The relationship between India and its neighbouring countries is important focus in UPSC Civil Services Exam GS Paper II. Like for any other country, the relationship with immediate neighbouring countries are of prime importance in foreign affairs of India. SAARC or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was established on 8th December 1985 in Dhaka with the signing of SAARC Charter. It was founded with the vision of achieving growth and prosperity in the region through mutual cooperation and regional peace. Secretariat of SAARC was established in Kathmandu 2 years later. However, India’s relation with the neighbouring countries in SAARC region has been less than smooth.
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SAARC: A Troubled Region
India is situated in one of the most troubled regions in the world. The development indicators of South Asia are comparable to some of the worst in the world. SAARC has 23% of the global population but only 6% of the purchasing power, 2% of the trade and 3% of FDI. Only with integrated development of the whole region, each nation will be able to grow freely.
The reasons for low development of South Asia are as follows:
- Limited trade between the nations
- The economy of the region is not fully integrated. It means that there is no free movement of labour or capital across the borders.
- Several border disputes, mistrust and border security issues hamper free economic activity across borders.
- Cross border terrorism is used as a state policy by Pakistan to destabilise the region. India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are most adversely impacted by Pakistan’s state promoted terrorism.
- The human resource development is very low due to lack of quality education and poverty.
To address all of these issues, a regional grouping for mutual cooperation was required. Hence, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985 in Dhaka, with Secretariat in Kathmandu.
Salient Objectives of SAARC
SAARC consisting of India and its neighbouring countries namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives has the following important objectives:
- Promote welfare of the people of South Asia and to improve their quality of life
- Celebrate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region
- Provide opportunity to all the individuals to live in dignity and to realise their full potentials.
- Promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia.
- Contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.
- Promote mutual cooperation in international forums on matters of common interests.
Despite having such noble goals which could have transformed the region, SAARC as a regional group has failed miserably.
Failures of SAARC
The list of failures of SAARC as a regional cooperation body goes long, when compared to other successful regional bodies like Eurozone or ASEAN. Certain important failures are:
- Regional trade always has the major share globally. ASEAN has 32%, EU as 50%, NAFTA has 65% but intra-SAARC trade is merely 5% of total trade of the countries in the region.
- Pakistan’s has refused to grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India. India has recently withdrawn MFN status to Pakistan in the aftermath of Pulwama attack.
- South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) came into force in 2006 but it has failed to increase regional trade significantly.
- Programmes and achievements of SAARC only exist in official documents. Many critics call SAARC as a mere ‘talk shop’.
- The ability of SAARC to ensure food security during natural calamities has proven in adequate.
- The 2014 agreement to increase connectivity via rail and road has not been realised.
- State policy of terror and active support to terrorists by Pakistan has not let SAARC achieve peace.
Reasons for Failure of SAARC
For any progress to make by the future regional leaders, it is important to know what are the reasons for failures of SAARC.
- Pakistan’s state policy of terror which majorly impacts India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
- Pakistan uses the SAARC platform for rhetorics and politics on Kashmir due to their domestic compulsions.
- Member countries fear India’s domination.
- Borders between SAARC nations have become national security threats instead of highways of trade and commerce.
- China’s interference and using economic power to provoke smaller SAARC nations against India, has not let trust develop among the nations.
Attitude of Neighbouring Countries towards India
India’s neighbours are generally hostile towards it, except for Bhutan. The friendliness of some of the nations depends on the regime in those nations. For example, BNP government led by Khaleda Zia had been hostile while current Awami League regime has cooperative attitude. Similar cyclic shift happens with Maldives and Sri Lanka. Nepal is completely dependent upon India for its survival as India provides the only route for essential supplies, yet certain political segments in Nepal are nuisance who play in the hands of China. Pakistan has a declared anti-India policy. India has good relations with Afghanistan as it has invested heavily in the latter’s development. But with US pulling out of Afghan soil and Taliban looking to make a comeback, it could change.
India’s neighbours are jealous and suspicious because of India’s size and economy and its influence in the region. They are reluctant to work together with India on regional security and economic development.
Why India’s Neighbours are Generally Hostile and Insecure?
- Cultural Similarity and Identity Crisis
The whole Indian subcontinent is basically a single cultural unit. It is geographically isolated from the rest of the world by the Himalayas, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Hindukush mountain. All the South Asian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism etc have many common elements. Buddha is revered as one of the dashavatar (Ten Incarnations) of Lord Vishnu by Hindus. Even the Islam practiced in this region is different from Arabic or African Islam, though in recent times hardline Wahabism and Salafism of Saudi Arabia have been pushed in the sub-continent. Indian Islam and Christianity have continued certain Hindu practices (e.g Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians). This is natural as most of the Indian Muslims and Christians are converts from Hinduism.
Due to the common cultural thread in South Asia, neither language nor religion forms a basis for unique national identity for the different countries. They love the same sport: cricket, have similar customs and traditions, same political methods and bureaucracy and similar problems. This has caused identity crisis among the smaller nations as India is the major representative of the common South Asian culture. Thus, there is a continuous struggle with India to maintain unique identity. The fact they have mostly come into existence only recently, they strive to project a distinct identity by opposing Indianness.
