Will Rajiv Gandhi's vision for SAARC be achieved at Thimphu?(Article)

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New Delhi, Apr 28 (ANI) The first summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation in 1985 saw the enthusiastic participation of Rajiv Gandhi, who had just become the Prime Minister of India the previous year following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Elected by a massive majority in Parliament of India, young Rajiv Gandhi was hopeful of ushering India into the twenty-first century, promoting harmonious relations within the country as also in the neighbourhood and also developing the subcontinent into a homogeneous entity.

Within the country, he had entered into the landmark Punjab and Assam Accords, and in the subcontinent extended his hand of friendship to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka with whom India had many misunderstandings.

India's relations with Bangladesh had soured following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Pakistan continued to entertain hostility inspite of the Shimla Accord. The Sri Lankan Government had a festering sore with the uprising of Tamils in northern part of the country, led by the LTTE.

Rajiv Gandhi initiated steps to reach an accord with Sri Lanka to ensure peace in the northern part of the country, and ensure that the refugees in Tamil Nadu could return to their homeland and the LTTE would lay down its arms.

For Rajiv Gandhi, the promotion of South Asia as a region of peace was an act of faith. After agreeing to have the summit in Bangladesh, even though India was the senior member, he agreed to hold the next summit in India.

I had the privilege of being associated with the first few summits as Principal Information Officer of the Government of India between 1985 and 1992. And also witnessed how the Association was unable to take off in spite of sincere efforts, mainly because of the mistrust between member countries.

The second summit, held in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) focused mainly on the conclusion of the India Sri Lanka Accord. President Jayawardene of Sri Lanka was the focus of attention and to ensure that the Sri Lankan delegation felt at home, the summit was held in Bangalore instead of New Delhi with opposition Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde being the host. There were back channel negotiations with Prabhakaran of the LTTE, with the DMK extending a helping hand.

Simultaneously, Rajiv Gandhi promoted the idea of promoting friendship among the countries of the subcontinent. He hoped that travel between the countries would be easy and there would be increased trade among the countries.

India continued to have problems in traveling from West Bengal to Assam and the eastern States through Bangladesh. Sri Lanka continued to trade with the West even though the markets in Colombo and Jafffna were full of smuggled goods from Tamil Nadu.

Prime Minister M.K. Junejo of Pakistan, who had come to Bangalore, did mark his attendance, but nothing moved as President Zia-ul Haq had his own vision of promoting problems in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.

The relationship with Nepal also remained uneasy.

The second summit ended on a high note, but soon the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka, started facing problems and Rajiv Gandhi's vision of promoting a South Asian community was a still-born child.

I remember attending the SAARC summits in Male in 1990 and Colombo in 1992. Vishwanath Pratap Singh attended the summit at Male and Narasimha Rao went to Colombo. The atmosphere on both occasions remained tense following the return from Sri Lanka of the Indian Peacekeeping Force and the escalation of violence in the northern parts of the island nation.

On the positive side, many steps have been taken since then to create institutions that have the ability to promote regional cooperation. They include the SAARC Development Fund, the Food Bank, the South Asian Free Trade Agreement and the South Asian University. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken the leading role in taking up these initiatives.

But these institutions have not taken off. There is more of smuggling among the countries of the region than 'Free Trade'. The movement between the countries of the region is marked by illegal immigration.

India and Pakistan continue to be wary of each other. Terrorist attacks and infiltration across the Line of Control and the International Border continues. Pakistan continues to claim that its soil would not be used against India but more than 40 terrorist training camps exist in that country.

Relations with Bangladesh has improved with Sheikh Hasina having taken over the Premiership, but she also has to proceed carefully. Sri Lanka has been able to subjugate the Tamil rebels, but the uneasy situation continues in the northern areas of the country.

Nepal is yet to promulgate a new Constitution for the country, and the Maoists are wary of promoting cordial relations with India.

Afghanistan, the most recent member, is also going through a state of flux and one hopes that it would settle down to be an active member of the SAARC.

It is fitting that the 25th session of the SAARC summit is being held in Thimphu in Bhutan. One hopes that the Himalayas surrounding the city would help elevate the mood of the participants to a higher level and take the association a step forward in the direction conceived by the late Rajiv Gandhi.

I.Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India. email. raoramamohan @hotmail.com. By I. Ramamohan Rao (ANI)

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