Current General Studies Magazine: "India and SAARC : So Far and Way Beyond" October 2016

Current General Studies Magazine (October 2016)

General Studies - II "International Relations Based Article" (India and SAARC : So Far and Way Beyond)

The idea of co-operation in South Asia, technically speaking, is older that the Indian Republic. It was first discussed in the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi on April 1947 followed by the Baguio Conference in the Philippines on May 1950 and the Colombo Powers Conference held in Sri Lanka in April 1954. After that there was a big lull for over two decades, possibly due to the effects of cold war and the strained Indo-Pak relations resulting in two wars. The trust deficit among the countries in the region could not make them think seriously on the issue. While there was a fear among the other six nations about the use of such organisation by India in its favour and the possibility of India behaving in typical big brotherly attitude to browbeat them, India’s apprehension was that such an organisation might be used by her smaller neighbours to extract undue concessions by expressing their fear of being bullied by India. Pakistan was also sceptical about formation of such an organisation which might be used by India to enhance her propaganda against Pakistan.

In the ending years of 70s, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka agreed, in principle, upon the creation of a trade bloc and to provide a platform for the peoples of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship, trust and understanding. President Ziaur Rahman took initiative by formally writing to his counterparts in the region giving his vision for the region and compelling arguments for the need of such a regional organisation. King Birendra of Nepal also urged for closer regional cooperation among South Asian countries in sharing river waters. After the USSR's intervention in Afghanistan resulting in rapid deterioration of South Asian security situation the efforts to establish such an organisation in the region gained momentum in 1979. Responding to Rahman and Birendra's convention, the officials of the foreign ministries of the seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981. The Bangladeshi proposal was promptly endorsed by Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives but India and Pakistan were sceptical initially. However, after hectic diplomatic consultations between South Asian foreign ministers, it was agreed that Bangladesh would prepare the draft of a working paper for discussion among the foreign secretaries of South Asian countries. In 1983, the international conference held by Indian Minister of External Affairs P.V. Narasimha Rao in New Delhi, the foreign ministers of the inner seven countries adopted the Declaration on South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and formally launched the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) initially in five agreed areas of cooperation namely, Agriculture; Rural Development; Telecommunications; Meteorology; and Health and Population Activities.

Finally, SAARC charter was adopted during the inaugural summit of SAARC held in Dhaka on 8th December, 1985 the guiding principles of which were:

1. 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.
2. Such cooperation shall not be a substitute for bilateral and multilateral cooperation but shall complement them.
3. Such cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations”

The summit level meeting are held annually on rotational basis in alphabetical order. Thus, after being hosted by Nepal last year, this year’s summit was scheduled to be held in Pakistan. It has a permanent Secretariat in Kathmandu, a Secretary General on rotational basis, a Council of Ministers comprising the Foreign ministers of the member countries and meeting twice a year, , a Standing Committee comprising the foreign Ministers of the member countries for monitoring and coordination of various projects undertaken by the organisation and technical and action committees as and when required. Each member country deputes one officer called director based at the secretariat in Kathmandu. Finances for running the organisation are from the voluntary contributions from the member states. Two of the most important features of SAARC are that all decisions are to be taken by consensus and that bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deleberations.

In 2005, Afghanistan began negotiating their accession to SAARC and formally applied for membership on the same year. The issue of Afghanistan joining SAARC generated a great deal of debate in each member state, including concerns about the definition of South Asian identity because Afghanistan is a Central Asian country.

The SAARC member states imposed a stipulation for Afghanistan to hold a general election; the non-partisan elections were held in late 2005. Despite initial reluctance and internal debates, Afghanistan joined SAARC as its eighth member state in April 2007.


States with observer status include Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and the United States. During the last summit in Kathmandu, at the behest of China, Pakistan proposed to upgrade the former’s status to full member but it was turned down after Indian objection.

On 2 August 2006, the foreign ministers of the SAARC countries agreed in principle to grant observer status to three applicants; the US and South Korea (both made requests in April 2006), as well as the European Union (requested in July 2006). On 4 March 2007, Iran requested observer status, followed shortly by Mauritius.

Potential future members

Myanmar has expressed interest in upgrading its status from an observer to a full member of SAARC. Russia has applied for observer status membership of SAARC. Turkey applied for observer status membership of SAARC in 2012 .

