REGIONAL COOPERATION IN SOUTH ASIA: A DREAM OR REALITY?

Kanishkh Kanodia

[SAARC leaders take part in a video conference on March 15. 
Source: Screenshot from the Ministry of External Affairs, India,  YouTube Channel]

On March 15th, citizens of eight South Asian nations witnessed a historic spectacle: their leaders came together through a virtual conference to formulate a regional strategy in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Initiated by the Prime Minister of India, this conference by SAARC—the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation—came at a time when the collective number of cases in the subcontinent had barely reached 300. Following the conference, the nations set up a collective SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which can be utilized by any member-nation to attain resources for containing the spread. The proactive and  coordinated response of the SAARC was lauded by nations around the world, including the U.S. and Russia. However, only an idealist would be misled by this superficial display of solidarity. Cooperation in a subcontinent that remains one of the world’s most disconnected and militarized regions can only be temporary. At best, this cooperation will last until the pandemic ends, but perhaps not even until then.

The last time SAARC nations came together on a common political forum was in 2014. The following summit, scheduled to take place in Islamabad, was boycotted by India over Pakistan’s reported involvement in the 2016 Uri terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. The indefinite postponement of the summit since then has been viewed as India’s way of “sidelining Pakistan from its allies,” according to Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English daily. Meanwhile, India remains firm on its stance against supporting any meeting in Pakistan due to its alleged support of terrorist activities. The animosity and balance-of-power politics between these two neighbors lie at the heart of this divided subcontinent.

Relations between the two nations have only deteriorated in the months leading up to this video conference. In August 2019, a Hindu-nationalist government led by Modi unilaterally stripped the autonomy of India’s only Muslim majority province, Jammu & Kashmir, a region referred to as “India-Occupied Kashmir” in Pakistani media. Following the ordinance, India imposed a draconian lockdown and internet blockade in Kashmir, one that has been in effect for 250 days at this time of writing. In fact, during the March 15 video conference, Pakistan raised the issue of lifting the lockdown in Kashmir to ensure an effective treatment of the coronavirus. India termed Pakistan’s plea as a “politicization of a humanitarian issue.” Furthermore, in December, India passed the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act that blatantly targets Muslims by granting fast-track citizenship only to non-Muslims. The justificatory basis of that bill is to protect the persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who flee to India from an oppressive Muslim-majoritarian nation. These persistent accusations of human rights violations involving religious minorities on each side of the border has led to the realignment of every issue along the lines of a Hindu-Muslim conflict, intensifying this rivalry. Not only has this opened up past wounds from the Partition-era, but it has also fanned the religious sentiments of the people, heightening suspicion and hatred. 

Such a climate of distrust has only complicated demands for a regional solution to the spread of the coronavirus. Pakistan recently raised the issue of the modalities of using the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund. While Pakistan has called for the Secretary-General of SAARC to control the dispersion of the Fundfor transparency’s sake, India has requested that the Fund be independent of SAARC Secretariat’s jurisdiction over fears that Pakistan will block its activities and usage. Pakistan even boycotted the latest SAARC trade video conference on April 8th out of its unwillingness to attend a conference being headed by India and not the SAARC Secretariat. 

Thus, even amidst an acute epidemic, it seems unlikely that either nation will give up its determination to impede the other from rising to hegemony on the subcontinent. As mentioned earlier, by coordinating a collaborative response to COVID-19, India aims to assert its dominance in the region; Pakistan, on the other hand, is barring any such measure, even if that comes at the cost of lives. The tension and political power play between two nuclear-armed powers continues to stall any prospect of cooperation and regional solution to the pandemic not only for India and Pakistan, but also for the six other South Asian nations. It is unlikely that either nation will redress its past grievances and keep nationalist rhetoric in check to contain the coronavirus, no matter how destructive it could become.

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