India, Pakistan boycott each other at SAARC meet in NY

India, Pakistan boycott each other at SAARC meet in NY

Pak FM Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Reuters photo

The tension between New Delhi and Islamabad continued to cast a cloud of uncertainty over the SAARC, with External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, and Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, boycotted each other’s speech at an informal meeting of the block on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Qureshi stayed away from the meeting until External Affairs Minister of India delivered his remarks. Jaishankar left the meeting soon after making his statement and was not present when Pakistan Foreign Minister came in and delivered his speech. The meeting ended without any consensus on the date of the much-delayed 19th summit of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, but was postponed after New Delhi opted out of it protesting a series of cross-border terror attacks launched from Pakistan targeting military installations in India.        

“It is not possible for me to sit with the murderer of Kashmiris,” Qureshi later told journalists explaining why he boycotted the speech of External Affairs Minister of India at the SAARC meeting.

Pakistan has been running a diplomatic campaign against India ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Government in New Delhi on August 5 stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its Special Status and reorganized the state into two Union Territories. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Government in Islamabad protested against New Delhi’s decisions, calling it a “unilateral” and “illegal” move to change the status quo in the “disputed” region in violation of the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and against the wishes of the people of Kashmir.

Islamabad has been accusing New Delhi of committing atrocities against people of Kashmir. It has also been protesting against restrictions Modi Government imposed in parts of J&K on August 5 and the detention of the local leaders and the activists.

New Delhi has been insisting that its decisions on J&K were its “internal” affairs of India, aimed at ensuring good governance, peace and prosperity in the region and would have no impact on its de-facto border with Pakistan.

India has since long been accusing Pakistan of blocking several initiatives by the SAARC for rail and road connectivity within South Asia as well as of hindering efforts to build an architecture for regional cooperation to combat the menace of terrorism.

“It is unfortunate that we have not made any headway with respect to some connectivity initiatives such as Motor Vehicles and Railways Agreements. Similarly, there has been no progress in SAARC Regional Air Services Agreement, initiated by India,” Jaishankar posted on Twitter, shortly after attending the meeting of the bloc.   

Foreign Ministers of the six other SAARC nations – Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Afghanistan – attended the meeting.  

“Ours (the SAARC’s) is really not just a story of missed opportunities but also of deliberate obstacles. Terrorism is among them,” tweeted Jaishankar. “In our view, elimination of terrorism in all its forms is a precondition not only for fruitful cooperation but also for the very survival of our region itself.

He also highlighted the initiatives New Delhi took for the region – like South Asian University, South Asian Satellite and extension of India’s National Knowledge Network to other nations in the region.

It was after the attack on Indian Army camp at Uri in northern Kashmir in September 2016 that New Delhi decided against Modi's visit to Islamabad for the SAARC summit to be hosted by Pakistan Government two months later. The terrorists sneaked into India from territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan. They crossed the Line of Control and attacked the camp of the Indian Army, killing 19 soldiers. Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh rallied behind India and wrote to Nepal – currently the chair of the bloc – that the regional situation was not conducive to hold the summit. The Maldives too joined the bandwagon later, thus forcing postponement of the summit indefinitely.

“I invited all member states to Islamabad so that SAARC-related issues are resolved. No one objected to it. It has been decided that the next summit-level meeting of SAARC will be held in Islamabad and Pakistan will propose the dates soon,” Qureshi said after the meeting in New York.

Sources, however, told the DH that the meeting had ended without any consensus on the next SAARC summit. When Qureshi proposed that the next summit should be hosted by Pakistan Government in Islamabad, Nepalese Foreign Minister, Pradeep Gyawali, told him that the informal meeting was not the appropriate forum for discussion on the next summit. He told Pakistan Foreign Minister to propose dates through diplomatic channels. Gyawali presided over the meeting as Nepal currently holds the chair of the SAARC.

While the impasse over the SAARC still continuing, New Delhi over the past three years focused more on the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which comprises Myanmar and Thailand, apart from five of the eight South Asian nations – India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. New Delhi is nudging the BIMSTEC nations to move fast on regional connectivity initiatives.

Jaishankar's predecessor late Sushma Swaraj too had left a similar meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers on the sideline of UN General Assembly in September 2018, without waiting for Pakistan Foreign Minister’s speech.