SAARC’s achievements

1. SAFTA SAFTA was envisaged primarily as the first step towards the transition to a Customs Union, Common Market and Economic Union. The SAFTA Agreement was signed on 6 January 2004 during Twelfth SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan. The Agreement entered into force on 1 January 2006, and the Trade Liberalisation Programme commenced from 1 July 2006. Under this agreement, SAARC members were to bring their duties down to 20 per cent by 2009. Following the Agreement coming into force the SAFTA Ministerial Council (SMC) has been established comprising the Commerce Ministers of the Member States. In 2012 the SAARC exports increased substantially to US$354.6 billion from US$206.7 billion in 2009. Imports too increased from US$330 billion to US$602 billion over the same period. But the intra-SAARC trade amounts to just a little over 1% of SAARC's GDP. In contrast, in ASEAN (which is actually smaller than SAARC in terms of size of economy) the intra-bloc trade stands at 10% of its GDP .However, SAFTA is yet to be implemented.

2. SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme was launched in 1992. The leaders at the Fourth Summit (Islamabad, 29–31 December 1988), while realising the importance of having people to people contacts, among the peoples of SAARC countries, decided that certain categories of dignitaries should be entitled to a Special Travel document, which would exempt them from visas within the region. As directed by the Summit, the Council of Ministers regularly kept under review the list of entitled categories. Currently the list included 24 categories of entitled persons, which include Dignitaries, Judges of higher courts, Parliamentarians, Senior Officials, Businessmen, Journalists, Sportsmen etc. The Visa Stickers are issued by the respective Member States to the entitled categories of that particular country. The validity of the Visa Sticker is generally for one year. The implementation is reviewed regularly by the Immigration Authorities of SAARC Member States.

3. South Asian University On initiative of India, a Concept Paper for SAU was submitted to the SAARC Governments to elicit their views. The idea of a South Asian University found favour in all SAARC Member States and an inter-ministerial Agreement for Establishment of South Asian University was signed on 04 April 2007, during the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi. SAARC Secretariat approved the concept of establishing SAU in the 16th SAARC Summit held in Thimpu in 2010. Accordingly, the South Asian University opened its door to students in August 2010.

Currently, the University offers Doctoral and Post Graduate programs in seven areas: Applied Mathematics, Biotechnology, Computer Science, Development Economics, International Relations, Law and Sociology. The university is likely to shift soon to its permanent campus in Delhi.

The capital cost of establishing the SAU is being provided by the Indian government, while all SAARC member countries share the operational costs in proportions that are mutually agreed upon. Later, the University would also raise money from international financial institutions, educational foundations and donors.

Where SAARC failed

SAARC almost failed to accomplish its ambitious objectives during the last 25 years due to the political difference, conflicts and poor economic state of the member countries. Most of the programs and achievements exist only in official documents. During the Bangladesh cyclone (1991), Pakistan earth quack (2005) and flood in Pakistan (2010), Food Security Reserve of SAARC could not be used to satisfy the demands of the affected people.

The intra-regional trade of SAARC amounted to $40.5 billion in 2011, which constitutes just 5% of member countries’ trade, figure too negligible as compared with volume of trilateral trade between member-countries of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, (the US, Canada and Mexico) which hit $1 trillion in 2011.

While different regions of the world have progressed even to monetary union, SAARC has failed to even come up with a free trade agreement. Even in the Kathmandu Summit 2014, there were three connectivity agreements on road, rail and energy, to be endorsed by the eight SAARC leaders. Only one of these - on energy - has been signed.

Reasons for failure

Weak Cultural Identities - Pakistan wants to assert itself as Islamic State and calls India a Hindu State. The debates regarding identity are similarly going on in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The pursuit of maintaining distinct cultural identity by every country has not allowed the region to come together. Rivalry between India and Pakistan, the two largest members of SAARC, has cast its shadow on SAARC. This is evident in recent boycott of the forthcoming summit to be held in Islamabad by five out of the eight members though Pakistan’s track record as terrorist state responsible for this.

The region still faces many unresolved border and maritime issues. These unresolved borders have led to problems of Terrorism, Refugee Crisis, Smuggling, Narco-Trade. The unresolved issues continue to restrict cooperative relations.

SAARC Charter Article X(2) of the SAARC Charter mandates that decisions, at all levels in SAARC, are only of multilateral issues, and only those issues are for inclusion in the agenda in a SAARC summit meeting on the basis of unanimity. The SAARC platform thus cannot be used to resolve bilateral issues; this has undermined the scope and potential of SAARC.

