South Asia takes step towards unity

A declaration adopted at a recent regional summit might pave the way for the improvement of diplomatic and economic ties between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, with his Pakistani 
counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani during the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Addu. Raveendran / AFP
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The 17th South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit, which concluded last Friday in the Maldives, ended on a positive note. The meeting of the leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the nations that make up the organisation, renewed hopes for an integrated South Asia, an area of the world beset by multiple problems such as chronic poverty, insurgency, restricted movement between peoples and businesses, communal riots, a trust deficit between neighbours and, above all, terrorism and a bitter confrontation between India and Pakistan.

The Addu Declaration, adopted at the conclusion of the two-day summit, prescribed various steps to enhance cooperation including trade and commerce and the greater flow of financial capital and intra-regional investment.

There is naturally a strong case for a united, integrated South Asia. The potential offered by a regional union is enormous - it would afford greater opportunities to its 1.5 billion population and usher a large mass of humanity into a new era of understanding and cooperation.

Groups such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the European Union have proved beyond doubt the benefits they bring to their member countries, their businesses, civil society and people at large. Such unions are not without their challenges though, as this week's cover story of The Review demonstrates.

The statistics of the Saarc region reveal a grim picture and a problematic road map towards integration: South Asia accounts for nearly 23 per cent of the total world population, yet its share of global GDP is less than three per cent and the region is home to 400 million poor people.

This year's summit adopted the theme of Building Bridges, but the perpetual state of hostility that exists between India and Pakistan over Kashmir demonstrates the relative frailties of Saarc.

The lack of resolution in this one issue has locked Pakistan and India into a years-long vortex of competitive nationalism, giving rise to toxic narratives, with each successive generation adding a more militant and lethal layer of hatred than the previous one. Simmering disputes over Kashmir have also led to the outbreak of new conflicts (such as Sir Creek and Siachen Glacier), the rise of Hindu and Muslim extremism and terrorism, as well as human rights violations and massive militarisation.

It would be wrong to completely despair. Days before the summit, Pakistan gave clearance to trade normalisation with India. The foreign ministers of the two countries also agreed to "a shrinking of the 'trust deficit' [between the pair]".

As observed by The Indian Express, "There was a noticeable warmth of tone and substance to the conversation Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani, his Pakistani counterpart, had on the sidelines of the Saarc summit in the Maldives". The two leaders, who had held several meetings in the past three years, had an hour-long, one-on-one meeting. They pledged to write a new chapter in bilateral relations and resume dialogue on all issues.

Singh said both nations had lost too much time to the acrimonious dispute: "The time has come to write a new chapter in the history of two countries and the era of accusations and counteraccusations should be [put] behind us."

In his remarks, Gilani noted that he and Singh discussed all the areas of mutual concern including the core issues of Kashmir, water, terrorism, Sir Creek, Siachen and trade. "I think that the next round will be more constructive, more positive and will open a new chapter in the history of both the countries", he added. He also thanked India for backing Pakistan in its election to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council and for helping to facilitate market access in the EU. Furthermore, the two countries agreed in principle to strengthen their existing ties.

An editorial in leading Pakistani daily The Express Tribune said: "Even though no significant decisions with far-reaching effect were reached, the agreement to move ahead along the road to greater friendship is, in itself, an immensely important one. This is especially relevant given the history between the two countries".

The Indian Express welcomed the "talk of a new chapter in India Pakistan history" but cautioned that the "relationship has shown itself time and again to be accident-prone.

"Experience shows that ... optimism over movement in India-Pakistan relations can be especially fragile."

A further editorial in Rising Kashmir, an English daily in Srinagar, Kashmir, brilliantly sums up the history of the India-Pakistan engagement: "The bilateral dialogue has been a tale of more endings than beginnings. The two sides almost inevitably end up bickering. As a result, there have been more breakdowns than breakthroughs."

At the previous Saarc summit in Bhutan in April last year, Mohamed Nasheed, the president of Maldives, broke free from the protocol of not mentioning bilateral issues and expressed his hope for "greater dialogue between India and Pakistan" and for the two nations to find ways of compartmentalising their differences.

Sadly "compartmentalising" of difference on Kashmir is simply not realistic. It has not worked in the past and the oldest conflict on the UN register continues to blight relations between India and Pakistan, while it also hampers any meaningful progress in South Asia cooperation and integration.

The resolution of that dispute would, however, create a huge fund of positive collateral in the region by first denying oxygen to the Kashmir-motivated extremist subculture that exists in both countries and the cycle of violence that persists within those groups.

Further, it would empower political parties in both nations to deal with this threat, which is not only based on militant nationalist narratives, but also lays strong emphasis on a "clash of civilisations" between "infidel Hindus" and "terrorist Muslims".

Because of Kashmir and its mutation beyond politics into the realms of religion and national honour, mainstream politicians have found it very hard to break free from the militant rhetoric that exists on both sides. The current political landscape is incapable of dealing with this threat because it finds it impossible to exorcise the spell that Kashmir has cast over all that surrounds it.

Resolution in the region would allow Saarc to move towards its vision of a united South Asia where member nations would benefit from each other's strengths and expertise. It would also disarm the extremist narratives and militant nationalism, replacing them with amity and brotherhood.

Both in terms of physical connectivity and figurative political dialogue, Building Bridges has, it should be emphasised, ended on a very positive note. If Saarc continues to bring Pakistan and India closer through mutual cooperation, trade and dialogue, there is a chance for this regional forum to become vibrant, useful and profitable to its people and those beyond its borders. There is also the tease of the establishment a Saarc-based regional identity that is flexible enough to allow individual nationalistic aspirations as well as being able to safeguard the religious and ethnic dimensions of each state's identity. In fact, a vibrant Saarc could cut through human frailties and failings and harbinger a new culture of harmony.

Murtaza Shibli is a trainer, writer and consultant on Muslim issues in Europe and South Asia. He divides his time between London, Lahore and Srinagar.