution in promoting economic or political cohesion in the region. Apart from providing a few jobs to retired bureaucrats and (now) some professors through the fledgling SAARC University, it has essentially been a talking shop. Its two main constituents, India and Pakistan, have been at loggerheads throughout their history, dragging the smaller members into their disputes. And SAARC has no relevance without the active participation of two of its biggest countries. The question has therefore been asked many times if this forum serves any purpose at all. 

Never in recent history have relations between the Big Two touched the depth as in the aftermath of Uri. While Pakistan has thrived on the so-called "plausible deniability" of its hostile actions against India by blaming non-state actors, the excuse has progressively failed to hold water. And since the recent disturbances in the Kashmir Valley are credibly known to have the hidden hand of Islamabad, the region's discomfort has been palpable. Pakistan has sought to exploit India's "Big Brother" status to prop itself up as a countervailing power. But this gambit has failed on account of the trust deficit that exists between Pakistan and most South Asian countries due to the encouragement received from Islamabad by insurgent groups, big and small, in many of these nations. 

In Bangladesh, for example, it is well known that the Jamaat is implacably hostile to the Awami League Government of Sheikh Hasina. Like other Islamist groups in the region, the Jamaat in Bangladesh receives Pakistan's covert support, while jihadi groups like HUJIB and JeMB in that country are actively assisted by various Pakistan-based terrorist groups. Moreover, several insurgent groups active in India's north-eastern states find shelter in Bangladesh with the assistance of ISI-backed jihadi organizations.

The Pakistani state and Pakistan-based non-state actors are active among various communities in the region including, for instance, the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Even in Nepal, the ISI has expanded its footprint significantly. It was widely alleged that the ISI was involved in smuggling fake currency notes into India through the porous border with Nepal in order to destabilize our economy. In Afghanistan, the Taliban which is trying vigorously to overthrow President Ghani's regime is fully nurtured by Islamabad.

With a track record as tainted as this, it is not surprising that SAARC member countries have little love lost for Pakistan. Particularly significant is the stridency with which Afghanistan has slammed Pakistan's behavior in recent days while lauding India's role. Kabul was, in fact, the first country after India to pull out of the summit. Pakistan's isolation in the SAARC, therefore can hardly be overemphasized.

Has the boycott of the SAARC summit helped India significantly beyond the domestic constituency? Frankly, SAARC pulls little weight with the rest of the world which looks at the region through the prism of India-Pakistan issues. To that extent, derailing the summit is only the first tangible step in India's campaign to expose and isolate Pakistan at multilateral forums including the United Nations. In the backdrop of a series of attacks on Indian Army positions such as Pathankot and Uri, the pushing of trained terrorists across the Line of Control and instigating a section of Kashmiri youth to heighten the temperature of what Nawaz Sharif bombastically called an "intifada" in his United Nations General Assembly speech, Prime Minister Modi's journey to Islamabad for the summit would have been incongruous to say the least.

Also, when India is vocally contemplating punitive measures like reviewing the Indus Waters Treaty and Most Favoured Nation trading status to Pakistan, no meaningful dialogue would have been possible in Islamabad. Opinion in India is seething with rage at Pakistan's audacity in targeting army personnel. The low-cost war of "a thousand cuts" which Pakistan has effectively mounted makes it difficult for New Delhi to even exchange diplomatic pleasantries with its diabolical neighbour.

But now that SAARC has been derailed at India's initiative, the time may have come to ask if this regional body should not be disbanded altogether. India and Pakistan cannot resolve outstanding disputes through a grouping like SAARC. The Free Trade Zone (SAPTA) has been a non-starter. And the sharing of river waters is another contentious issue whose resolution SAARC cannot help. So what good does this body do to its member countries, singly or severally? Earlier it could be said to provide a vent to let off steam and promote people-to-people understanding. The atmosphere is so vitiated now that even as a forum for exchange of ideas, it has lost relevance. 

On the other hand, a group like BIMSTEC encompassing Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar is making steady headway because two seriously hostile countries don't coexist in that organization. In the heyday of the Cold War, was it conceivable that the US and erstwhile Soviet Union would be part of any regional cooperation agency? India and Pakistan have been in a Cold War-like situation for most of the 70 years of their existence. As long as they are part of a same grouping like SAARC, that body cannot achieve anything tangible.

So is there a road ahead for countries of South Asia acting in concert? There is, but they call for drastic solutions. The first option is to disband SAARC and set up a new regional alliance minus Pakistan. Alternatively, India can pull out of SAARC and lead a new organization with friendly neighbouring countries with the aim of forming a common economic market. 

In recent decades, Pakistan's priorities have shifted to its west; it wants to be seen as part of the Islamic nations of the Middle-East. India, on the other hand is looking progressively eastwards. Prime Minister Modi's dictum "Act East" provides the correct mantra to break away from our Pakistan-centric foreign policy and forge an economic alliance with countries of South and South-East Asia. With this vision, the time has come to break away from the sterile, unproductive SAARC and forge a new alliance with countries that don't carry the baggage of bitterness against India.

(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also BJP MP of the Rajya Sabha.)

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