Suggestions for the future

India has already taken the leadership on the agreements for bettering intra-regional connectivity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan for a SAARC satellite that can launch the space exploration dreams for all countries of the region is a powerful idea.

India’s internal politics has sometimes played a negative role to India’s aspirations vis-à-vis SAARC. The Central Government’s policy on Tamil Issue in Sri Lanka has not been accepted by the Tamil Nadu Government. India has to forcefully articulate South Asian Vision so as to avoid these internal domestic disruptions. The objectives and targets of SAFTA should be fulfilled.

India’s bilateral relations with the SAARC members Afghanistan

India’s relations with Afghanistan were cordial and without any irritants during the 10-year tenure of former President Karzai (2004-2014). As part of its contribution towards stabilization of Afghanistan, India committed over $ 2 billion assistance to Afghanistan for the development of its infrastructure, strengthening of the institutions of democracy, capacity building including training of Afghan armed forces. Afghanistan is the only country in the region with which India has entered into a strategic partnership agreement (4th October, 2011); India has supplied three multi-role Helicopters MI-35 which the Afghans have put to effective use in combating terrorists.

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, assumed charge as the new President of Afghanistan, in September 2014. Initially he created an impression that India figured relatively low in the list of his foreign policy priorities. His visit to India (April 28-29, 2015) came several months after assumption of charge; in between he visited two other countries in the region namely China and Pakistan, besides UK and Saudi Arabia. During his visit to India, the Afghan President made attempts to correct the impression. In the Joint Statement of 28th April, 2015, the Afghan President reiterated "Afghanistan's perspective on the foundational nature of Afghanistan's ties with India, and the fact that India figured in four of the five 'circles' of Afghanistan's foreign policy priorities.”

PM Modi visited Kabul in December last year when he inaugurated the new Afghanistan Parliament building built with India’s assistance and also addressed the Parliamentarians of Afghanistan. He also inaugurated Selma Dam built with Indian assistance. PM Modi reiterated " India’s commitment to extend all possible support to the efforts of the Afghan people in building a peaceful, stable, prosperous, inclusive and democratic country. Ghani again paid a visit to India recently during which an aid to the tune of US$ I billion from India to Afghanistan was announced .


India’s relations with Bangladesh had, by and large, been cordial and friendly except for few years of the rule of Bangladesh Nationalist party led by general Zia-ul-Haq and his widow Khaleda Zia. As India liberated the erstwhile East Pakistan to form a new nation of Bangladesh, the governments of Sheikh Mujib and his daughter Hasina Wajeb had extremely good relations with their western neighbour. The four unresolved major issues between the two countries were 1) demarcation of boundary including the problem of enclaves, 2) sharing of water of Ganga/Hugli and Teesta rivers and 3) terrorist attacks from Bangladesh border. The boundary accord was waiting just the implementation.

At the time of Modi’s visit to Dhaka, the documents were exchanged signalling the implementation of the Treaty. Accordingly, India has surrendered 111 enclaves to Bangladesh and, in turn, received 77 thus ending decades long complex situation.

The water sharing dispute due to the construction of farakka barrage by India had been solved amicably. On Teesta waters, attempts are under way to convince the State government of Bengal, the last hurdle in implementation.

Bangladesh’ stern action on the terrorist/jihadi groups has convincingly reduced the threat of terrorist attack from our eastern border thus reaffirming the credentials and intentions of the Awami League government.

The issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh still remains and needs a consensus of political parties in India as some of them perceive these as potential vote bank.

From 2011 to 2014, India had extended assistance to Bangladesh to the tune of US$ one million and Bangladesh was expecting the same amount. However, PM Modi surprised the eastern neighbour by announcing a fresh assistance of US$ 2 billion to be used as soft loan and grants for developmental projects in Bangladesh.


Our relations with this landlocked tiny hilly nation have always been exemplary. In 1949, a treaty signed by the two countries gave India an advantageous role of "guide” of Bhutan’s foreign policy and defence matters. After the protests from Bhutan about continuation of a "guide” for foreign and defence matters of a sovereign nation, the treaty was partially modified in 2007 to remove this role. Nevertheless Bhutan’s policies are by and large pegged with Indian policy. Bhutan is dependent on India for its external trade as it is a land-locked nation. It is also the recipient of highest aid/loan from India for its developmental projects. During the last fiscal year, Bhutan received aid of INR 61.61 billion from India-45Bn marked as assistance for Bhutan’s 11th five year plan, 4 billion for the pending projects and 5 billion as economic stimulus package. Three huge hydroelectric power projects have been completed and three more are underway. India buys back the surplus power from Bhutan.


