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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Baby SAARC turns 'Major'
By Tahir Mahmood

Tahir MahoodSAARC, a seven-nation body called the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, was born at Dhaka on 8 December 1985. Its birth was preceded by five years of pre-natal exercises going on for over five years since the idea was mooted at Colombo in May 1980. Formed as a 'regional arrangement or agency' in terms of the United Nations' Charter of 1945, SAARC has since been holding summits and adopting conventions and agreements of all sorts. In December 2003 SAARC completed eighteen years of its life—thus becoming 'major' in terms of the British-Indian Majority Act of 1878 still in force in the territories of its major constituents. Within the next fortnight an anxious world has witnessed the signs of its maturity and discernment in the form of what has happened at its 12th summit held in Islamabad, and has indeed had a sigh of relief. 

Of the twelve SAARC summits two each have been held in each of the member-states except Bhutan—Bangladesh (1985/1993), India (1986/1995), Maldives (1990/1997), Nepal (1987/2002), Pakistan (1988/2004) and Sri Lanka (1991/1998). While the other five countries held these summits in their capital cities, in India apart from the national capital the beautiful south Indian city of Bangalore too has hosted one of these in 1986. At the time of SAARC's birth the government in India—its biggest constituent-member—was headed by its youngest ever prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who consecutively represented India at its first four summits. In later years, one SAAARC summit each has been attended from India by prime ministers Chandra Shekhar and IK Gujral and three each by Narsimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpaee—all of them elderly, mature and seasoned statesmen.

The three major countries in the SAARC are India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—which once upon a time constituted the united India. The other four —Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka —too geographically belong to what has for ages been generally seen by the outside world as the 'Indian subcontinent'. Separated by man-made barriers, these seven sovereign countries of the contemporary South Asia are indeed an extended family of nations whose members are sharers in the region's history, geography, culture, religions, social traditions and legal system. Coming closer to and working with each other was, and remains, for them both instinctive and imperative.

Among the objectives of the SAARC as spelt out in its charter of 8 December 1985 are to "promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia", "provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential" and to "contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another's problems". Have these objectives been really fulfilled to any extent? Countless families divided between the biggest countries in the region have been facing the pangs of their strained bilateral relations. Despite a Nehru-Liaqat Pact, a Simla and an Agra, and higher-level bilateral contacts on the sidelines of almost each of the SAARC summits, local political policies have over the years kept blood relations—parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, even husbands and wives - away from each other for long periods of time. People have often missed their kith and kin's marriages and funerals and have been compelled to wait for long years, and to take long and circuitous travel routes at exorbitant expenses, before being able to be with their near and dear ones for a few days. Is this the realization of the goals of "promoting the welfare" of the people of the region and enabling them "to live in dignity"? To say the least creating such a state of affairs, or allowing it to last, is a violation of not only the SAARC Charter of 1985 but also of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and all other human-rights documents flowing from it to which the SAARC nations are fully committed. 

And, what about Kashmir? Is that beautiful but unfortunate land also not part and parcel of South Asia, to the promotion of "welfare" and "dignified life" for whose people SAARC members are mutually committed? Why must the people of that 'Paradise on Earth' be perpetually kept out of the ambit of SAARC's declared objective "to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential"? 

There is so much common in the constitutions and the basic laws of the SAARC countries—especially in their chapters on citizens' fundamental rights and measures for people's welfare. For centuries together SAARC countries have been directly ruled, or politically influenced otherwise, by European colonial powers—and for that reason share a common legacy of legal and judicial systems. The Indian Penal Code of 1860, the celebrated Tazirat-e-Hind, remains in force in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka under local names. So do a number of other major British-Indian statutes including the Indian Contract Act and the Indian Evidence Act, both of 1872, and the Civil Procedure Code of 1908. The Indo-Anglican system of judicial administration is the common heritage of the entire SAARC region. With a legal framework having so much in common is it really so difficult to make South Asia a friction-free society in which all the people everywhere can live a peaceful and dignified life enjoying mutual trust, friendly relations and unbroken family ties? 
What is that we, the people of the SAARC countries, do not share? We have a common history and geography, common social traditions, common philosophies and psychology, common thinking and attitudes, common ways of responding and reacting to particular situations. All SAARC nations share the rich and glorious heritage of the same major religions—Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. The religion of India's dominant majority is the State religion in Nepal and the second dominant faith in Bangladesh—while the religion of India's second biggest community is the State religion or the predominant faith in three of the SAARC countries—Pakistan, Maldives and Bangladesh. The State religion of Sri Lanka and Bhutan, Buddhism, has a large following also in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. With so much common on the religious front, must we not bury for good the ancient and medieval concepts of jihad and dharmyudh and strictly follow the common teachings of these religions on mercy, compassion and human brotherhood? 

SAARC can indeed meaningfully exist and proceed to realize its cherished goals only if bilateral relations between all its constituent countries also remain cordial. On the sidelines of the Islamabad SAARC summit hopes have arisen for such a scenario in the near future. Let us pray for an early translation of the leaders' decisions and goodwill into ground reality. That will be a true service to the cause of promoting "welfare of the peoples of South Asia" and "to provide all individuals" in the whole of South Asia including Kashmir "the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential" -- for which major purposes the eighteen-year old SAARC had indeed been created.

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