In­dian Prime Min­is­ter’s Splen­did Ini­tia­tive – Re­ju­ve­nat­ing SAARC


Lt Gen­eral (Retd) P.C. Ka­toch

PRIME MIN­IS­TER NAREN­DRA MODI de­serves all the praise for invit­ing heads of gov­ern­ments/ head of states of all the seven coun­tries that form part of SAARC (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mal­dives, Nepal, Pak­istan and Sri Lanka) in ad­di­tion to In­dia, for in­stal­la­tion of his new govern­ment on May 26. Ad­di­tion­ally, the Prime Min­is­ter of Mau­ri­tius too was in­vited though Mau­ri­tius is not part of SAARC. This splen­did ini­tia­tive by Modi pro­vided an in­for­mal plat­form for all the heads of SAARC to in­ter­act on the side­lines of the oath-tak­ing cer­e­mony by the new govern­ment, es­pe­cially since the progress of SAARC has been some­what stymied un­der the shadow of fluc­tu­at­ing Indo-Pak re­la­tions.

Naren­dra Modi is open­ing a new chap­ter in In­dia’s his­tory; bring­ing In­dia out of the decade old time wrap of plung­ing econ­omy, stag­na­tion in se­cu­rity (food, health, per­sonal), de­fence pre­pared­ness, em­ploy­ment, en­ergy and en­vi­ron­ment, be­sides giv­ing a fil­lip to for­eign pol­icy and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. Ush­er­ing in a sense of na­tion­al­ism cast­ing aside caste, creed and di­vi­sive pol­i­tics re­mains a pri­or­ity for him, no easy task with the re­gion af­flicted with pol­i­tics of all hues. If some Tamil groups protested against the in­vite to the Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent, the same Tamil groups had termed the In­dian Peace Keep­ing Force fight­ing the LTTE on re­quest of Sri Lanka as traitors. If the main po­lit­i­cal party of the past In­dian Govern­ment is protest­ing against the in­vi­ta­tion to the Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter, the erst­while govern­ment’s pol­icy it­self was be­ing termed as geopo­lit­i­cal pros­trat­ing.

But as far as SAARC is con­cerned, par­tic­u­larly Indo-Pak re­la­tions, if Naren­dra Modi is tak­ing out In­dia from its time wrap, so needs to be done by Nawaz Sharif if the re­gion is to pros­per. The stran­gle­hold of the mil­i­tary-ISI over Pak­istan is well known, to­gether with their links with ter­ror out­fits. The lat­est ex­am­ple has been the per­se­cu­tion of Geo TV for hav­ing ex­posed the In­ter-Ser­vices In­tel­li­gence (ISI)- Tal­iban links in­clud­ing killings of two of its jour­nal­ists. The mil­i­tary sure has an im­por­tant role in Pak­istan’s in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics but while giv­ing it due im­por­tance, it will some­how have to be con­vinced that its power is bet­ter utilised in curb­ing ter­ror, not spawn­ing it and that in do­ing so the mil­i­tary can still re­main in promi­nence that she seeks. Curb­ing ter­ror and kick-start­ing trade and in­dus­trial co­op­er­a­tion would greatly ben­e­fit both coun­tries, as well as the re­gion. In fact, es­tab­lish­ment of the South-South Cor­ri­dor (Eura­sia-CAR-Afghanistan-Pak­istan-In­dia-South Asia-SE Asia) to­gether with the TAPI and IPI pipe­lines can bring unimag­in­able pros­per­ity and gains to the re­gion. Ac­cept­ing the in­vi­ta­tion was a great re­cip­ro­cal ges­ture by Nawaz Sharif. It would be equally good for the Pak­istani mil­i­tary-ISI to de­sist fir­ing along the line of con­trol (LoC), ter­ror­ist ac­tions, cross-bor­der raids, etc, as has been the ex­pe­ri­ence par­tic­u­larly dur­ing vis­its by Pak­istani hi­er­ar­chy to In­dia. With the eye­ball-to-eye­ball de­ploy­ment along the LoC, the Pak­istani Army is very much in po­si­tion to pre­vent such in­ci­dents. Un­for­tu­nately, even as Pak­istan Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif was be­ing feted and ap­plauded at the Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van fore- court dur­ing the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony of Naren­dra Modi as Prime Min­is­ter, Pak­istan Rangers twice vi­o­lated cease­fire on May 26, fir­ing sev­eral sniper shots at In­dian posts, with the sec­ond vi­o­la­tion at around 6.15 p.m. just when the oath-tak­ing cer­e­mony was on in New Delhi.