India’s relations with this garland of tiny islands had been quite old. Geographically this nation of more than 200 islands is an extension of our union territory Lakshadiv. Politically our relations with this country had always been friendly.

In December, 1988, India foiled a coup attempt in Male’ a gorilla outfit from Sri Lanka. In 2008, India welcomed the democratic elections in Maldives. However, relations deteriorated when President Nasheed resigned and took shelter in Indian Embassy. Later, he was defeated in the elections in November 2013.During the first two months of the regime of the new President Abdulla Yameen, the bilateral relations took a nose dive when the Maldivian government terminated the contract of Indian company GMAR to build Male’ Airport on the allegations of irregularity. However, soon Yameen realised his folly and visited India in January 2014 to reassure his bigger partner of friendly relations. He also participated in the swearing in ceremony of PM Modi. Recently, he paid a state visit to India in April, 2016 to reassure India of Maldives’ friendly relations.

India has extended a standing credit line of US$ 100 million to Maldives besides a new credit line of UD$40 millions. India has also built and gifted to Maldives a 200 bed hospital, faculty of Engineering & technology and a Hotel and tourism school, all much needed for this country heavily dependent on tourism.


Our relations with Nepal are unique in character. India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950,is the foundation of these special relations. Under the provisions of this Treaty, the Nepalese citizens have enjoyed unparalleled advantages in India, availing facilities and opportunities at par with the Indian citizens. The Treaty has allowed Nepal to overcome the disadvantages of being a land–locked country by giving Nepal unhindered trade route through Indian ports .However, a certain degree of stagnation in relations with Nepal had crept in resulting in demands from certain nationalist element s in Nepal demanding the revision of Treaty of 1950. Vested interests in Nepal have managed to block India- Nepal hydro-power cooperation, as a result of which Nepal remains net importer of electricity despite enormous hydro-power resources and the bordering States in India continue to bear the brunt of floods in Nepal. Moreover, the bitter transitional journey of Nepal from Monarchy to Anarchy and finally to democracy via Maoist insurgency has taken its toll on the bilateral relations. The opposition of the new constitution by the madhesis and tharus resulted in a blockade of transportation of goods to Nepal at the border which gave rise to allegations that India was trying to browbeat Nepal to clinch a favourable role for madhesis in the new constitution..

The visit of Prime Minister Modi to Nepal in August 2014 was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in seventeen years. PM undertook this visit within less than three months of assuming charge. The visit was preceded by the meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, headed for the first time in twenty three years by the Foreign Ministers of two countries. PM Modi was the only foreigner extended the privilege of addressing Nepal’s Constituent Assembly and Legislature Parliament.

In response to the sensitivities of the Nepalese, it was agreed to "review, adjust and update the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950” so that "the revised Treaty should better reflect the current realities and aim to further consolidate and expand the multifaceted and deep rooted relationships in a forward looking manner. PM also assured the Nepal that India had no intention to interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs, and would like to cooperate with Nepal in bilateral and sub-regional formats. A US $1 billion soft line of credit for infrastructure development projects of Nepal’s priority was announced. The importance of power generation in Nepal for export to India for reducing Nepal’s trade deficit was also underlined.

The blockade was finally called off on 8th February, 2016 against the backdrop of announcement of Nepali PM’s visit to India and some amendments to the Constitution. The six-day long visit (19-24 February, 2016) - PM Oli's first overseas visit- was indeed useful in restoration of mutual trust. On his return to Kathmandu, PM Oli said he had tried to clear the "misconception” about the new Constitution of Nepal while India described the two amendments as "positive developments and hoped that other outstanding issues would also be addressed similarly in a constructive spirit.

The new Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Prachand recently paid a visit to India from September 15 to September 19. A leader with his new India-friendly attitude, Prachand had a more than satisfactory goodwill visit, which resulted in signing of three MOUs.


Our relations with Pakistan have generally been strained. The pivot of Pakistani foreign policy had become India-centric. After the independence, the nascent Pakistan quickly became member of SEATO and CENTO, the American initiative to counter USSR in the cold war era which further alienated Pakistan from the Non-aligned India. Pakistani Military’s direct or proxy rule on the country played a catalytic role in this process.

