This commentary was first published here.
“Cooperation within the framework of the Association shall be based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit.” -Point (1) of the ‘Principles’ subset of Article II of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) charter.
‘Respect for territorial integrity’ and ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other states’, really?
The Indian subcontinent is chequered with a history of border and territory disputes. If there is no shared border, there are prickly issues related to shared ethnic and religious groups in each other’s territories.
Two very topical, and yet, off the cuff, examples here illustrate the intertwining and conflicting interests of the South Asian nations, whether or not with a shared border, and the consequent impact of the same on the functioning of SAARC.
Bangladesh expressed its strong protest against Pakistan’s reaction to the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader Mir Quasem Ali on September 3.
Ali, a prominent member of the pro-Pakistani militia during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, was found guilty of torture and mass murders. Bangladeshi accounts say that the Pakistani army and its supporters in JeI had killed about three million people, though the number varies in other accounts.
Pakistan termed the trial as a ‘flawed judicial process’.
“The act of suppressing the Opposition through flawed trials is completely against the spirit of democracy,” Nafees Zakaria, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesman told the international media.
Quick to retort, Bangladesh called Pakistan’s acting high commissioner in Dhaka, Samina Mehtab, and handed over a strongly-worded note verbale.
“By repeatedly taking the side of those Bangladesh nationals who are convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, Pakistan has once again acknowledged its direct involvement and complicity with the mass atrocity crimes committed during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971,” read the communiqué.
The trial of Islamist leaders who took a violently pro-Pakistani stance in the 1971 war is going on for a while now—and the two countries have sparred all along.
In a different setting, the historical friction between the two nations had taken the turn of a very contemporary fight after the terror attack in Dhaka in July this year.
During the Muslim holy month of Ramzan, gunmen had entered a chic restaurant in the city’s diplomatic enclave on July 2 and killed 21 hostages and two police officers—before the Bangladesh security forces raided the restaurant and ended the standoff. Four terrorists were killed and one was captured alive.
Those killed were from around the globe, including one Indian, nine Italians, seven Japanese, one American and two local Bangladeshis.
Amid talks of the ISIS connection, while Bangladesh blamed the home-grown Islamist terrorists belonging to JeI group for the worst-ever terror attack in the country’s history, it also talked about the radical group’s connection with Pakistan’s spy agency ISI.
“They (Pakistani establishment) are openly supporting war criminals. So, politically they are with Jamaat-e-Islami, politically they are with the militants. So, that is a sad thing in the regional politics,” said Bangladesh Information Minister Hasan-Ul-Haq Inu a day after the attack.
“And recently few diplomats, who were working undercover at the Pakistan Embassy, were thrown out of the country because they were involved in armed networks,” he added.
The issue in his later statement relates to the two Islamic countries expelling each other’s diplomats in a tit for tat fashion in late 2015.
Following the Dhaka attack and the continuing strained relations, the home minister of Bangladesh ‘skipped’ the SAARC Home Ministers Conference held on August 3 and 4 in Islamabad.
This was followed by the finance minister of the country too opting to ‘skip’ SAARC finance ministers meeting in Islamabad on August 25, citing ‘domestic compulsion’.
On the other hand, and even before these latest snubs by Bangladesh, countless experts on Pakistani news channels have dubbed the former, a part of Pakistan for the first 24 years of the latter’s existence, as a colony of India. The view reflects the growing relationship between India and Bangladesh ever since the Sheikh Hasina government has come back in 2010.
That described the current relationship between two SAARC members who were once the same country. Today, leave aside a common goal, they don’t even share a border!
An equally telling example of churning with SAARC relates to two nations that do share borders—India and Nepal.
India’s Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi had the Nepalese lawmakers, and the people of Nepal, eat out of his hands during his rockstar-like visit in August 2014 to the Himalayan nation, and his address to Parliament.
“We have not come here to interfere with your internal matters, but we want to help you develop,” Modi said to his hosts.
His popularity hit the stratosphere when he said that India was open to accepting a revised version of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed by the two countries in 1950: “Kathmandu had only to bring forth the amendments and New Delhi would sign on the dotted line since it implicitly trusted Nepal“.
At that time, Nepal was busy framing a new Constitution, which was to take into consideration the concerns of all communities of the nation.
The coming together of all parties for Modi’s speech and the surplus warmth towards the visiting leader suggested an era of good times for the two nations.
The bond of warmth got a shot in the arm after India reacted faster than all to provide expertise and relief material within a matter of hours after a massive earthquake hit Nepal in April-May 2015.
At that time the only sour note seemed to be local Nepalese’s anger towards a section of the Indian media for being patronizing and meddlesome during the rescue operations.
Problems started taking a serious nature after the adoption of a new Constitution by the parliament, followed by a 16-point agreement between the Government and the opposition, which spelled out the roadmap for the new Constitution.
There was an instant and violent rejection of the new Constitution by the various Madhesi (an ethnic group living in the Nepalese south) parties and Janjatis (essentially tribals) because of, what they called, non-representation of their aspirations.
At the same time, India felt that the outcome was contrary to Mr. Modi’s advice for a consensus-driven rather than a numbers-determined approach towards finalisation of the Constitution.
Nepal, on the other hand, viewed India’s reaction to the promulgation of its new Constitution, and a hurried visit by India’s foreign secretary, as a brazen attempt by India to meddle in Nepal’s internal matters.
The new Constitution was formally adopted in September 2015.
The Madheshi groups responded by blockading the border points between India and Nepal. Kathmandu saw it as Indian handiwork and accused its southern neighbour of deliberately worsening the embargo by not allowing vehicles to pass through even those check-points where no protests were held—a charge that was quickly, and predictably, denied by the Indian government.
A four-month border blockade by the Madhesis ended only after amendments to the constitution that sought to address their concerns about ‘rightful’ representation in Nepalese political framework were made.
India welcomed the amendments. It remains to be seen what kind of welcome Modi gets on his next Nepal visit, whenever that happens.
Is there any greater ‘interference in internal affairs’, whether real or perceived, than interference in matters related to judiciary or constitution of one nation by another—as highlighted by the squabbling SAARC members in the two examples?
In an atmosphere of such mistrust and misgivings, it is barely surprising that 95% of trade of SAARC nations is with non-SAARC nations. The corresponding figure, for example, for the Southeast Asian nations within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region is about 25%.
Note: This piece was written prior to a deadly terror attack on an Indian military facility on September 18, which killed 17 Indian army personnel. All the four killed terrorists belonged to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group.
To be continued…