India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism got a boost on Wednesday with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan also deciding to skip the Saarc Summit in Islamabad in November, setting the stage for the postponement of the meet.
In a synchronised effort, India and the three other countries informed the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation’s (Saarc) secretariat on Tuesday their leaders would be unable to attend the summit for almost similar reasons.
For India, this marked a victory as half of the grouping’s eight members singled out cross-border terror and interference in the internal affairs of members by “one country” – a clear reference to Pakistan.
The move by the four countries means the summit cannot go ahead as the Saarc Charter states all decisions must be made by unanimity. The absence of even one member state leads to the automatic postponement or cancellation of a summit, said Nepal’s former foreign secretary Madhuraman Acharya.
Nepal’s acting foreign secretary Jhabindra Aryal told Hindustan Times his ministry had received the letters from four member states about their inability to join the summit. A foreign ministry statement said the development was taken “seriously” and Nepal “strongly urges that a conducive environment be created for the (summit) soon by ensuring the participation of all member states”.
A senior Nepalese official said Nepal, as the Saarc chair, did not want the summit to be cancelled and instead wanted member states to find a remedy to regional tensions. “It is also the responsibility of Pakistan to reach out to the member states and make (an effort) to hold the summit,” said the official who didn’t want to be named.
If Pakistan formally announces the cancellation of the summit, the next meet will be held in Sri Lanka according to precedent and Saarc tradition, sources said.
Bangladesh conveyed its decision to current Saarc chair Nepal in a letter that said: “The growing interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh by one country has created an environment which is not conducive to the successful hosting of the 19th Saarc Summit in Islamabad in November 2016.
Dhaka has repeatedly complained about Islamabad’s criticism of the trial and conviction of hardliners involved in war crimes during the country’s war of liberation in 1971.
Afghanistan, in its communication, said: “Due to increased level of violence and fighting as a result of imposed terrorism on Afghanistan, (President) Ashraf Ghani with his responsibilities as the Commander-in-Chief will be fully engaged, and will not be able to attend the Summit.”
Bhutan referred to the “recent escalation of terrorism in the region” and said this has “seriously compromised the environment for the successful holding” of the summit in Islamabad. Bhutan said it also shared concerns of some member states on the “deterioration of regional peace” because of terror.
In a bid to increase pressure on Pakistan, Indian officials said the Saarc Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s headquarter should be shifted from Islamabad. They suggested it could be based anywhere in the region but not Pakistan, where entry for Indians is not easy.
“It is important to focus on pushing trade in the region as this will hugely benefit all the countries involved but whether or not the headquarter should be shifted is at present just speculation,” Naushad Forbes, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, told Hindustan Times.
The Maldives and Sri Lanka were silent on the developments. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Nepal counterpart Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” are expected to visit India soon for the BIMSTEC Summit.
India-Pakistan ties nosedived after the terror attack on an army camp in Uri that killed 18 soldiers. India, which blamed Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed for the strike, had resorted to several non-military measures to counter Pakistan’s use of terror as a state policy, including reviewing the Indus Waters Treaty.
India and the three other Saarc states have clearly linked regional cooperation to an atmosphere free of terror – meaning Pakistan should stop sponsoring terrorism that is destabilising the region and stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
India’s announcement about skipping the Saarc summit suggested that it wants to extend the issue of an “atmosphere free of terror” from bilateral ties to the entire South Asian region.
New Delhi will also seek help from other members of the BIMSTEC grouping – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka – on terror. The leaders of the grouping will meet in Goa in October.
(With inputs from Mahua Venkatesh)