A roundtable titled, “Saarc: The Journey So Far and The Way Ahead”, reviewing the process of peace in the South Asian countries, expressed deep concern over the hegemony inherent in the India-Pakistan-centric discourse that dominates all interactions at the Saarc level.
The roundtable, held at the Arts Council of Pakistan on Saturday, stressed the need for increasing people-to-people contact and promoting trade within the region so that more friendly ties between the countries and the people could be established.
The roundtable took to task the bureaucratic hurdles being created in restraining journalists to visit India. It said that there were some bureaucrats in the interior ministry who brought up hurdles. Now, it said, they were creating hurdles in the issuance of visas for a delegation of Indian journalists visiting Pakistan to promote ties between the media persons of the two countries, speakers said.
The roundtable, held jointly by the Pakistan Peace Coalition (PPC), the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), the Pakistan Studies Centre, University of Karachi, and the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, appreciated the federal cabinet’s decision to grant India most favoured nation status and now it was the duty of the civil society representatives to come forward and create an ideal atmosphere in this regard.
The meeting demanded the government of Pakistan to end the confusion regarding giving most favoured nation status to India and complete all the requirements in this regard.
Dr Jaffar Ahmed, Chairman, Pakistan Studies Centre, Dr Riaz Shaikh of the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST), Senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, Dr Mutahir Shaikh of the International Relations Department of Karachi University, Ehsanullah Khan of the Workers-Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (WEBCOP), senior columnist Muqtada Mansoor were the main speakers of the roundtable, while peace activists, trade union activists, student leaders and civil society representatives also attended the meeting and spoke on various South Asian regional issues.
Speaking on the occasion, senior journalist and columnist Ghazi Salahuddin said an “India-centered” mindset exists in Pakistan, which had hindered the development of positive relations with India. “We have not learnt lessons from history,” he said, adding that on the issue of giving the most favoured nation (MFN) status to India there still was confusion in Pakistan on giving status on part of the government. He asked the civil society to come forward and play its role in creating a positive atmosphere in favour of this decision. He clarified that MFN status in a way supported the developing and small economies and Pakistan would benefit from this move.
Veteran poet Fahmida Riaz, who recited her poetry on peace, said the trade of war was going on in Pakistan and India, which had kept the people of both the countries away from each other. There was only one section in Pakistan which was benefiting from this trade of war. The funds were not being spent on the welfare of people. She argued that there was a diversity of religions in South Asia.
Muqtada Mansoor said that the South Asia did not have a common language as a medium of communication so they had to resort to English for interaction. “The South Asian states never encouraged the promotion of cultural ties as a result of which we remain ignorant of the culture, literature, and social sides of each other.”
Dr Riaz Sheikh emphasised initiation of a dialogue for the regional peace. He said the states do not have authority to undermine the languages.
Dr Mutahir Shaikh said the South Asian region was facing the grave issue of terrorism. He contended that joint efforts were needed to eliminate the menace from the region.
On the occasion, the recommendations under a memorandum of the civil society of South Asia on the occasion of 17th Saarc Summit were read out by Zeenia Shaukat.
The Peoples’ SAARC Memorandum, while appreciating some positive developments in the region, also expressed serious concern over the actions taken by the states that bore negatively on fundamental human rights, including right to life, right to equality and access to basic services.
It expressed concern over growing internal rifts in the region. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal continue to be mired by internal conflicts. The handling of the ongoing conflict in Pakistan (Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), India (Maoist insurgency in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa), the post-conflict phase in Sri Lanka and Nepal, all have raised serious questions regarding fundamental human rights of the population affected by conflicts.
The Peoples’ Saarc also expressed alarm over the increasing defence budgets, nuclearisation, food insecurity, climate change and environmental concerns, compromised human development, internal conflicts and growing corporatisation in South Asian countries. In terms of military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, Pakistan spends the highest at 3.2 percent of the GDP; Sri Lanka, 2.9 percent; India, 2.7 percent; Nepal, 1.7 percent; Afghanistan, 1.5 percent; and Bangladesh, 1 percent. In a region where 260 million people lack access to rudimentary health facilities, 337 million lack access to safe drinking water, over 400 million people go hungry every day, and the average public health expenditure stands at 1.7 percent of the region’s GDP, an astronomical allocation to defence expenditure that stands around $40 billion was highly atrocious and unjust.