In 'Unprecedented' Move, India, B'Desh, Afghanistan and Bhutan Ditch SAARC Summit in Pakistan

Sources said that Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan are also going to keep off the summit, thus ensuring that blame for the event's postponement does not fall on India alone.

Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, walks past Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the 2014 SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Credit: Reuters

No Next Time: With India declaring it won’t attend the  upcoming SAARC summit in Islamabad, this scene – of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Indian counterpart Narendra Modi failing to connect at the 2014 SAARC summit in Kathmandu – will not be repeated. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: In the biggest fall-out from the current period of strain between South Asia’s largest nations, India on Tuesday pulled out of the SAARC summit in Islamabad citing “increasing cross-border terrorist attacks” and “growing interference in the internal affairs” by Pakistan.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan are also going to keep off the summit, thus ensuring that blame for the event’s postponement does not fall on India alone. The other members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – apart from the host Pakistan – are the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

India’s announcement was made late on Tuesday evening after a day of developments including the summoning of Pakistan’s high commissioner to South Block where he was presented ‘evidence’ of a ‘cross-border’ hand in the September 18 militant attack at the Indian army station at Uri which cost the lives of 18 soldiers.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup stated that India had informed the current SAARC chair, Nepal, that “increasing cross-border terrorist attacks in the region and growing interference in the internal affairs of member states by one country have created an environment that is not conducive to the successful holding of the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad in November 2016”.

Pakistan wasn’t named but the reference was clear enough. New Delhi insists the current disturbances in the Kashmir Valley are being orchestrated from across the border. Ironically, the charge of “interference in the internal affairs” of a member state has also been levelled by Pakistan against India f0r raising the Balochistan issue at the United Nations.

The decision to hold the SAARC summit in Islamabad was taken in Kathmandu in 2014. The official invitation for the event was handed over to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj by the Pakistani prime minister’s advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, during the SAARC ministerial meeting in March in Pokhara.

“India remains steadfast in its commitment to regional cooperation, connectivity and contacts but believes that these can only go forward in an atmosphere free of terror. In the prevailing circumstances, the government of India is unable to participate in the proposed summit in Islamabad,” Swarup said.

In an initial reaction, Pakistan’s foreign office said that while no official communication had yet been received, India’s decision to pull out of the summit in November was ‘unfortunate’.

“As for the excuse used by India, the world knows that it is India that has been perpetrating and financing terrorism in Pakistan,” Pakistani foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Mohammed Nafees Zakaria said.

India also added in its announcement said that “some other SAARC member states have also conveyed their reservation about attending the Islamabad Summit in November 2016”; Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan announced that they are pulling out from the summit.

Coalition of the unwilling

Afghanistan and Bangladesh have not been sending senior ministers to attend regional meetings in Pakistan. The latest such meeting which did not have any participation from either Kabul or Dhaka was a two-day SAARC seminar to discuss anti-corruption measures, which began in Islamabad on Monday.

The Bangladeshi paper Daily Star quoted a “high placed source in the foreign ministry” as saying that Nepal was told that Pakistan’s interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs was not conducive to holding the summit. Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan have been especially strained over the latter’s criticism of the hanging of a Jamaat leader accused of war crimes during the 1971 war.

Using similar language as India, Dhaka informed Nepal that “Bangladesh as the initiator of the SAARC process, remains steadfast in its commitment to regional cooperation, connectivity and contacts but believes that these can only go forward in a more congenial atmosphere. In view of the above, Bangladesh is unable to participate in the proposed Summit in Islamabad”.

After his initial outreach towards Pakistan and its military establishment, the failure of the quadrilateral peace process and continuing Taliban attacks have pushed Afghan president Ashraf Ghani into India’s corner. He visited New Delhi earlier this month, during which he attacked Pakistan for not taking action against terror sanctuaries, and also raised the Balochistan issue.

Afghanistan’s communication dated September 27 to Nepal was simple: “Due to increased level of violence and fighting as a result of imposed terrorism on Afghanistan, H.E. the President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani with his responsibilities as the Commander in Chief will be fully engaged, and will not be able to attend the Summit.”

Bhutan has, so far, remained India’s steadfast ally in South Asia and was always expected to side with New Delhi in any standoff with Pakistan.