Of course Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai has con­firmed that it was the LeT that at­tacked the In­dian mis­sion in Herat. Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is well known as the covert arm of ISI and one won­ders if Nawaz Sharif was aware of this fact be­fore he flew to In­dia. Nev­er­the­less, J&K is a vexed is­sue that can­not be re­solved in quick time and by force. It is time to keep it aside and get on with eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion to up­lift the masses, keep­ing in mind the ques­tion Modi raised dur­ing an in­ter­view, that ‘can you talk when bombs are ex­plod­ing close by?’ This was also con­veyed by Modi to Nawaz Sharif quite frankly dur­ing their 50-minute meet­ing on May 27.

Hamid Karzai also at­tended the cer­e­monies. In­dia and Afghanistan have a his­toric and deep re­la­tion­ship and the strate­gic part­ner­ship has also been re­view­ing threats to the re­gion post the with­drawal of US-NATO troops from Afghanistan. The fact that ter­ror flow­ing out from Pak­istan threat­ens the re­gion par­tic­u­larly In­dia, Afghanistan and to some ex­tent even China is no se­cret. Sta­bil­ity as well as rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and re­con­struc­tion of Afghanistan are vi­tal is­sues that re­quire con­tin­ued re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ef­forts and sin­cer­ity. Afghanistan needs to be as­sisted eco­nom­i­cally to be­come self-suf­fi­cient, which is pos­si­ble with its enor­mous un­ex­plored nat­u­ral re­sources al­beit this is only pos­si­ble if peace pre­vails. Log­i­cally, if Pak­istan is ac­tu­ally un­able to con­trol the rad­i­cal fac­to­ries, es­pe­cially ones in dif­fi­cult ar­eas run­ning in au­ton­o­mous mode, she needs to look for ways in the man­ner Boko Haram is be­ing tack­led by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

In­dia-Bangladesh re­la­tions are close es­pe­cially un­der the Sheikh Hasina Govern­ment. Bangladesh does have large pop­u­la­tion and il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, un­re­solved bor­der de­mar­ca­tion and wa­ter shar­ing are is­sues that need to be tack­led. Sheikh Hasina was vis­it­ing Ja­pan on May 26 but she was rep­re­sented by Shirin S. Chud­hury, Speaker of Bangladesh Par­lia­ment, and di­a­logue be­tween the two coun­tries is sure to be speeded up. In fact, com­plete bor­der de­mar­ca­tion and com­pre­hen­sive wa­ter shar­ing agree­ment should have been com­pleted years back. Bangladesh is se­ri­ously bat­tling rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and ter­ror. Ma­jor anti-In­dia ter­ror­ist camps run dur­ing the pre­vi­ous regime have been shut down though mi­nor­ity per­se­cu­tion and ter­ror­ist atroc­i­ties against them by rad­i­cals per­sist. Il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion is a grave is­sue though the pre­vi­ous In­dian Govern­ment re­mained in­tran­si­gent be­cause of cre­at­ing vote bank pol­i­tick­ing. By May 2012, In­dia re­port­edly al­ready had some 40 lakh Ro­hangiyas as il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Myan­mar and Bangladesh spread in var­i­ous states in­clud­ing in Jammu re­gion of J&K. Prior to lib­er­a­tion of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mu­jibur Rehman had writ­ten in his book on East Pak­istan thus, “Be­cause East­ern Pak­istan must have suf­fi­cient land for ex­pan­sion, East­ern Pak­istan must in­clude As­sam to be fi­nan­cially and eco­nom­i­cally strong”. But this does not have to be taken lit­er­ally. Take a mod­ern city like Tokyo that houses 9.58 per cent of en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Ja­pan where Ja­pan has lit­tle nat­u­ral re­sources, 70 per cent be­ing un­der for­est (which they don’t cut) and small amount of arable land. Yet in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion has made Ja­pan an eco­nomic gi­ant. Sim­i­larly, Seoul houses one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion of Repub­lic of Korea which again has limited nat­u­ral re­sources, small arable land and cold cli­mate that re­stricts farm­ing. Both In­dia and Bangladesh have abun­dant nat­u­ral re­sources and eco­nomic-in­dus­trial co­op­er­a­tion can lift both economies and help man­age­ment of so­cial change.

