Realizing the Dream of South Asian cooperation

29 Dec, 2018

.. by Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir 

The core issue at the heart of SAARC’s failure is the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan, writes Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir

SAARC leaders

The South Asia is virtually a continent in its own right. It is perhaps the most linguistically, geographically and climatically diverse region of its size anywhere in the world, and yet the entire region is bound by ties of ethnicity, history and civilization.

It is this rich cultural heritage coupled with the fact that it is also the most densely populated part of the world that has led to the emergence of powerful nation states where the idea of sovereignty is held to be sacred.

It is this rather archaic notion of sovereignty above all else that has led to a lack of regional cooperation. The rest of the international community has taken great strides towards regional integration in the past four decades, yet South Asia seems headed in the opposite direction, even though it was far more integrated a century ago. If we are to prosper South Asians must rise above their particularly virulent strain of adversarial strife and begin to cooperate, something which is not new to us but which we have sadly forgotten due the heady influence of unbridled nationalism.

When the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was founded in 1985, South Asia was a rapidly transforming region. The old elite was slowly being replaced by a younger generation, one which had been born after the end of the British Raj and who saw the world very differently from their parents.

They had been raised on a diet of nationalism, a philosophy which at its very core promotes a sense of ‘us and them’ and that one’s own group is in some way superior. At the same time, though the statesmen of South Asia saw the examples of other regional blocs, as the Cold War drew to a close.

The leaders who assembled in Dhaka on that fateful day in December were a mixture of the old and new, but mostly old enough to remember the bad days of colonial exploitation. Following independence, they had experienced how their homelands had struggled at the hands of neo-colonialism, in the form of Cold War alliances and systems such as market capitalism and international socialism. There was great suspicion during the build up to the signing of the SAARC charter and the plan almost did not come to fruition but eventually Ershad of Bangladesh, General Ziaul Haq of Pakistan, Rajiv Gandhi of India, Jayawardene of Sri Lanka, Gayoom of the Maldives and Kings Jigme Singye of Bhutan and Birendra of Nepal got together and finally proclaimed a South Asian union which would hopefully one day lead to a better future for all of their peoples. Sadly, this was never realized.

The core issue at the heart of SAARC’s failure is the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. India is by far the biggest and most populous nation in SAARC and thus commands a great deal of influence in the region.

Pakistan comes a distant second and due to its tense relations with India, it has often preferred looking elsewhere for international camaraderie. India geographically isolates Pakistan from all of the other SAARC member states, with exception of Afghanistan, which only joined in 2007, and thus it is difficult for Pakistan to establish trade links in the region.

Politically, SAARC has usually been divided among nations which are core Indian allies and those which have had a tense relationship with India. India has often used SAARC as a forum for degrading Pakistan, a prime example of which was the cancellation of the 9th SAARC Summit in Islamabad following India’s boycott.

India was joined by its strategic allies Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh in boycotting the conference due to India’s allegations that Pakistan was behind that year’s unrest in Kashmir. Following this, India successfully held a conference of another regional grouping, BIMSTEC – the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation – of which all of the other SAARC members, with the exception of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives, together with Thailand and Burma are signatories.

India is all for regional integration minus Pakistan, which is an unfair position. Because of these reasons, Pakistan has always looked west and north for regional cooperation, preferring to strengthen ties with Iran, Turkey and Central Asia at the expense of South Asia.

SAARC minus Pakistan is essentially BIMSTEC and India seems happy with that scenario. Yet, it too would be negatively affected by such an outcome. India is cut off from the markets and resources of West and Central Asia by Pakistan and thus needs Pakistan for its future economic prosperity as Pakistan is South Asia’s gateway to the West and Pakistan needs South Asia’s tea and spices. A Pakistani shares most of his DNA and culture with his South Asian brethren so  Pakistan and India must work together to save SAARC and the dream that is South Asian integration.

Despite its shortcomings and inconsistencies, Imran Khan’s government seems to be committed to improving relations with Pakistan’s neighbours. The opening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is one example of this. The ball is now in India’s court. Both Pakistan and India can survive without each other, but what is mere survival? In order to flourish we must get along with each other and have open borders, unrestricted trade and above all, peace.

A hundred years ago bananas from Bombay and pineapples from Assam could be procured in the markets of Peshawar. Most biscuits consumed in Benares were made in Sukkur. Fifteen hundred years ago Buddhist monks from Ceylon would travel to Swat to attain knowledge and Sindhi traders would frequent the spice bazaars of Kerala.

The politics of Us versus Them has brought us to this point. Most founding fathers of SAARC have today passed on but the fact that the organization still exists illustrates that it is viable organization. When a Pakistani visits archaeological sites and national parks in Sri Lanka and Nepal, he pays a fraction of what other foreigners pay due to special SAARC rates.

This small gesture increases regional goodwill to a great degree. Imagine what can be accomplished if SAARC were allowed to succeed, how much ease it would bring to all of the people of South Asia! Pakistan and India must work together to realize this dream, not only for the benefit of each other but for all of the people of subcontinent of South Asia.

The writer is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and the author of Asiatic Angling Adventures. He can be contacted on Twitter via @Fatehmulk

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