A shadow over SAARC

Some have called it a ‘tango’, some have dubbed it as a ‘cha-cha’ while others are calling it a ‘slow waltz’, but if truth be told, India and Pakistan’s dance moves are not making the other six member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) very happy. The Indo-Pak dilly-dallying has held the regional body hostage since its very inception. Yashwant Sinha, India’s former external affairs minister, thinks that the SAARC experiment has failed as it is “no longer a vibrant regional organisation like other global examples”. We would not go so far as saying that the experiment has failed, but we would concede that as is the norm with any SAARC event, the third SAARC interior ministers’ conference was overshadowed by the two nuclear powers’ bilateral talks. Sadly, not many were interested in the actual conference. As unfortunate as that may sound, it is a harsh reality that unless and until these two settle their disputes, SAARC would remain a rubber-stamp organisation. And that is the tragedy of South Asia – anything and everything related to the region comes down to the relations between India and Pakistan. It is time that the two neighbours realise what a letdown they have become for the region. It is because of them that SAARC has not been able to tap its full potential unlike other regional bodies in the world.

The meeting between Indo-Pak foreign secretaries went well but the real test of wits began as soon as Indian Home Minister, Mr Chidambaram, landed in Islamabad. From giving assurances on bringing to book Mumbai attack’s perpetrators to giving the terrorists a clear message that India and Pakistan stand united against them, Interior Minister Rehman Malik left no stone unturned to ‘woo’ his no-nonsense counterpart. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have expressed his happiness over the ‘success’ of the bilateral talks, however, Mr Chidambaram looked anything but. He said that while “nobody is questioning anyone’s intentions, it is the outcome that will decide whether we are on the right track or not”. His words should make it clear to Pakistani authorities that India expects concrete results when it comes to 26/11. Mumbai’s wounds have not healed despite the optimism shown by the Indo-Pak premiers and President Zardari. No matter how much the international community tries to exert pressure on the two sides to normalise relations, it all boils down to Mumbai terror attacks. It is hoped that both India and Pakistan resolve this burning issue as soon as possible since it is damaging the diplomatic atmosphere of South Asia.

That said, it was good to see that the SAARC interior ministers recognised how terrorism poses a big threat not just to individual countries but to the region at large. Terrorists have no respect for boundaries; their aim is to spread terror as far and wide as they can. The interior ministers of SAARC member states reiterated their commitment to strengthen the regional body in its fight against terrorism. The proposal for setting up a SAARC regional police force (SAARCPOL) on the pattern of Interpol would be discussed in detail in the next meeting. These developments are positive as this region needs a joint anti-terrorism mechanism in order to fight the hydra of terrorism. SAARC member states must help each other and should also try to resolve the tensions between India and Pakistan to the extent possible to overcome this bitter legacy. It is time to move forward instead of leaving SAARC’s fate hanging in the balance.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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