Populous Region Deserves Priority

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Has South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) now become a regional organisation that has lost its relevance for South Asia? Were the founders of this regional entity less visionary than the incumbent ones? And have the peoples of this highly populated region of the world already overcome the challenges related to the abject poverty? These are some of the questions that seek answers from intellectuals who advocate for a South Asia without the organisation founded to link eight regional countries with one another. 

“SAARC is in trouble, basically because…” India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was recently quoted by the Indian media as saying. To express his anger he purportedly added the following remark in the form of a question: “How do you have a regional organisation when one member does not hide the fact, in fact proclaims, that they undertake ‘violent actions against the other members’?” The reference was obviously directed to Pakistan, although he used the word ‘members’ instead of its singular form. As is known to all concerned, New Delhi has not been complaining about ‘violent actions’ by any other member of the organisation even if India’s bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and the Maldives too are not at their best presently. 

Hustings  

India is about to embark on a national election process, and defending the country from hostilities in the neighbourhood remains one of the agendas of the latest hustings. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) obviously wants to project the rival Indian National Congress-led coalition as a political force whose commitment to national security is not considered as reliable as BJP’s. It may be imperative to read Jaishankar’s comments in the present context. His thoughts were once again in full view on April 13 during a live television interaction on a Hindi news channel. 

If the electoral exercise were not the real cause, he would not have uttered words that would downgrade the importance of SAARC. While it is true that Bangladesh and Nepal initially mooted the idea for regional cooperation in early 1980s, it took the present shape with the concurrence and participation of all seven countries including India, in 1985. In other words, it was a well thought-out scheme of all the relevant countries (except Afghanistan which joined the body in 2007). Obviously, it was not a proposition of deception or betrayal. And New Delhi knew it well that India might continue to face challenges coming across Pakistan with whom it had fought three wars — the latest being the one in 1971 that led to the emergence of Bangladesh. 

The goal was to take measures for the economic upliftment of 1.5 billion people. The shared vision and mission got reflected in the SAARC Charter which excludes ‘contentious bilateral issues’ from the forum’s agenda, both at committee meetings as well as at the summit conferences. Instead, summits afforded informal retreat where heads of state or heads of governments got opportunities to talk and sort out bilateral irritants. Besides, the issue of terrorism which Indian delegates keep alluding to frequently, was a subject of shared concern as early as 1987. 

SAARC, where countries including the US and China together with EU hold observer status, is an established regional grouping recognised by the United Nations and other similar institutions across the world. What the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the April 8 meeting he had with the visiting SAARC Secretary General, Golam Sarwar, in New York, deserves adequate attention from all South Asian leaders. Since India is desirous of permanent membership in the Security Council, New Delhi is naturally expected to listen to the views of the top UN diplomat. Guterres acknowledged that SAARC represents a “large chunk of the global population,” and assured continued UN support and assistance to the Kathmandu-based secretariat. 

It is high time to activate the association itself as it has remained somewhat dormant since 2016. Undoubtedly, it is imperative to take actions that would help alleviate deprivation and backwardness from this region. This is in line with Narendra Modi’s commitment for togetherness and development of all (‘sav ka saath, sav ka vikas’)? After all, India wants to be a ‘vishwamitra’ (friend of the whole world).

Substitute 

Incidentally, can the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) be a substitute for SAARC? There are no strong indicators to suggest that this relatively new venture would assist India in expediting its ambition to become a significant global player by 2047. BIMSTEC, launched in 1997, was only BIST-EC in the beginning, with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand as members. Nepal joined in 2004 while Myanmar and Bhutan were included a little earlier. While absence of troublesome neighbour Pakistan (and Afghanistan) in this grouping might offer a temporary reprieve for India, its physical proximity with Pakistan would not change. 

And Myanmar is no less trouble-torn than Afghanistan as has been experienced by ASEAN, the other regional group encompassing 10 Southeast Asian nations. Nepal has always placed priority for SAARC although it is also a member of BIMSTEC. “We do not see BIMSTEC as a replacement of SAARC,” Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Narayankaji Shrestha told the parliament on April 2 — on the day the House endorsed the BIMSTEC Charter adopted in 2022. 

In conclusion, India’s size and population are there for everyone to see. No one has ever disputed it. New Delhi, therefore, stands to gain by leading the SAARC region through appropriate steps and winning friends and influencing people—or else, as Shashi Tharoor once put it, it loses friends and alienates the people around India. Needless to say, the Indian political leadership can make headway by listening to its own scholars who advise abandoning the imperial behaviour inherited from the colonial era. An example of this could be A.G. Noorani’s remark contained in the article published in Frontline magazine in April 2021: “India expects its smaller neighbours to call it uncle and Great Powers to call it brother.” 

(Adhikary is a journalist active since 1978 and writes on regional isues.) dhrubahari@gmail.com)

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