PM Modi's SAARC Boycott Is Effective, Intelligent Move Against Pak

Published: September 28, 2016 14:50 IST
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India has scored a key diplomatic victory over Pakistan by getting Bangladesh, Bhutan as well as Afghanistan to cancel their participation at the impending South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad in November, thereby forcing Pakistan to call off this high-profile gathering.

Over the last ten days or so since the Uri attack on September 18, the near-uniform narrative in Pakistan has been that the attack on the Indian army installation was carried out by Indians themselves. Some retired generals participating in Pakistan TV talk-shows even indicated that the attacks could even have been carried out by disgruntled Kashmiris in retaliation against human rights violations by security forces.

In his arsenal of options against Pakistan, Prime Minister Modi's decision to call off India's participation in the SAARC summit - which means the summit would have been cancelled or postponed as the rules do not permit the absence of even one head of state or government in the gathering - was always on top of the list. The only question was how effectively India was going to use this particular arrow in the quiver.

As it turns out, the arrow has found its mark. If India had been the only country to opt out of the SAARC summit, the Pakistanis in particular and the world in general would have been tempted to put it down to a revengeful decision by the Prime Minister.

But the backing of three other nations, one of which borders Pakistan on its west, puts Pakistan squarely in the dock as the one South Asian nation which refuses to play ball with the rest of the region on such a key issue as cross-border terrorism.
 

PM Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the 18th SAARC Summit in 2014

The Pakistani narrative, no doubt masterminded by the Pakistan Army, on this four-nation decision will emerge soon enough: that Bhutan is a lackey of India and has always been one, so no surprises there; that Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina is also a lackey of India, because it was India that broke up Pakistan in 1971 at the behest of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

But what about Afghanistan? Pakistan's western neighbour has a deeply intimate relationship with Islamabad, like with no other nation in the region. Pakistan has hosted as many as 5-6 million Afghan refugees for several decades - since the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union in 1979,  and several Afghan leaders have found refuge in the camps of Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore. Karachi has more Pashtuns than any other city in Pakistan. It's only now that Pakistanis is finally asking Afghan refugees to return home by January 17.

But Afghanistan has also paid the price for that intimacy. Over the years, the Pakistani establishment has commandeered Afghanistan and often treated it as its fifth province, invoking the novel concept of "strategic depth." This essentially meant that Pakistan would employ proxy forces, such as the Taliban army which it created, to rule Afghanistan in its stead. Remember that during the Taliban years, Pakistan was only one of three countries (the other two were the UAE and Saudi Arabia) that recognized Afghanistan.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai fell out with Pakistan when he pointed out to them that several attacks inside his country were masterminded by Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency. In fact, Karzai's former national security advisor Amrullah Saleh once told me in an interview that as far back as 2007, the Afghans told former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf of the presence of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory. "Musharraf was so furious," Saleh recalled, "that he banged the table between us with his fists." So when Ashraf Ghani took over from Karzai two years ago - in a deal that was no doubt brokered by the Americans - he pushed for an agreement between the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Afghanistan, although he knew that the Afghan establishment was very unhappy about it.

The wheel has turned full circle. During his visit to Delhi last fortnight, Ghani is said to have voiced his serious concern about the debilitating role that Pakistan continues to play inside Afghanistan, not only by fomenting cross-border attacks but also preventing trade and travel between Afghanistan and India.
 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with PM Modi during his visit to New Delhi earlier this month

When Ghani became President, former Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told me, "He is a very good man. This is a man Pakistan can do business with." Now Ghani has joined hands with India alongside Bangladesh and Bhutan to tell Pakistan that all bets are off, that it must take the strategic decision to stop cross-border terrorism on its eastern front against India, as well as on its western front against Afghanistan.

In fact, more than India, Afghanistan's decision to invoke cross-border terrorism as the reason to cancel its participation at SAARC will hurt Pakistan.

Bangladesh's decision to ally with India is also not surprising. In fact, the signs that Dhaka was going to call off its participation at the SAARC summit have been in the pipeline since the terrorist attack on the bakery in the heart of Dhaka in July. While the world agreed that ISIS had masterminded the attack, the Hasina government insisted that the Jamiat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was behind it. Moreover, Awami League ministers insisted that "Shibir," the youth wing of the Jamiat-e-Islami political party, who they believe is in cahoots with the Pakistan-based JI, had prepared the ground for the radicalization of these and other young people.

Certainly, the Indian decision to lead this boycott of the SAARC summit in Pakistan is an interesting one. It is also a much more intelligent act - rather than, for example, abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty and using water as a weapon of war, or withdrawing Most Favoured Nation status against Pakistan (a basic tool of trade), or carrying out overt or covert retaliatory strikes inside Pakistani territory.

The truth is that the international isolation of Pakistan will always be temporary as well as mixed. First of all, the US is never going to publicly accuse the Pakistanis of masterminding a cross-border attack against India - even after the Uri attacks, the US criticized the attack vehemently, but never named Pakistan - but even if the matter escalates, you can be sure that China, Pakistan's ally and all-weather friend, is waiting in the wings to mitigate the international scolding.

Any actions that India took on its own in the wake of Uri would also have been repetitive. Delhi withdrew its High Commissioner in Islamabad after the December 13, 2001 attack against the Indian parliament and cancelled all flights. Again, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the relationship went into a nosedive. Delhi threatened all kinds of civilian action - but sooner or later, it was back to business as usual.

The only people who got hurt by these acts were the ordinary people - the aam aadmi of India and Pakistan - which include divided families, especially in Sind, while trade fell to abysmally low levels.

But by persuading the neighbourhood to see its point of view, India has severely embarrassed Pakistan. It has forced it - and the world - to see that its rant against cross-border terrorism cannot be seen in isolation. That this criticism by India is, in fact, deeply felt across the rest of the region as well.

Certainly, the Modi government wanted to send the message after the Pathankot and Uri attacks that it cannot be business as usual. The demarche against the Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit, giving him information about the people from Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir who assisted the terrorists with entry into Uri - on the same day that India told the SAARC Chair that it would not attend the session in Pakistan - is also significant.

So what should India do next? The Prime Minister must travel to Kashmir or send his aides there, with a plan to immediately end the crisis and ensure that an unconditional dialogue is opened with all Kashmiris, including the Hurriyat.

Fixing the problem inside Jammu and Kashmir, seeking to make amends and offering reconciliation is something that another Gujarati would have done. Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi well.

(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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