Three unsuccessful full-scale wars failed to make Pakistan realise the folly of their foreign policy. Having failed to invite world’s attention on the issue of Kashmir and to incite dissatisfaction and violence in the border states of India, Pakistan ignited, supported and actively harboured the separatist movements, first in Punjab and later in Kashmir. While unrest in Punjab had been successfully addressed by us, Pakistan keeps on sending terrorist elements trained on Pakistani soil by ISI and terrorist outfits to carry out the acts of sabotage and violence, so that it can always claim that these incidents are a natural reaction of the so called "suppression of voice of Kashmiris” by Indian government. However, undeterred by the Pakistani stance and its regular anti- India diatribe, India had taken, time and again, the initiative to involve Pakistan in constructive dialogue. Of late, the Modi Government’s pro-active approach of inviting all SAARC Nations’ heads of Governments, PM’s goodwill visit to Lahore etc. are few examples of this approach though, in the end, Pakistan has replied with terrorist attacks in Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri.

Economically also, our trade relations with Pakistan had not been as robust as expected from the two most populous nations of SAARC. The current total bilateral trade of around 4.5 Billion US$ (formal as well as informal) is heavily in favour of India. We have granted the Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan but it is yet to reciprocate. Ironically, a major chunk of the trade is informal and indirect meaning India and Pakistan buy most of each other’s products from a third country, mainly UAE, which heavily increases the purchase cost due to the transportation charges and middleman’s commission. So, UAE is prospering at the cost of industry in both countries. SAAFTA also could not break this barrier due to the trust deficit in Pakistan. We have met the fait accompli of living with a neighbour like Pakistan till it disintegrates due to its own policies. Now, with India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan having announced boycott of the impending Summit in Islamabad, Pakistan has been driven to the corner, at least in the region. The surgical strikes across the LOC by India had added a new dimension in the bilateral relations.

Sri Lanka

India’ relations with Sri Lank have often been influenced by the so-called Tamil issue. After the liquidation of the LTTE in 2009, India had adopted a multi- pronged approach towards Sri Lanka; this policy had several components: i) to impress upon the Sri Lankan Government to abide by its commitments towards Sri Lankan Tamils particularly meaningful devolution of powers and the implementation of the 13th Amendment in a time bound manner; ii) reiteration of assurances from time to time to Sri Lankan Tamils that it would make every effort to ensure that the 13th amendment was not diluted and the future for the community was marked by equality, justice and self-respect; iii) investment into the reconstruction of Northern Sri Lanka badly affected by prolonged civil war; iv) accommodate the demands of the Tamil leadership in India to the extent feasible but ultimately exercise the prerogative of the Centre in the formulation of foreign policy taking broader national interests into account rather than being pushed by narrow regional priorities; v) to monitoring carefully the Chinese overtures in Sri Lanka and check the latter’s drift towards China. vi) to address the fishermen’s issue. Unfortunately, the former President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse, despite assurances, did not deliver on his promises of devolution of power to Sri Lankan Tamil minority, while also playing the China card. His decidedly pro-China policy allowed China to capture significant strategic space in Sri Lanka. India’s vote in 2012 and 2013 against Sri Lanka on the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on the issue of violation of human rights by the Government of Sri Lanka during its war against LTTE, was obviously not to the liking of Sri Lankans ; India’s decision to abstain in 2014 was taken as less than consolation.

After the change of guards in Sri Lanka, four high level visits took place in quick succession between the two neighbours which the intentions of the leaderships of the two countries to reset their relations. In addition to the issues related to the devolution of powers to Sri Lankan Tamils through full implementation of 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, meaningful reconciliation in Sri Lanka, safety and security of fishermen, sensitivity to India’s security concerns, the new thrust has been added on promoting trade and commerce, maritime security, Ocean Economy etc. More importantly, there is a political will on both sides to make a new beginning and take their relations to newer heights.


We can say that this 31year old organisation called SAARC is unfortunately still tottering while most of its contemporaries are preparing for the marathon for development. There are problems in SAARC- problems created due to the difference of perspective among the members. But, like any set of problems, there is a solution to the challenges that that lies in the expression of will and determination among the members to forge ahead in cementing the regional bonding by avoiding clashes on minor issues and for this equal responsibility lies with each member.

(Source-Amb (Retd) J. K. TRIPATHI @

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