Though Nepal, the present head (chairperson) of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), has not officially announced it as yet, the 19th summit of the regional organisation, scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November, is not going to take place. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan have joined India in boycotting the forthcoming gathering of the eight South Asian heads of state/government. Nepal, with the backing of Sri Lanka and Maldives, is for the “postponement”, rather than the “cancellation” of the summit and understood to be trying for shifting the venue to another “suitable” place; but that looks to be a remote possibility as Pakistan is insisting that if and when the 19th Saarc summit takes place, the venue has to be Islamabad.
Is this an unprecedented development that the Saarc, which was formed in 1985 at Bangladesh capital Dhaka, thanks to the initiatives of the late Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman, is witnessing? One cannot provide an exact answer to this question, which is more complex than simple. Postponement or cancellation of a Saarc summit is not a new thing; but there are certainly new elements in the present development.
It may be noted that Article III of the Saarc Charter says: “The Heads of State or Government shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary by the Member States.” Going by this, there should have been 30 Saarc summits, not 18 as is the case, by now. That means that Saarc has been beset with problems that are essentially political in nature (to attend or boycott a summit is essentially a political decision that a member state makes).
The fifth SAAR summit, that was due in 1989 at Colombo, did not materialise as Sri Lanka refused host the summit on the ground that “New Delhi has failed to completely withdraw the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) from the northeastern part of Sri Lanka”. This summit took place next year (1990) at Male. But the sixth Saarc summit that was scheduled to take place in Colombo in November 1991 was also postponed, this time by a month, following the inability of the King of Bhutan to attend as he was busy in attending to “the widespread domestic violence”.
Though Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh were agreeable to a suggestion that the summit could go ahead with a special representative of the King of Bhutan attending, India opposed on “technical grounds” that holding the summit meeting in the absence of one head of state would violate the Saarc charter. Sri Lanka was furious that India was “sabotaging” the meet through Bhutan. However, thanks to the deft diplomacy by the then Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom, the summit meeting in Colombo was saved, though it was postponed to be only a one-day affair on 21 December, 1991.
There have been no Saarc summits in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2015. The period between 1999 and 2003 was marked by intense India-Pakistan hostilities, including the Kargil war and attack on Indian Parliament. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister during the period, refused to share the dais with Pakistan’s military ruler Parvez Musharraf, though their famous “handshake” during the Kathmandu summit in 2002 had dominated the headlines. Vajpayee refused in 2003 to go to Pakistan, which was to host the 12th Saarc summit. It was the subsequent thaw in the two countries’ relations, backed by intense back-channel diplomacy, that saw Vajpayee going to attend the postponed summit in Islamabad in 2004.
As can be seen above, India always has been a factor in the postponements of the Saarc summits in some way or the other. This time too there is no exception. But what is new this time is that there is a collective voice of four member countries for the boycott of the Islamabad meet. And the reasons given are more or less identical – that Pakistanis interfering in the internal affairs of the co-members of the SAARC and promoting terrorism in the region in violation of the Saarc charter. In fact, “Principle” 1 of the charter talks of “Cooperation within the framework of the association shall be based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit.”
In a sense, the boycott implies the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan in the region. And that is an irony for Pakistan as it had joined the Saarc in 1985 with a clear view to utilise the organisation as an anti-India platform by mobilising the smaller nations of the region. In fact, when it was requested by the Bangladesh President Rahman to join the body, there were serious debates within the country whether by so doing, Pakistan’s main goal of consolidating itself as a “West Asian” and “Islamic” country, with strong links with the Arab world, will be compromised. But if Pakistan finally decided to join the forum, the main reason why it did so was its strategy of using the Saarc forum "to deflect the weight of India" vis-à-vis its smaller South Asian partners.” It felt that by being inside the forum it could prevent India from assuming “a hegemonistic role” in the region.
Pakistan was (rather is) simply not interested in the primary Saarc objectives of collective and mutually beneficial efforts “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life” and “to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potentials.” Viewed thus, the boycott of the Islamabad summit by as many as four countries, including Bangladesh, is a big setback to Pakistan’s traditional Saarc-objective.
As far as India is concerned, from a short-term point of view it is a huge vindication of the present policy of the Modi government to isolate Pakistan internationally for its attack on Uri and diabolic role in the ongoing unrest in the Kashmir valley. But from a long-term point of view, it is also a setback to promote Modi’s ideas of regional amity and integration in South Asia.
It may be noted that Modi’s first day on office as prime Minister on 26 May, 2014 was marked by exclusive bilateral meetings with the leaders of the Saarc countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – who were specially invited to attend his swearing-in. His first foreign visit as the Prime Minister was to Bhutan and then to Nepal. In fact, there are merits in the argument that Modi’s “Neigbours First Policy” was to make a developed and prosperous South Asia a viable counterweight to China, which has succeed considerably in making significant inroads in the region.
In fact, it was Modi who had proposed in the last Saarc summit in 2014 at Kathmandu three ideas dealing with cooperation on energy (cross-border trade in electricity and create a seamless power grid across South Asia), easier access for motor vehicles (to allow vehicles of Saarc countries to travel in neighbouring countries unhindered to transport cargo and passengers), and promotion of railways in the region. But as usual, Pakistan alone did not allow the signing of agreements on these proposals during the summit. The only thing Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed on was to sign “the framework agreement on regional electricity connectivity”, the details of which have yet to be worked out.
Lastly, what does the boycott imply for the future of Saarc? Well, the 31-year old organisation has nothing much to show so far. It remains the one of the least integrated regions of the world. The intra-trade is minimal, with less than five percent of the region’s global trade taking place among Saarc nations. The Saarc agreement on “Suppression of Terrorism” has remained on paper. And so has been the case with the Saarc’s commitment to the goals of the “Saarc Charter for Democracy”, with so many military coups and unstable as well as corrupt governments.
The only way ahead is to promote sub-regionalism within the Saarc to carry out the developmental projects and other integrating ideas. India and Sri Lanka on the one hand, and Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal on the other could join hands to work together. As it is, there is already the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) that connects South Asian countries (except Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are not members) with Myanmar and Thailand. Connectivity and development through the sub-regional route is very much permissible under the Saarc's Charter (“Principles” 2 and 3). The idea is to go ahead without Pakistan if it does not come on board.