Thimpu wrote that it was concerned that the “recent escalation of terrorist in the region” had “seriously compromised the environment for the successful holding of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 2016”.

“Further, the Royal Government of Bhutan shares the concerns of some of the member countries of SAARC on the deterioration of regional peace and security due to terrorism and joins them in conveying our inability to participate in the SAARC Summit, under the current circumstances”.

As per SAARC rules, the summit has to be postponed if even one leader pulls out.

In the wake of the Kargil war and General Musharraf’s military coup in Pakistan, India prevaricated over Atal Bihari Vajpayee attending the SAARC summit in November 1999 in Kathmandu, which eventually led to its cancellation.

In February 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pulled out of the summit in Dhaka hosted by Khaleda Zia over security concerns and King Gyanendra’s Royal coup in Nepal. The meeting was, however, held later the same year in November.

Despite accusing Pakistan of instigating protests in Kashmir in the wake of the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, India sent home minister Rajnath Singh for a Saarc meeting in Islamabad. Officially, India said it remained committed to pushing regional cooperation even if bilateral relations with Pakistan remained stuck. But when India’s high commissioner to Pakistan, Gautam Bambawale, made a statement in early September that Modi was “looking forward” to visiting Islamabad for the Saarc summit, the MEA was quick to clarify that a decision on the prime minister’s attendance is not taken “so far in advance”. Though the Uri incident was still nearly two weeks away, the government’s ambivalence about the summit was already apparent.

‘Completely unprecedented’

The examples from 1999 and 2005 notwithstanding, Sheel Kant Sharma, former Indian diplomat and SAARC secretary general from 2008 to 2011, told The Wire India’s latest decision was extraordinary.

“This is completely unprecedented. This is the first time that India has said that it will not attend a summit,” said Sharma. He noted that in previous instances, India had adopted “stalling” tactics – which then led to the deferment of the summit, but there were no statement which baldly castigated the would-be host or explicitly stated a reason.

Sharma pointed out that when Pakistan was supposed to host the SAARC summit in January 2004, India had similarly conveyed its reluctance to be a participant. “Vajpayee was not keen to attend, but there were a lot of requests through the back channel from President Musharraf. The PM went only after there was a clear undertaking from Pakistan that Musharraf will make a statement about Pakistani soil not being used to support terrorism,” he said.

In the last summit in Kathmandu, Modi had stated explicitly what had been an implicit theme of India’s neighbourhood first policy – that Pakistan was not necessary to push forward regional integration. In fact, Indian diplomats have been markedly propping other regional constructs such as BIMSTEC – the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation that links Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan – and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) as an alternate to the moribund subcontinental grouping. India has invited leaders of the BIMSTEC countries for an outreach event at the BRICS summit in Goa next month.

‘Cross-border link to Uri attack’

Meanwhile, foreign secretary S, Jaishankar summoned Pakistani high commissioner Abdul Basit to the external affairs ministry for the second time within a week to present him with evidence of  the “cross-border” origins of the attack on the Indian army base in Uri which left 18 soldiers dead. In response, Pakistan doubled down and officially claimed the Uri attack was a ‘false flag operation’, which was mentioned at United Nations and also conveyed by Basit.

Basit had been earlier called by Jaishankar last Wednesday to convey that India had found proof of Pakistani involvement.

On Tuesday, Basit was summoned to South Block about 4 p.m. to be handed over a demarche by Jaishankar.

Since their last encounter, Jaishnakar noted that two ‘guides’ had been apprehended by local villagers and handed over to Indian security forces in the Uri sector on September 21.

MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said the two guides were Pakistani nationals and residents of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, whose details were shared with Basit.

One of them, Faizal Hussain Awan told the National Investigation Agency during his interrogation that “they had guided and facilitated the border crossing of the group that perpetrated the September 18 Uri massacre”, according to Swarup.

Awan also informed the NIA that at least one of the attackers was a PoK resident and provided names of the ‘handlers’.

“In his preliminary statement, he identified as among the slain attackers one Hafiz Ahmed S/o Feroz, R/o village Dharbang, Muzaffarabad.  He also revealed details of the two handlers of this operation – Mohd Kabir Awan and Basharat,” Swarup said.

