Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to attend the SAARC summit, which was to be held in Islamabad from 9-10 November, has given a severe, possibly a fatal blow, to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This pessimistic prognosis is based on two fundamental factors. Firstly, India’s refusal to attend the SAARC summit has demolished the argument of Indophiles in Pakistan that economic and commercial cooperation should be totally delinked from political and security issues. It has clearly demonstrated for the benefit of even those in Pakistan, who are not sufficiently well versed in economic analysis, that when it comes to a crunch, political and security compulsions will always trump the economic and commercial considerations. Further, economic and commercial issues have undeniable political and security implications. Secondly, it has driven home India’s pursuit of hegemonic designs in South Asia and its determination to dictate to the member states of the region and control the substance and direction of the SAARC process. The postponement of the SAARC summit in Islamabad primarily because of India’s refusal to attend it has, therefore, put a huge question mark on the future prospects of SAARC, especially as far as Pakistan is concerned.

India used the Uri attack on 18 September as the pretext for dropping out of the planned SAARC summit in Islamabad. The spokesman of the Indian External Affairs Ministry (EAM) tweeted on 27 November, “Regional cooperation and terror don’t go together. India pulls out of SAARC summit in Islamabad.” In a separate statement, the Indian EAM pointed out, “India has conveyed to current SAARC Chair Nepal that increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in the region and growing interference in the internal affairs of Member States by one county have created an environment that is not conducive to the successful holding of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 2016.” The Summit was formally put off on 30 September after Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka also conveyed their inability to attend it.

Several points regarding the postponement of the SAARC summit deserve attention. To begin with, India acted with indecent haste and without proper investigation in blaming elements from Pakistan for the Uri attack. The attack conceivably could have been the work of Kashmiris from IOK reacting to the Indian reign of terror which had caused the death of over 100 Kashmiris besides injuring thousands others since the martyrdom of Burhan Wani on 8 July. Secondly, New Delhi should have accepted Pakistan’s offer to investigate the matter and shared the relevant information and evidence with Islamabad for this purpose. The fact that it chose instead to indulge in blame game betrays its mala fides. Thirdly, in any case the Uri attack in IOK, which is recognized as a disputed territory by the UN, cannot be construed as “interference in the internal affairs” of India. Fourthly, the reality is that the Kashmiris in IOK are engaged in a liberation struggle to get rid of the Indian military occupation and exercise their right of self-determination as enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions. Their liberation struggle cannot be termed as “terrorism”. In fact, it is India which is engaged in state terrorism to crush the freedom struggle of the Kashmiri struggle.

Fifthly, India itself has a lot to explain as it has been engaged in sponsoring and supporting acts of terrorism in Pakistan as conclusively proven by the arrest in Balochistan of an Indian RAW agent and a serving officer of the Indian navy, Kulbhushan Yadav, on charges of involvement in terrorism. Finally, India’s criticism of Pakistan for the Uri attack, its cross-LOC shelling, and its decision to pull out of the 19th SAARC summit once again reflect the muscular style of foreign policy adopted by the Narendra Modi government. This is not entirely surprising considering Modi’s past record of the large scale massacre of the Muslims of Gujrat, his anti-Pakistan rhetoric during the election campaign, and his lifelong commitment to Hindutva and such extremist organisations as RSS.

Unfortunately, the handling of the SAARC summit affair by the Pakistan Foreign has left a lot to be desired. By following a reactive policy in the face of the Indian decision to pull out of the SAARC summit and waiting for similar decisions by four other member states, it allowed the emergence of an impression of Pakistan’s isolation in the region. One wonders what made our government wait for the announcements by four other member states besides India of their refusal to attend the SAARC summit before announcing it postponement. It would have been much better if our Foreign Office had acted proactively and announced the postponement of the summit immediately after India dropped out putting the onus for the postponement entirely on New Delhi. Our Foreign Office statement of 30 September on the subject of postponement also conveyed the impression as if cooperation under the umbrella of SAARC was a favour to be granted by India rather than an exercise in mutually beneficial regional cooperation. We must remember instead that it is India that would lose more than anybody else if the SAARC process is derailed because of India’s frequent use of its clout in the region to dictate to other member states.

It is a pity that neither our Foreign Office nor other Ministries/Departments of the Government of Pakistan appear to fully understand the implications of SAARC for Pakistan’s long-term security and economic well-being. I have discussed this issue at some length in chapter 5 entitled “Regionalism and Pakistan” in my book “Pakistan and a World in Disorder—A Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century” published by Palgrave Macmillan from New York in June 2016. In short, SAARC lacks the necessary pre-requisites for the success of a regional cooperation organization including community of interests, economic complementarities, cultural affinities, absence of serious disputes, and non-existence of hegemonic designs among the member states. SAARC lacks all of these pre-requisites. Geographical proximity alone cannot overcome the negative effects of the absence of the pre-requisites mentioned earlier. It is not surprising, therefore, that SAARC has had a chequered history with little worthwhile progress to show in terms of promoting regional cooperation in various fields. The future of SAARC, as the current experience clearly shows, is not likely to be much different. Secondly, the inevitable result of the increased regional cooperation in various fields is the domination of the most powerful state in the region over the rest of the member states economically, politically and in the sphere of security since economic issues are closely linked with political and security matters. This is particularly so if regional cooperation reaches the stage of an Economic Union. As India’s current behavior proves, it is already using its clout within SAARC for the realization of its hegemonic designs in the region and for dictating to other member states including Pakistan.

Time has come for our government to analyze clearly the pros and cons of SAARC for Pakistan and to adopt our course of action in dealing with SAARC accordingly. India’s refusal to attend the 19th Summit has provided us with a welcome opportunity to declare our long-term approach towards SAARC based on the conclusions of the proposed analysis. Among other things, we must state categorically that while we would be prepared to participate in the SAARC process for sectoral economic and commercial cooperation on mutually beneficial basis, we would not be willing to pursue such goals as a South Asian Economic Union as suggested by me in an earlier article entitled “Pakistan’s contradictory external policies” (the Nation, 30 August, 2016).