Tuesday, February 22, 2005

ANALYSIS: Is South Asian cooperation doomed?

Under tremendous pressure Prime Minister Khaleda Zia had ordered the arrest of ‘Bangla Bhai’ leader of the extremist-fundamentalist Jagrate Muslim Janata for indulging in activities inimical to state interests. But, the order was not executed by the administration and ‘Bangla Bhai’, who commands an army of 14,000 Islamists, roams free, making inflammatory communal speeches. As Home Minister Shivraj Patil said during his recent North-eastern tour that Bangladesh had been asked to take steps to check infiltration of terrorists and insurgents into India ‘because terrorism is a double-edged weapon and can cause difficulties for Bangladesh also”.

Is South Asian cooperation doomed?
M K Dhar

It appears that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was born under the influence of evil stars as it has failed to achieve the objectives it set before itself two decades ago, of political reconciliation and economic integration of member states, half of whom fall in the category of least developed basket case countries. Relations between Indian and three of them have never been normal and are again passing through a turbulent phase. Collectively, they have failed to pull themselves out of the quagmire of poverty and hunger and inculcate a common desire to force brotherhood and lasting economic bonds. They have imbibed an incurable crab culture, pulling each other down the ladder of economic prosperity.

Therefore, another postponement of the SAARC summit for reasons of lax security of Dhaka does not cause any surprise because it has happened quite often. But what is worrying is that too much ill feeling has been generated and any talk of all round cooperation for collective good sounds unreal. There is no dearth of high-sounding and well meaning declarations adopted at earlier summits but, what is lacking is implementation. For instance, war against terrorism and denying use of one’s territory for subversive activity against another state has figures in every summit declaration with unfailing regularity, but the commitment is honoured more in its breach than honest observance.

Currently, India’s relations with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are tense and may take time to get better before their leaders can sit together to discuss issues of common concern. It is argued by some that India is showing too much sensitivity towards internal developments in the neighbouring states and projects itself as the regional bully. But, one cannot escape from the fact that, given the geography ethnicity of South Asia, internal turmoil in one country or regression towards dictatorship or authoritarianism, which have security implications for India, the cause for dismay is genuine. With one stroke the Nepal King has extinguished democracy, put politicians and mediaperson behind bars, erected a consortship wall round his country on the pretext of saving the state from more anarchy. When a neighbouring state refuses to give up the policy of sponsoring terrorism against India and another has no control over the terrorist outfits operating out of it, India cannot be blamed for complaining and taking appropriate measures to protect its security.

Bangladesh is facing international criticism for playing soft to Islamic fundamentalists with close links to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and harbouring Indian insurgents, who get safe haven and weapons. Till this date, Dhaka has not explained to its people and the outside world as to for whom thousands of rifles, machine guns, mortars and stores of ammunition accidentally discovered at a hideout in Chittagong were meant. The Indian guess is that there were meant for the insurgents operating in the North-eastern states, who have established a gun-running channel through Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the main political formations, Awami League and the ruling Bangladesh National Party have been in a state of perpetual war for many years. The disturbed law and order situation has created favourable conditions for growth of fundamentalist and militant outfits which mainly target India.

Repeated denials of the presence of such outfits do not convince in the face of overwhelming evidence of their existence. The Bangladesh Government appears either to be indifferent to the activities of such elements, because Jammat-e-Islami is a partner in government, or is unable to control them. It took several years of international bashing for Pakistan to acknowledge the presence of terrorist training camps on its soil and faiclitating the movements of militants into Kashmir. Every India-Pakistan officials declaration or statement since records Islamabad’s unqualified commitment to put a stop to cross border and cross LOC movement of terrorists the agents of ISI’s proxy war against India. The security and administrative apparatus of Bangladesh, which is a secular state based on parliamentary democracy, also does not seem to cooperate with the political leadership.

Under tremendous pressure Prime Minister Khaleda Zia had ordered the arrest of ‘Bangla Bhai’ leader of the extremist-fundamentalist Jagrate Muslim Janata for indulging in activities inimical to state interests. But, the order was not executed by the administration and ‘Bangla Bhai’, who commands an army of 14,000 Islamists, roams free, making inflammatory communal speeches. As Home Minister Shivraj Patil said during his recent North-eastern tour that Bangladesh had been asked to take steps to check infiltration of terrorists and insurgents into India ‘because terrorism is a double-edged weapon and can cause difficulties for Bangladesh also”. A mechanism is already in place for holding talks with Dhaka, which should be frequently used to sort out differences. Instability and political turmoil in Bangladesh have inescapable consequence for India’s security, which cannot be ignored, particularly in the context of insurgency in the North-east.

The developments in Nepal are of greater concern because the two countries have open borders and it is difficult to check fallout of political high-handedness reaching India. The two countries enjoy very close political and military relations and India has provided military assistnace worth several hundred crores of rupees to Nepal to re-equip its Army and also increase its strength to 100,000 by the end of the year. The King, as well as, the political parties have failed in their duty to contain the Maoist rebellion by eliminating its root causes with the help of imaginative administrative measures. The political parties, which felt powerless to do anything, constantly bickered among themselves and the King took advantage of the situation to impose his direct rule, sidelining the democratic formations. India reacted to the deteriorating situation too late and the UPA government took time to correct the policy drift of the NDA government. Considering the history of Indo-Nepal relations, India has to move with caution in dealing with the Himalayan Kingdom. The present King’s father played the Chins card against India for quite some time and Gyanedra could do the same. The Chinese built an all weather road from Lhasa to Kathmandu and may take advantage of the situation if India presses Nepal too hard. New Delhi should maintain an intensive dialogue with the King to protect its security and economic interests and ensure that he honours his promise to restore democracy in three years.

However, topsy-turvy the region may look at present, it cannot escape the reality of under-development, hunger, what the unemployment, nor put off for long the task of addressing these issues.

The civil society in all SAARC counties cries for development and cooperation in all spheres. But, to achieve economic growth inter-state and intra-state conflicts shall have to be resolved. The main obstacle to economic cooperation and regional integration remains political and strategic. In India and Sri Lanka, one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, in Bangladesh 40 per cent and in Pakistan 33 per cent. Unemployment is very high and human development indicators are quite low. The task of addressing this problem has to be pursued in the context of a more volatile economic environment both domestic and international.

The barriers to cross-border movement make neither commercial nor logistical sense and originate in the patholocies of external, as well as, domestic politics. That is needed is for the political leadership of these countries to show courage, flexibility and statesmanship in resolving mutual conflicts and lift domestic barriers to regional economic integration. They should discard the strait jacket of adversarial relationship and focus on an integrated and cooperative security that recognizes inter-dependence. This is necessitated by enlightened self interest. The SAFTA declaration adopted at the Islamabad summit last year is good beginning but it must achieve the target of reducing import duties between 0 to 5 per cent by 2013.

Inter-regional trade remains at a very low of 4 per cent of total trade. The share of intra-regional imports in total imports of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka was 11.7, 33.2 and 10.1 per cent respectively in 2000. In the case of Pakistan and India, it was 2.3 and 0.7 per cent respectively of their import requirements from the region. According to an ASSOCHAM study, bilateral trade between India and Pakistan can touch 10 billion by 2010 from $345 million in 2003-04 provided SAFTA is operationalised. At the same time, indirect trade between two countries (via Dubai and Singapore) is estimated at over $ 2 billion. Enhanced trade cooperation will mean lower prices for million and help governments implement poverty allaviation programmes. Cooperation, not mutual recrimination, is the crying need.