- India’s Economy and Military
India’s economy is 10 times larger than nearest South Asian country Bangladesh. It is a global power in software, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products and rich in mineral resources. Indian military is one of the largest in the world. India is also world’s largest importer of arms. This economic and military power may be perceived by the neighbours as threat.
- Outlook of Indians towards its Neighbouring Countries
Indian citizens are accused to generally have superiority complex vis-a-vis residents of these neighbouring countries. This condescending behaviour has deteriorated people-to-people interactions and hence has not helped the relations. The despicable reporting by Indian TV news reporters in the aftermath of Nepal earthquake 2015, harmed the relations. The insensitive reporting angered Nepalese citizens as they trended #GoHomeIndianMedia on social media. Even though India was the first responder and largest aid provider, it was all undone by the media.
- Democratic Deficit in South Asia
India is a well established vibrant secular democracy but most of its neighbours have democratic deficit. It is in India’s interest that the neighbours have popularly elected democratic government. Such elected governments are more accountable to the public and have stable policies. The is likely to improve relations with India as the public interest is common in all of South Asia.
Pakistan has a sham democracy as the military manipulates the election. Major policies that affect the economy and the foreign relations are dictated by the military. The fact that Pak military acts in self-interest rather than national interest, complicates the matters. Democracy was restored in Maldives in 2018 when Abdallah Yameen, who tried to occupy office by force was defeated in Presidential election. Bangladesh has a friendly government but the major opposition party had boycotted the 2014 elections and 2018 elections were marred by violence. There is growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh.
Nepal promulgated its 7th constitution in 2015 but it didn’t accommodate concerns of Madhesis which led to violence and blockade. Later, amendment was made and elections happened successfully. In Afghanistan, there is threat of Taliban raising its head. In Sri Lanka too, return of the Rajapaksas threatens the democracy there. Bhutan in contrast, has seen a peaceful transition to democracy which was pursued by the monarch himself.
The Future of SAARC
The single biggest reason for failure of SAARC is Pakistan which makes any initiative or program subject to resolution of Kashmir issue. Pakistan is milked by its military for personal interest of the officials. As long as the emotive Kashmir issue is kept alive, Pakistani citizens can be taken for a ride and lions share of the budget keep flowing to the military. Thus, resolution of Kashmir issue is also not Pakistan’s goal. Therefore, it seems that any mega project implementation through SAARC is nearly impossible, at least for now.
More recently, the Narendra Modi government did extend another opportunity for normalisation of relations with Pakistan. He visited Pakistan, held talks with the leaders and even allowed joint investigation at Pathankot terror attack site. But the Pakistan military which does not want normalisation, has orchestrated series of terror attacks on Indian soil.
In such a scenario, India and other SAARC nations have begun to look at opportunities of cooperation sans Pakistan. India is exploring Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which is virtually SAARC minus Pakistan. A motor vehicle agreement has already been signed by BBIN members (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal). Both BBIN and BIMSTEC can usher rapid economic integration and growth in the region by simplifying processes. In that case, SAARC would be rendered superfluous.
How can SAARC be Revived
In the 36 years of its existence, SAARC still has no major achievement. However we have seen how European Union took a long time to take shape. European Economic Union was established in 1957 and it took 35 years for it to evolve into EU, via Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. It would have seemed impossible for the world to imagine for Europe to come together and open borders after the WWII. So, dramatic changes do happen.
In SAARC, the dramatic change that is needed is the establishment of true democracy in Pakistan that can cut the military to its size. The other South Asian nations have to set aside their insecurities and animosities and stay true to the spirit of SAARC’s objectives. India will have to take a lead by showing largesse and help the neighbours plug into its economic growth. To counter China factor in the region, India will have to make rapid strides in its economic growth. The neighbours must realise that China is an aggressor and their largesse is only a disguised debt trap.
India cannot distance itself from the domestic politics in the neighbourhood as it directly affects it. The rise of Wahabism and Salafism as well as the tendency to capture power in undemocratic ways has repercussions in the entire region. Due to overlapping demographics South Asia, any policy in the neighbourhood that is hostile to a section of people will spill over to India. For example, the refugee crisis in West Bengal and Assam in 1971 and the Tamil issue during the rise of LTTE in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it has to assist the neighbours without appearing big brotherly. When there are favourable regimes in the entire region, SAARC can become more effective.
Lastly, one has to acknowledge that India has gone out of its way to revive SAARC time and again. Whether it be the Gujral Doctrine, Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangla bus service, the SAARC satellite and offer for space cooperation or the SAARC COVID-19 initiative. Now is the time that the smaller neighbours shed their indecisiveness over whether to be close to India or not. SAARC may still be revived even as Pakistan sulks over Kashmir issue. Let the region be integrated, with or without Pakistan.
Previous Years UPSC Questions on India and Its Neighbouring Countries
- “Increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in India and growing interference in the internal affairs of several member-states by Pakistan are not conductive for the future of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).” Explain with suitable examples. (UPSC 2016)
- “Compared to the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation Free Trade Area (BIMSTEC FTA) seems to be more promising.” Critically evaluate.(UPSC 2011)