Can SAARC Survive India and Pakistan's Squabbles?

Image: Narendra Modi at India’s seventieth independence. Narendra Modi Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0.

A key international body is being swamped by rivalry.

A few days ago, I read an article titled “Imagine a South Asia without borders” written by Annette Dixon, Vice President of the World Bank. I acknowledge that it is the job of international organizations like the World Bank to provide optimism to aid/loan recipient countries and regions, but the ones facing the realities of South Asia find it difficult to imagine a region without borders—something that had benefited their ancestors before 1947. Considering it my responsibility, I would like to highlight some recent events that fuel scepticism shadowing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC—an international association composed of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and pessimism with reference to a meaningful regional cooperation in South Asia. Here, the focus is on the recent India-Pakistan tensions affecting SAARC.

Most recently, bilateral relations have hit a significant low point due to the resurgence of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir (IAK). It happened after the assassination of a freedom fighter, a twenty-two-year-old Burhan Wani, by the Indian army in IAK. According to a renowned Pakistani scholar, Pervez Hoodbhoy, “Wani was hunted down, and killed instead of captured”. More than two hundred thousand attended Wani’s funeral, and the Indian authorities mishandled the situation by the indiscriminate use of pellet guns against the civilian population. With this has emerged a wave of media paying attention to the movement in IAK. Now, the movement is both on the ground and in social media. The recent events have also reignited the blame game between Delhi and Islamabad with India blaming Pakistan for the situation in IAK and Pakistan blaming India for the troubles in Balochistan. There is a connection between Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on Balochistan and the recent terrorist attacks for which the authorities in Pakistan had blamed Indian spy agency RAW.

Indian-Pakistani relations have been at a low since the start of the Modi government in India. It appears that the Indian PM is going by the script of his election speeches, where he had repeatedly stated that his government would be tougher on Pakistan. In the midst of the ongoing diplomatic crossfire, Modi decided to make his address on India’s seventieth independence day extra spicy through direct accusations against Pakistan for “atrocities” in Balochistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. As expected, Islamabad reacted strongly, and Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz stated that, Modi only wanted to divert attention from tensions in IAK.

Usually at forums like SAARC, ‘face saving’ is an unwritten norm followed by all the participants. In accordance with this norm, member states try to not confront each other in public gatherings—a significant aspect of Asian culture. It also means dealing with contentious issues quietly, for example on the sidelines of formal meetings as has been a common practice at SAARC. However, this was not the case of the recent meeting of SAARC interior ministers in Islamabad. It could be because the meeting was held in the backdrop of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. There are different versions of the story. For instance, Pakistani reports claim that Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh left the meeting after “losing” arguments with his Pakistani counterpart Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. The issue was once again the Kashmir dispute. It is the typical case of one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. At the meeting, Khan demanded a separation between legitimate freedom struggles and terrorism. In contrast, the Indian media reported Singh’s visit as ‘brief and tense” in which India’s strong stand against terrorism was presented in Islamabad. In his briefing to the Indian parliament, Singh, said “this neighbour [Pakistan] does not agree”. This shows New Delhi’s frustration with Pakistan, which unlike other SAARC members is challenging Indian hegemony.

Ministerial conferences are the backbone of multilateral forums—that is where the bulk of the work is done, especially towards a meeting of heads of state embodied in the SAARC Summit. So if ministerial meetings fail to produce the desired consent, one can expect very little from annual summits. The next summit is scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016.