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BRP Bhaskar: Kashmir’s shadow over SAARC
August 30, 2016
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

With India-Pakistan relations deteriorating in the wake of violence in Kashmir, now in its eighth week, the fate of the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, scheduled for November 9 and 10, hangs in the balance.

SAARC, which comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, together account for 21 per cent of the world’s population but only nine per cent of the global economy.

SAARC members differ vastly in size and economic strength. India with an estimated population of 1,330 million and gross domestic product of $2,073.5 billion is much larger than the other seven countries put together. Pakistan, the second largest country, has an estimated population of 194 million and GDP of $270.0 billion. The Maldives with only 371,000 people is at the bottom of the population table. Bhutan with a GDP of $2 billion has the smallest economy, but it attaches more importance to gross domestic happiness than to gross domestic product.

India-Pakistan differences have held SAARC back from time to time in some areas. A common market is one of SAARC’s objectives but Pakistani fear of Indian economic domination has stalled progress in that direction. In 1995, a ministerial meeting decided on the creation of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) as a first step towards the goal of a common market. It was only in 2006 that an agreement in this regard went into effect. A decade later, intra-SAARC trade is still only a little more than the region’s GDP.

A South Asian motor vehicles agreement was negotiated by SAARC officials ahead of the last summit at Kathmandu in 2014 but Pakistan was not ready to sign it. Believing that it backed out as it now attaches economic integration with China more importance than South Asian economic cooperation, India decided to go ahead without it.

The relations between the two countries took a dive early this month when Laskar-e-Taiba chief called for demonstrations when Rajnath Singh visited Islamabad for a meeting of SARC Home Ministers. Rajnath Singh was flown from the airport to the meeting venue in a helicopter and he flew back immediately after the meeting without joining a lunch from which, curiously, even the host, Pakistan’s Home Minister stayed away.

Arun Jaitley stayed away from the SAARC Finance Ministers’ meeting in Islamabad last week, depriving it of much of its importance. Nevertheless, SAARC Secretary General Arjum Bahadur Thapa of Nepal called upon the group to move from SAFTA to South Asian Economic Union.

With India and Pakistan at loggerheads, speculation is rife over whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the November summit. Reports in a section of the Pakistani media have indicated that he might stay away although so far no one of consequence in India has suggested such a step is contemplated.

Modi made a personal investment in improving relations with India’s immediate neighbours when he invited the leaders of SAARC countries to his swearing-in as Prime Minister in 2014 and all, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, promptly turned up. Several setbacks followed but he demonstrated his readiness to walk the talk with an unscheduled stop at Lahore on his way home from Afghanistan to greet Sharif on his birthday.

The current wave of unrest in Kashmir began when protests erupted over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by the security forces. At least 67 persons were killed, over 6,000 injured and more than 100 blinded by pellets as youths defied the curfew. Pakistan launched a campaign against the human rights violations and India responded by raising the issue of rights violations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Baluchistan for the first time.

Even as Modi and Chief Minister Mehmooba Mufti, whose Bharatiya Janata Party and People’s Democratic Party which are partners of the coalition that rules the state, began efforts to restore peace in the troubled valley, Nawaz Sharif deputed 22 diplomats to internationalise the issue. Under the Shimla Pact signed after the 1971 war which resulted in Bangladesh’s formation, the two countries are committed to resolve issues, including Kashmir, bilaterally without outside intervention.

Some course correction may take place sooner or later since Sharif, as the host, and Modi, as the leader of the largest member country and one who began his prime ministerhip with a commitment to friendship in the neighbourhood, have much at stake in the success of the SAARC summit.

The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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