The foreign secretary also told Basit that another Pakistani national, Sialkot-resident Abdul Qayoom, was arrested on September 23 from the Molu sector. He has “confessed” to undergoing three weeks of training with the terror group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and donating “substantial funds” to their charity wing, the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation. India was willing to provide consular access to the three arrested men, Basit was told.

“These apprehensions and subsequent interrogation underline the cross-border infiltration that was the subject of our previous discussion.  We would once again strongly urge the Government of Pakistan to take seriously its commitment not to allow terrorist attacks against India from its soil and territory under its control,” said the démarche issued to Basit.

The Pakistani high commissioner was told that “continuing cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan against India are unacceptable”.

Last week, India had informed Pakistan that it had recovered items from recent attacks that demonstrated the involvement of Pakistani organisation and individuals. Jaishankar had also offered to provide finger-prints and DNA samples of the attackers killed in the incidents at Uri and Poonch.

Uri a ‘false flag’ operation, says Pakistan

As per sources, Basit apparently told Jaishankar that the Uri attack was staged by India and that there should be an international probe into the incident.

Various Pakistani ministers and politicians had been hinting about a false flag operation for last several days. These insinuations became Pakistan’s official position when it exercised its right to reply to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech in United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

“The attack on the Indian Army base in Uri, particularly its timing, has all the hallmarks of an operation designed to divert attention from India’s atrocities in occupied Jammu and Kashmir. The international community is well aware that several such incidents have been staged in the past to serve India’s tactical and propaganda objectives,” said Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi.

Earlier in her speech, Swaraj had called for isolating countries who were giving shelter and sanctuaries to terror groups. She had also made history by describing Pakistan’s treatment of Balochistan as the “worst form of state oppression” – making it the first time that India has raised a matter pertaining to another sovereign country’s internal affairs (barring, of course, its campaign against apartheid South Africa, whose racist regime was akin to colonial rule).

After Swaraj ‘s speech, there were two more rounds of exchange of statements between Indian and Pakistani diplomats.

India’s second right to reply was rather succinct – “We have patiently listened to our colleague from Pakistan. They have yet again chosen to stay silent on the tough questions. This is what we have come to expect from Pakistan. Deception, deceit and denial. The world still awaits their response”.

The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva also witnessed an exchange between the Indian and Pakistani delegations on Kashmir on Monday.

After Indus, India to relook trade

Meanwhile, Pakistan also reacted to signals that India would try to use the 56-year-old Indus Waters Treaty as a pressure-point.

After a meeting on Monday chaired by Prime Minister Modi on Monday, India decided against scrapping the water distribution pact but announced its intention to fully utilise its share of waters of the western rivers and expedite construction of hydropower projects on the Chenab.

However, the statements coming from Pakistan establishment were based on the assumption that India was going to abrogate the treaty.  “The Indus Waters Treaty is quoted as perhaps the most successful water treaty ever conducted between the two countries. Its revocation can be taken as an act of war or a hostile act against Pakistan,” Sartaj Aziz told the Pakistani Senate on Tuesday.

After the IWT, India may also be reviewing its grant of most favoured nation status to Pakistan in a meeting on Thursday. India, however, has a favourable surplus in the modest official trade with Pakistan. Pakistan has not extended MFN status to India, despite WTO rules, citing non-tariff barriers that Pakistani exporters face on the Indian side as its official reason.

Modi’s friend ‘Barack’ wants India, Pakistan to have talks

If India’s stated goal in the aftermath of Uri is to ‘isolate Pakistan’, the heightened rhetoric – both at the United Nations and in the sub-continent – seems to have worried the United States, which has called for New Delhi and Islamabad to begin talking to each other.

“So I think – seen the rhetoric, heard the rhetoric. I think our longstanding position is that we believe India and Pakistan really stand to benefit from the normalisation of relations between them and practical cooperation between them, and we encourage both India and Pakistan to pursue and engage in direct dialogue that is aimed at reducing tensions,” said state department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner on Monday.

On Pakistan’s will to combat terror groups, Toner said that while Islamabad was “making progress”, it should at the same time “target all militant groups, including those that target Pakistan’s neighbours, and close all safe havens”.