The South Asian region, which is full of diversities in terms of size, ethnicity, religion, governance and resources, had no regional organization until 1985. The idea of forming a regional block for co-operation was initiated by the late King Birendra of Nepal and the late Ziaur Rahaman, President of Bangladesh in the early 80s. This ultimately led to the establishment of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in 1985. Since then, Saarc provided a platform for the states and peoples of this region to work together in a spirit of friendship and trust.
Since before its inception, however, India and Pakistan have been suspicious of each other and the regional organization. Initially, India suspected it as a move to limit its strength and voice in the region and Pakistan thought that it would make India the most dominant member of the group.
India and Pakistan are two countries founded on the basis of religion—with Pakistan as an Islamic state and India as a secular one. Their history is closely linked with the struggle for power and independence in British India between the two major forces of the sub-continent: Islam and Hinduism.
The demand for a separate Muslim state was raised for the first time in 1930 in a Muslim League Conference by the poet-politician Dr Iqbal. The Muslim League was isolated in 1931 from the British and the Congress when the Irwin-Gandhi Pact established Gandhi as the key player in the Round Table Conference. The forties saw the crystallization of events in Jinnah’s re-iteration of the demand for a free Pakistan in a partitioned India, failure of the Gandhi-Jinnah talks for a united India that also established Jinnah as the sole leader of Indian Muslim, the Muslim League’s participation in the Interim Government and finally Lord Mountbatten’s announcement of partition of India giving rise to Pakistan as a new Nation on the 14th August and a new India on the 15th August 1947. Since then, India and Pakistan have been arch-rivals.
It is important to remember the human suffering caused by the partition. It brought massive rioting and population flows as Muslims and Hindus moved across the border to their newly formed Pakistan and India. Around half a million people died, the death toll being highest in Punjab, which was split in two regions shared by the two nations.
The most problematic region since the partition has been the Muslim Kashmir. The Pakistanis have long argued that Kashmir should have become part of Pakistan in 1947 because the majority of its populations are Muslims. They say that numerous United Nations resolutions mean that Kashmiris should be allowed to vote in a plebiscite to decide between India or Pakistan. India says that Kashmir belongs to it because of the Instrument of Accession signed by the then Maharaja of Kashmir in October 1947—who handed over to Delhi powers of defense, communication and foreign affairs.
Kashmir’s special status within the Indian constitution was confirmed in 1950, allowing it more autonomy than other Indian states. Delhi says that under the terms of the Simla Agreement of 1972, both countries have agreed to solve the Kashmir question through bilateral negotiations and not through international forums such as the UN. It also says a plebiscite should not be held in Kashmir because elections have been held which demonstrate that people living there want to remain part of the Indian union.
India and Pakistan went to war twice over the territory, in 1947-8 and in 1965. In 1971, India and Pakistan fought again over Bangladeshi independence and during this time there was also some conflict between the two sides in Kashmir. In the summer of 1999, the two countries came to the brink of another war after Pakistani-backed forces infiltrated Indian-controlled Kashmir. A bitter two-month conflict along the Line of Control only ended when Pakistani forces withdrew. Today, roughly one third of the western part of Kashmir is administered by Pakistan. Most of the reminder is under Indian control.
In addition, an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir began around 1989. Since then India has constantly maintained that Pakistan has been training and supplying weapons to militant separatists. Pakistan insists it only offers them moral support.
However bad the security scenario in the region gets, Saarc is crippled by its own structural shortcomings which prevent formulation of any resolution and its implementation. The biggest hindrance lies in Saarc’s Charter, which prevents the member nations from discussing issues of bilateral concerns, for example the India- Pakistan conflicts. Also, any Saarc decision has to be made unanimously, which means there cannot be any decision on any issue, even though it benefits rest of the Saarc nations, if a single member disagrees. This is totally unworkable as this handicap leads either to not even starting any discussions on important issues. Moreover, even if a decision is made, it is not legally binding to the participants.
India-Pakistan tensions have been catastrophic for the South Asia’s aspirations of regional development and Saarc has been rendered largely useless. As it stands, there is little hope for the dreams of open regional borders, economic union and a single currency in the South Asian region, such as that exists in the European Union. Nevertheless, a more modest ambition of working through a network of cooperative arrangements that helps avoid the costs of war could be more achievable.
Written By: Tika Dhamala.