SAARC minus one: Uri and its aftermath
by Sandhya Jain on 18 Oct 2016 11 Comments

Amidst media speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping would bat strongly for “all-weather friend” Pakistan at the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit in Goa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the sting out of any potential rebuke this might entail with a game-changing arms acquisition from Russia. While Saturday’s $ 5 billion S-400 ‘Triumf’ air defence systems and joint production facility for Kamov-226T helicopters had been under discussion, the acquisition of four state-of-the-art naval frigates is a bolt from the blue.


In one go, Modi has restored Moscow’s status as New Delhi’s most reliable friend and defence supplier, while giving a boost to his flagship ‘Make in India’ programme. But the most remarkable facet of the deal is the skill with which Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar ensured that lobbyists and vested interests did not get even a whiff of the proposed acquisitions. They will doubtless continue to carp and plant motivated stories about his ministry (à la the alleged slashing of combat disability pensions), but with diminished credibility.


In the foreseeable future, Pakistan will find it difficult to overcome its diplomatic isolation following the cancellation of the 19th SAARC summit it was to host at Islamabad in November. India’s decision to pull out of the summit after the massacre of 18 jawans at the Uri base camp in Jammu & Kashmir was promptly endorsed by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan, with Sri Lanka and Maldives following suit. As current SAARC chair, Nepal had to maintain neutrality, but had no choice but to announce the deferment. Never in the history of any regional association has one country received such a cold shoulder.


The cancellation of the summit is unprecedented, as is the fact that Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan followed India in citing the uncongenial atmosphere caused by escalation of terrorism in the region as the reason for their inability to attend. Although New Delhi had accepted the invitation to attend the summit in March, in the hope that Islamabad would act against the perpetrators of the Pathankot air base attack on January 2, 2016, it was soon evident that the military brass would not allow the civilian government to deliver on its promises.


Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh understood as much when he attended the SAARC Interior Ministers’ meeting in Islamabad in August, and had to skip the lunch to be hosted by his counterpart. The Uri massacre was clearly the last straw for Prime Minister Modi, who has invested much personal political capital in improving relations with Islamabad.


The boycott puts a question mark on the future of SAARC, particularly after India’s surgical strike in the wee hours of September 29. As Islamabad is unlikely to mend its ways – perhaps it is too late to dismount the tiger – it is difficult to see how the present stalemate of SAARC-minus-one can be overcome. Yet, a fresh summit without movement on the terrorism front is out of the question.


In effect, SAARC is over, and regional groupings such as BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) can be expected to gain more heft. This includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, five of which countries are also members of the now defunct SAARC. That leaves Maldives and Afghanistan in a limbo unless a new grouping can be evolved to include them in the South Asian and South East Asian framework. While the region’s diplomats have their task cut out, New Delhi must step up its bilateral cooperation with both countries.


It bears stating that the SAARC boycott was spontaneous, and not deliberately planned by New Delhi. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was unhappy with Islamabad’s criticism of her crackdown on war criminals and extremists, and was reportedly planning to send the President to represent Dhaka. The terror attack on Uri led to an exchange of diplomatic notes with Dhaka, which decided to boycott the summit.


Afghanistan has also been peeved with Islamabad on account of the “imposed terrorism on Afghanistan”, and the failure of talks with the Taliban. When President Ashraf Ghani called on Modi to condole the Uri attack, he indicated unequivocal support for India’s actions against terrorism, following which Kabul and Delhi also exchanged notes.


Bhutan, though not directly affected by terrorism from Pakistan-based groups, was keen to show solidarity with India. This resulted in intense consultations between the capitals and one day after New Delhi pulled out of the summit (September 20), the other three nations also conveyed their decision to Nepal (September 21). All cited cross-border terrorism and growing interference in the internal affairs of member-states by one country. Thereafter, Sri Lanka pulled out on September 30 and Maldives followed on October 1. This was the final nail in the coffin of SAARC.


That three nations standing by India are Muslim-majority nations (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives) would not have been lost on Islamabad. That the Gulf Cooperation Council, some of whose members are known to bankroll the Pakistani State and generally support it on the subject of Kashmir, maintained deafening silence indicates the extent of international concern over the scourge of terrorism.


The global support for India’s surgical strike vindicates the Prime Minister’s high voltage diplomacy since May 2014. European Parliament Vice-President Ryszard Czarnecki was blunt, “India’s cross-border action against terrorists on its borders with Pakistan should be commended and supported by the international community. India has clearly indicated that these attacks were not against the Pakistani state, but focussed against terror groups that threatened peace and stability in the region”. He warned that, if left unchecked, these individuals and groups would soon be attacking Europe and the West; the close ties between the Pakistan defence establishment, Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network are well known.


Germany, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan also backed the surgical strikes as India’s internationally accepted right to respond to attacks on her sovereignty and her soil. Russia is so far the sole P-5 country to endorse the Indian action and openly assert that the terrorists came from Pakistan: “Greatest human rights violations take place when terrorists attack military installations and attack peaceful civilians in India. We welcome the surgical strike. Every country has right to defend itself”.


World capitals have noted a rise in Pakistan-linked terror modules abroad and the nexus between the Pakistani security establishment and terror groups. The SAARC boycott has virtually dubbed Pakistan a State-sponsor of terrorism. Islamabad must decide if it will crackdown on the jihadis or allow them to overwhelm the State, as the Taliban once did in Afghanistan.  

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