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August 15, 2016

The limitations of Saarc


August 15, 2016

The fact that the war of words between heads of Pakistani and Indian delegations overshadowed the deliberations in the recent Saarc interior ministers’ meeting in Islamabad is yet another reminder that regional cooperation in South Asia is largely a function of Pak-India relations, and that acrimony between the two nuclear states is the prime factor that has held the region from realising its potential.

Saarc states’ interior ministers met amid heightened tensions between India and Pakistan over the restive situation in Kashmir with each country pointing the finger at the other for the state of affairs. Ironically enough, one of the items on the agenda of the ministerial meeting was improved cooperation among the member countries on counterterrorism. And it was the definition of terrorism that was the major point of disagreement between Islamabad and New Delhi during the two-day event.

Does the resistance movement in Indian-controlled Kashmir constitute terrorism? Does Pakistan’s support to the Kashmiris amount to abetment to terrorism? Or does the fault lie with the way India has handled the widespread discontent in the disputed territory over the years. Likewise, are the high-handed tactics being employed by the government in New Delhi to put down protests in the state an act of terrorism? Both Islamabad and New Delhi would answer these questions altogether differently.

Said Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh in his address to Saarc meeting: “There are no good terrorists or bad terrorists…. There should be no glorification or eulogising of terrorists as martyrs.” He called for the “strongest action not only against terrorists but also against the individuals, organisations and nations which support terror.”

Later, while addressing parliament back home, Singh described Pakistan as the biggest violator of human rights and stated that, despite the best efforts of successive governments in India, it hadn’t been possible to improve relations with Pakistan, because the western neighbour “never learns”.

The Indian home minister’s remarks reflected his country’s consistent stance on Kashmir: the resistance movement in the state is a manifestation of terrorism and any country – the reference unmistakably was to Pakistan – or organisation that backs the movement is an abettor of terrorism. Kashmiris may be fighting for freedom from India but since they are challenging the writ of the state, they are terrorists.

In the context of Kashmir, the question is not whether there are good terrorists and bad terrorists but whether the Kashmiris who have challenged Indian rule are terrorists.

In the case of Saarc, as for several other regional organisations, meetings, ministerial or official level, are chaired by the head of the host country delegation – in this case Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. The chair is supposed to conduct the proceedings in a bipartisan manner, which means s/he should desist from presenting his government’s viewpoint.

Therefore, Nisar Ali Khan answered his Indian counterpart only after he had relinquished the chair. “Using torture against innocent children and violence against civilians qualifies as terrorism”, said Minister Khan in his tit-for-tat statement. He decried the “use of excessive force” to quell protests in Kashmir, and emphasized the need for ending an “extremist” mindset and trying to sort out regional issues through a dialogue.

The minister’s remarks also mirrored Pakistan’s Kashmir position: the struggle in Indian held Kashmir is totally legitimate; the Kashmiris are not terrorists but freedom fighters; and that Pakistan has an obligation to extend moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmir cause.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who inaugurated the Saarc Interior Ministers’ meeting, was more circumspect in his statement. He assured the meeting of his country’s all-out support to its South Asian neighbours in eradicating corruption, organised crime and terrorism. The success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb “proves that Pakistan is committed towards wiping out terrorism from its territory”, he told the ministers.

Saarc’s charter disallows its members from raising bilateral issues, since raising bilateral matters on a regional forum will hinder regional cooperation. In the spirit of showing deference to the Saarc charter, both Singh and Khan should better have avoided trading charges against each other’s government on a bilateral issue. But being politicians they deemed it necessary to play to the gallery.

The Saarc interior ministers’ meeting concluded with condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations together with the pledge to fight the menace collectively. But the way India and Pakistan voiced their differences over what constitutes terrorism and what doesn’t makes such a fight highly unlikely.

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