Wednesday, February 09, 2005

ANALYSIS: SAARC - India’s Rubik Cube

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+ Bangladesh has expressed deep regret over the turn of events which has not only been a setback for SAARC but also has to write off a huge expenditure incurred for the Summit which cannot be viewed as something the government would like to brush aside when explaining to its people . The other fallout is already apparent: there is a strong possibility that Bangladesh may not participate in the meeting of the technical-commercial working committee to propose the route for the three nation gas pipeline on 14th February 2005 to be held in Yangon , Myanmar. This, too, cannot augur well for India +

SAARC: India’s Rubik Cube
Dr Geeta Madhavan PhD

The idea of SAARC which was first mooted in 1980 had its initial meeting in Delhi in1983 and adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation. The Heads of State or Government of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. at their First SAARC Summit held in Dhaka on 7-8 December 1985 adopted the Charter formally establishing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC was “ manifestation of the determination of the peoples of South Asia to work together towards finding solutions to their common problems in a spirit of friendship, trust and understanding and to create an order based on mutual respect, equity and shared benefits.” It is in this background that the recent developments should be viewed. Two decades later it seems India has a different view .The 13th SAARC Summit to be held in Dhaka scheduled for February 6 and 7 has been put off because of the withdrawal of attendance by the Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh ostensibly due to poor security conditions in Dhaka and due to the recent developments in Nepal. The Summit was earlier deferred because of the tragic tsunami that devastated the region.

The decision by India has had serious repercussions in the region. Under the SAARC Charter a summit cannot be held even if one of the seven heads of Government/State cannot attend the meeting. The Foreign Secretary of India Mr.Shyam Saran stated that while India was committed to the SAARC process “it is only in an environment free from political turmoil and violence that a summit would yield the desired outcome."

South East Asia has for a long period been a region where violence has been the norm. When the Sixth SAARC Summit took place in Colombo in 1991 and the Tenth Summit took place there again in 1998, Colombo could certainly not be called a region free from political turmoil and violence. From 1987 –1990 the IPKF was in Sri Lanka on its mission to restore peace in the island. The LTTE however paid back with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. However, at that point of time no threat was envisaged and Prime Minister Shri Narasimha Rao attended the Summit in Colombo.. Similarly in 1998, Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee attended the Tenth Summit. During that period LTTE continued its activities and there were several urban suicide bombings and naval attacks.

In 2000 when the SAARC summit was held in Islamabad again Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee attended it while sectarian tensions persisted between the majority Sunni and the minority Shiite Muslim groups in Karachi .The killing of prominent religious leaders and political activists resulted in violent protests.

India is a major power in the region and the implications of the cancellation of the attendance by the Indian Prime Minister is not a good precedent. Considering that Mr. Saran accepted that "serious situation" prevailed in India's neighborhood the summit could have been the forum to express serious concern over the failing situation in Bangladesh about which India is deeply concerned and the destruction of democracy in Nepal. However, it is laid down in Article 10 provision 2 of the SAARC Charter that bilateral and contentious issues are excluded from the deliberations.

India’s withdrawal has already had two immediate fallout .The immediate political fallout is the strain in bilateral relationship with other members who have expressed disappointment at the cancellation. Would the Indian attitude nudge Nepal towards regarding China as a sympathetic neighbour in view of the fact that China called the events of Nepal to be of “internal “nature?. This may not be what India wants despite the progress in Sino-Indian relationship. Bangladesh has expressed deep regret over the turn of events which has not only been a setback for SAARC but also has to write off a huge expenditure incurred for the Summit which cannot be viewed as something the government would like to brush aside when explaining to its people .

The other fallout is already apparent: there is a strong possibility that Bangladesh may not participate in the meeting of the technical-commercial working committee to propose the route for the three nation gas pipeline on 14th February 2005 to be held in Yangon , Myanmar. This, too, cannot augur well for India .

Unfortunately there seems to be some who are gleeful about this turn of events and view it in the narrow scope of India asserting itself as a member of SAARC who will not brook errant behaviour within the borders of its neighbours. Instead of bolstering its genuine concern of the turn of events in the region by obtaining the opinion of the international community ; India may seem to be a country that is taking a cue from the other power that seeks to make unilateral decisions about the global community.

(Dr Geeta Madhavan is an experienced analyst working in areas related to International Security and Terrorism.)