The View From Asia

South Asia's regional grouping suffers knockout with pullouts

Regional cooperation under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), South Asia's grouping, suffered a blow when India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan announced they will not attend the 19th summit in November, in a likely fallout of the mounting friction between New Delhi and Islamabad - which was to host the summit. Here are excerpts from commentaries in Asia News Network papers:

Rethink boycott of Saarc

Shahedul Anam Khan
The Daily Star, Bangladesh

"When we speak of Saarc, we usually hear two reactions - cynicism and scepticism," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the 18th Kathmandu summit, which was to be held in 2012 but was postponed to 2014.

"Yet, South Asia is slowly coming together," he added.

Given that the latest summit postponement is the ninth since Saarc came into being in 1985, one wonders whether the regional grouping is falling apart.

The 19th Saarc summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad on Nov 10 and 11 has gone for a six! It was postponed after Bangladesh and India had communicated their inability to attend to the Saarc Secretariat. Reportedly, Bhutan and Afghanistan have also communicated their reservations to Nepal, which holds the current chairmanship of the organisation.

Since the presence of all the member states is required as per Saarc's rules for the holding of its apex meetings, we do not know when the summit might be held. However, as India was represented at the recently held anti-corruption meeting in Islamabad, India's decision has surprised a few. Nevertheless, many saw this coming after what happened in Uri (a deadly assault left 18 soldiers dead at the Indian army base). 

Demonstrators in India burning a Pakistan flag during protests on Sept 20 against the attack two days earlier on an Indian army base in Uri that left 18 dead and was blamed on Pakistan. India's decision to pull out of November's Saarc summit, due to be held in Islamabad, has drawn calls from regional newspapers to reconsider the boycott. PHOTO: REUTERS

India's justification is predictable. Its explanation is that "increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in the region and growing interference in internal affairs of member states by one country have created an environment that is not conducive to the successful holding of the 19th Saarc summit in Islamabad".

Bangladesh has decided to abstain on the grounds of Pakistan's repeated interference in its internal affairs .

This is not the first time that a Saarc summit has been postponed, but only once was it for a force majeure, imposed by the 2004 tsunami. Of the rest of the eight summits, including this one, all were due to concerns of security and bilateral tensions. 

In its very chequered existence, Saarc has had to encounter many ups and downs, and mutual animus and distrust between India and Pakistan have dictated primarily the course it traversed. In fact, rhapsodic though it sounds, "collective self-reliance" was the motive force behind the formulation of the association.

Not boycotting but utilising the summit to address the regional concerns should be the agenda. And what better platform can there be than Saarc?

A rethink on the decision to boycott, I feel, is in order. 

So what's in store?

Kuldip Nayar
The Statesman, India

India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj may have sounded belligerent in her speech at the United Nations. But she indicated India's exasperation over Pakistan's interference in Kashmir or elsewhere. After the killing of jawans (soldiers) at Uri, one widely supported demand is retaliation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised counteraction at a time and the place of India's choosing. What would be India's next step is not yet known but the retaliation part is very much true. It is a sad option and to exercise it without action requires patience, which is getting exhausted. War is not considered an option. Yet what is the way out?

Pakistan had admitted that some non-state actors could have indulged in the attack at Uri. But now, after the whole world has expressed horror over the Uri incident, Islamabad says that India had stage-managed Uri and Pakistan had no hand in it.

But how does it explain that its soil was used by the forces who attacked Uri?

Pakistan has raised the Kashmir issue to divert attention from everything else. It expects New Delhi to participate in the talks which it would initiate.

Probably its eyes were on the Saarc summit in Islamabad. The question is where we go from here. War is no option but talks also have not been fruitful. All eyes are on New Delhi because it has to decide what steps should be taken because it is becoming increasingly clear that talks are no solution.

India has considered the revision of the Indus Water Treaty which was signed in 1960 by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan military chief Mohammad Ayub Khan. Mr Sartaj Aziz, who represents Pakistan's foreign affairs, has said that anything done to revise the treaty without Pakistan's participation would be "an act of war". This has complicated matters still further.

In view of this deadlock, no progress has been made. This should be told to the people on both sides. They have been urging their respective governments to sort out the matter through dialogue.

By all means the parties concerned should sit across the table to find a solution. But India and Pakistan cannot do so by themselves. The Kashmiris want to have their say.

Recently, when I went to Srinagar at the invitation of students, I found that the youth wanted a country of their own, sovereign and independent. They do not realise that India does not favour another Islamic state on its border when it is exasperated by Pakistan, the one it already has.

But the mood of the youth is that of anger and they would not compromise their demand for azaadi (freedom). They do not realise that azaadi is an ideal, not a feasible proposition.

Undermining Saarc

Dawn, Pakistan

A day after insinuating that India may use water as a weapon against Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made another unfortunate, though perhaps less surprising, decision: his government will boycott the Saarc summit scheduled for November in Islamabad.

Disappointingly, it was followed by Bangladesh's decision to do the same.

Yet, Saarc by its very definition is not about bilateral ties. And while Saarc has not come close to realising the aspirations it represents, it is still a symbolic forum representing the shared dreams of the region and very much worth defending.

Now that the 19th Saarc summit is likely to be either postponed or cancelled, barring a last-minute change of heart by India, it is worth recalling that Pakistan and India have been here before.

In 1995, the eighth Saarc summit was scheduled to be held in New Delhi at a time when Pakistan-India tensions were soaring and the insurgency in India-held Kashmir was at its peak.

Ms Benazir Bhutto, then the prime minister of Pakistan, opted not to attend the summit, but she did not try and sabotage it. Instead, she sent then President Farooq Leghari to represent Pakistan and emphatically state this country's position on a range of issues.

That was a sensible, statesmanlike decision.

Twenty-one years later, the Indian Prime Minister has rejected the statesman's path and instead opted to shut down an avenue of cooperation and dialogue.

Unhelpful as Mr Modi's decision is, Pakistan must resist the urge to respond petulantly and negatively. The Indian leader made an unexpected stopover in Lahore on Christmas Day last year, and lobbying by other countries may encourage Mr Modi, and Bangladesh, to reconsider pulling out.

In the meantime, Pakistan should receive in good faith the evidence from the Uri attack that India offers and investigate the matter to the extent that the law permits. India has been wrong to immediately and without any proof accuse Pakistan, or even just citizens of this country, of involvement in the Uri attack.

But Pakistan would be wrong to automatically disregard any evidence that India subsequently provides simply because India made accusations first and collected evidence later.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner ANN, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'S. Asia's regional grouping suffers knockout with pullouts'. Print Edition | Subscribe