Bhutan and Nepal are both In­dia’s Hi­malayan neigh­bours and be­ing land­locked need spe­cial at­ten­tion and co­op­er­a­tion from SAARC mem­bers. Prime Min­is­ter Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay of Bhutan and Prime Min­is­ter Sushil Koirala both at­tended the swear­ing-in cer­e­monies. Bhutan has had a re­mark­able tran­si­tion to democ­racy ini­ti­ated and ex­e­cuted by the King him­self, the term Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness (GNH) hav- ing been coined by the monar­chy to de­fine an in­di­ca­tor and con­cept that mea­sures qual­ity of life or so­cial progress in more holis­tic and psy­cho­log­i­cal terms than only the eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor GDP. Nepal has had to con­tend with a long Maoist in­sur­gency that has thank­fully sub­dued the mil­i­tant con­tent. Pop­u­lace of Bhutan and Nepal be­long to tra­di­tional an­cient civil­i­sa­tions. Both coun­tries have abun­dant hy­dro power that can con­trib­ute to a SAARC grid and ex­cel­lent tourism po­ten­tial that can fa­cil­i­tate people to people con­tacts.

Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa of Sri Lanka too at­tended. In­dia-Sri Lanka re­la­tions are an­cient and his­toric al­beit the is­sue of de­vo­lu­tion of power to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, who have close re­la­tions to South­ern In­dia, is yet to be ad­e­quately re­solved de­spite many in­tri­ca­cies. Indo-Sri Lanka re­la­tions are be­com­ing im­por­tant also be­cause of the grow­ing power ri­valry in the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion. Eco­nomic re­la­tions be­tween both coun­tries are strong and there is tremen­dous scope to ex­pand them fur­ther. Sim­i­larly, In­dia-Mal­dives re­la­tions and In­dia-Mau­ri­tius have been his­toric. Pres­i­dent Ab­dula Yameen of Mal­dives and Prime Min­is­ter Navin­chan­dra Ram­goolam of Mau­ri­tius both at­tended the swear­ing-in. Mal­dives and Mau­ri­tius are tourist par­adises. Both are strate­gi­cally im­por­tant by virtue of their lo­ca­tion in the In­dia Ocean re­gion, in­clud­ing prox­im­ity to In­dia, Sri Lanka and Pak­istan. Both coun­tries need the co­op­er­a­tion of SAARC coun­tries, also to en­sure they do not get sub­jected to ter­ror­ism.

What SAARC needs to se­ri­ously de­bate upon is how global power­bro­kers have de­stroyed coun­try af­ter coun­try, rav­aging their land, pop­u­la­tion and re­sources for their own in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests, us­ing ter­ror­ism, proxy forces, con­ven­tional and even chemical and bi­o­log­i­cal forces with­out com­punc­tion, ex­tract­ing fi­nan­cial gains in the aftermath as well through sale of arms and re­con­struc­tion projects. Open­ing a fresh chap­ter in SAARC co­op­er­a­tion set­ting aside prej­u­dices can bring in a wave of pros­per­ity in the re­gion, tak­ing the Asian Century to the next level.

The Pres­i­dent of In­dia Pranab Mukher­jee, the Vice Pres­i­dent Mohd. Hamid An­sari and the Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi

with the Heads of SAARC coun­tries af­ter the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony on May 26, 2014

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