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How to Revive SAARC.

Lahore: As the world we live in continues to become more polarized and communal, multinational regional groupings stand out as an example of what can be achieved when nations cooperate. Sadly in our part of the world, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has fallen prey to the highly divisive social and political climate that is prevailing here. It is of the utmost necessity that SAARC is revived for the benefit of South Asia and the entire globe.

Last year I had written an article along similar lines but I'm afraid the optimism that I had then has been largely dissipated.

The Indian Subcontinent today is perhaps more divided and belligerent than it has been for several centuries. The openly prejudiced right wing government in India is using emotionalism as a central component of statecraft. Meanwhile, the political instability in Pakistan coupled with the effects of decades of adventurism by state- and non-state actors has created a toxic atmosphere in the region. The conflict along the Line of Control in February gave us a brief but bitter taste of war and it can be agreed that for once the Government of Pakistan showed great maturity in how the crisis was handled - especially in that an all-out war was avoided. Just a few months later the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor shows that despite our political and ideological differences peace can be achieved and people-to-people contacts revitalized.

It would be ideal if Pakistan could volunteer to hold the next South Asian Festival and facilitate visa-free entry for all SAARC citizens wishing to attend

The Indian decision to boycott the last SAARC Summit that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016 was a rash, immature and damaging move. By doing so India undermined the entire organization. In a way, the Indian side declared that they do not believe in regional dialogue if it involves Pakistan. Furthermore by promoting the alternative South Asian grouping, The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which excludes Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives but includes all of the other SAARC members plus Thailand and Myanmar, they have made it clear that they do not want to see Pakistan having good relations with the smaller South Asian countries. Due to India's bellicose attitude Pakistan has not even been allowed to open an embassy in Thimphu, Bhutan. In fact, Thimphu is now the only South Asian capital which lacks a Pakistani diplomatic mission.

Despite all the negativity there is a way forward - and that lies in SAARC itself.

Map of the SAARC countries

Regardless of the tensions, SAARC has survived and neither India nor Pakistan can afford to leave the organization. Pakistan is India's gateway to the West and North and its only means of geographical access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), if implemented, will lead to economic prosperity for the entire Subcontinent.

Since 2013 Pakistan is no longer an insurgency-plagued land and is in a position to concentrate on trade and foreign relations. The upcoming SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Colombo will be a prime opportunity for India and Pakistan to meet and work towards reestablishing commercial and cultural ties.

Politics aside, South Asia is a vibrant part of the world. With its huge, young population, the majority of whom for the first time are now receiving an education, South Asia is in a position to shape the future of the global economy. Political bickering and communal mindsets will only disadvantage the people of Pakistan and India.

Heads of State and their spouses at the first SAARC Summit

The upcoming SAARC Summit should focus on SAFTA. Even if India and Pakistan are reluctant to further economic ties bilaterally at this time, they must at least agree upon a framework for future implementation. Pakistan can also take advantage of the summit and enhance trade relations with its Indian Ocean Rim neighbors Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Cultural ties are what bind South Asia. Despite having diverse climates, languages and beliefs South Asians in general share very similar cultural values and enjoy the same forms of entertainment and recreation. Stronger cultural ties will result in regional integration in spite of political differences based on security concerns and ideological paradigms. Culture and trade together will result in a humanistic symbiosis that will lead to peace and prosperity.

SAARC is almost always viewed in the prism of India-Pakistan relations but SAARC is actually just as important for Nepal or the Maldives as it is for India and Pakistan. In fact it is these smaller nations that have the most to benefit from regional integration. Pakistan and India have to take this into consideration: that SAARC is not just an Indo-Pak one-upmanship club. The lives of millions of people in the smaller member states can be improved if the two big brothers decide to put their differences aside and concentrate on helping their younger siblings. This may sound like the plot of a Bollywood drama but that essentially is the definition of SAARC - a large, quarrelsome South Asian family.

When the then leaders of South Asia, Presidents Zia-ul-Haq, Jayawardene, Ershad and Maumoon Gayoom, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Himalayan monarchs Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and Jigme Singye Wangchuck first met in Dhaka in 1985, they came together with dreams of peace and integration. When India and its close allies boycotted the Islamabad Summit in 2016 they shattered that dream.

The ball is now in India's court. As the largest member, India must demonstrate maturity and magnanimity.

Alongside the SAARC Summits, there used to be another SAARC event called the South Asian Festival. This would take place either alongside the SAARC Summit or at a different time and venue and would promote cultural ties. It would be ideal if Pakistan could volunteer to hold the next South Asian Festival and invite all South Asian peoples to the festival by facilitating visa-free entry for all SAARC citizens wishing to attend. The attendance of heads of state would not be necessary, although some government representation would be needed - and the South Asian Festival will be an event for people to see the beauty and diversity of SAARC and promote tourism within South Asia. This would be a step in the right direction. India and Pakistan should thus turn a new leaf and make South Asia a better place for themselves and their other South Asian siblings
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jan 25, 2020
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