South Asia

Pakistan Joins Neighbours in Welcoming Modi's Call for SAARC to Combat COVID-19

Much of the surprise in India is because "SAARC" has not exactly figured in the Indian PM’s vocabulary in recent years.

New Delhi: While South Asia still has a relatively low number of positive cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a joint strategy to fight coronavirus in member states of SAARC, the regional grouping that has not met at the highest level for the last five years.

All countries, except for Pakistan, responded positively at the head of state level. After midnight, the Pakistan foreign office responded that Islamabad will participate, but not at the level of prime minister Imran Khan.

At 1.17 pm, Modi posted through his Twitter account that with a significant number of the global population in the region, one “should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy” in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The next tweet led to raised eyebrows in South Asian capitals. “I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus,” he posted.

Modi suggested that there could be a discussion through “video conferencing” on his proposal. “Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet”.

The reason that there was a ripple of surprise in India is because “SAARC” has not exactly figured in the Indian PM’s vocabulary in recent years.

A quick search for the term SAARC on the Indian PM’s two official Twitter accounts showed that he spoke about the regional association just once last year. There was no mention of SAARC on his social media accounts in 2018 or 2017. In 2016, there were five tweets with a mention of the grouping, with seven in 2015. In 2014, there were 27 tweets from Modi’s accounts that mentioned SAARC. 

The trend coincides with India’s disassociation from SAARC in the last few years. In 2014, Modi had attend the SAARC summit in Nepal, when he had also shaken hands with then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

In September 2016, India pulled out of the scheduled SAARC summit at Islamabad, along with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, citing “increasing cross-border terrorist attacks”. The decision came after a terror attack at the Indian army station at Uri which cost the lives of 18 soldiers.

Since then, there has been no SAARC summit for leaders. The only major annual meeting that has taken place is the traditional foreign ministers’ gathering on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. But even that meeting usually witnesses some symbolic gesture from India or Pakistan to show their mutual apathy for engagement on this platform.

Addressing the SAARC foreign ministers’ informal meeting at New York last year, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had said that survival of the region depended on the “elimination of terrorism”. The “relevance of SAARC”, he concluded, would be determined by “these action against terrorism”.

While India has been focusing on other sub-regional groups like BIMSTEC and BBINthe other member states, notably Nepal, have continued to advocate for the revival of the pan-regional association.

“It was very exciting for us to see SAARC mentioned in the tweet,” a south asian diplomat who did not want to be named told The Wire.

Within two hours, both Prime Minister of Bhutan and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa replied on Twitter that they were ready to join the discussion and share their best practices.

“Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate,” said Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering.

A few minutes later, Maldives President Ibrahim Solih also welcomed the proposal.

Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli tweeted that his “government is ready to work closely with SAARC Member States to protect our citizens from this deadly disease”.

It took another three hours for Bangladesh to respond through the junior foreign minister, Mohammed Shariar Alam. Notably, Alam mentioned all the leaders in SAARC, except for the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The Afghan President’s spokesperson Sediq Siddiqui also expressed willingness of Kabul to work with others in SAARC when it came to “devising a unified strategy to fight the Coronavirus in the region”.

Till Friday night, there was silence from Islamabad on the Indian PM’s proposal, even as Imran Khan’s Twitter account remained active throughout the day.

Two minutes before midnight in Islamabad (12.28 am in New Delhi), the foreign office in Pakistan broke its silence. The foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqi tweeted that Pakistan will participate, but only through the special advisor to the Prime minister on health, Dr Zafar Mirza at the video conference.

It is, of course, a deliberate snub from Islamabad as none of the other SAARC member countries specified that anyone but their leaders would be participating in the video conference. Bangladesh’s junior foreign minister had in fact, tweeted it would be at the head of state or head of government level.

Indian official sources added that the date and time of the video conference among the leaders had not yet been decided.

India has the largest number of confirmed cases in South Asia, which has crossed over eighty. This is followed by Pakistan, which has 21 confirmed cases. Most of the other states have cases in single digits.

India had said on Thursday that it had got requests from Bhutan and Maldives for assistance in fighting coronavirus. A day later, a 34-member Indian team landed in the Maldivian capital.

India’s blanket cancellations of visas for the next one month to foreigners is also impacting South Asian states. New Delhi has clarified that the restrictions would not be applicable to Nepal and Bhutan, as their nationals do not require visas.

Maldivian nationals with “compelling reason” to travel to India will have to get their visas validated by the Indian high commission. 

The largest number of Indian visas are issued by the Indian high commission in Dhaka, but so far they have not issued any separate instructions. India also announced that transport links with Bangladesh through train and bus have been temporarily paused.

Similarly, Afghans who travel to India for education and medical reasons would also get directly impacted.

The article has been updated with comment of Pakistan foreign office.