The 19th South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) Summit, scheduled to be held in Pakistan in November, will not take place, as Nepal – the current chair of the South Asian grouping – has cancelled the event after India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan refused to attend the regional meet in Islamabad.
On Tuesday, India announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not attend the event as Pakistan failed to create an atmosphere conducive for the regional summit. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that the PM decided to skip the summit because of Pakistan’s involvement in the recent terror attack in Uri that left 19 Indian soldiers dead.
Soon after India made the announcement, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan confirmed that their leaders, too, would not participate in the summit. In Dhaka, Bangladeshi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohammad Shahriar Alam told the press that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina informed the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu about her decision. According to Alam, the Bangladeshi premier condemned the September 18 terror attack in Uri and conveyed her support to New Delhi in this ‘difficult’ time.
For his part, Afghan Ambassador to India Shaida Mohammad Abdali said that Kabul was in favour of a joint boycott of the SAARC Summit along with India and other members. So, Afghanistan will not take part in the summit, he added. Abdali met the Indian media after the Afghan government issued a terse statement, saying: “Due to the increased level of violence and fighting as a result of imposed terrorism on Afghanistan, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani with his responsibilities as the Commander in Chief will be fully engaged, and will not be able to attend the summit.”
In a separate statement, Bhutan said that the recent escalation of terrorism in South Asia has “seriously compromised the environment for the successful holding” of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad. “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,” it added.
The four member countries’ decision prompted Nepal to call off the summit. “There is no question of holding the summit if four countries declare their unwillingness to participate. As the current SAARC chair, Nepal has the responsibility of seeking a solution to such pre-summit disputes, but under the current circumstances nothing much can be attempted. We will do the due formalities and will declare the summit of 2016 should be cancelled due to non-participation of member states,” said a Kathmandu-based diplomatic source on Wednesday morning.
New Delhi’s announcement came hours after Indian Foreign Secretary Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar summoned Pakistani Envoy in New Delhi Abdul Basit on Tuesday evening and presented proof of the cross-border origins of the terrorists involved in the Uri attack. The foreign secretary told the Pakistani high commissioner that the preliminary investigation revealed the identity of one of the slain terrorists in the Uri attack. He was Hafiz Ahmed, the son of Feroz and a resident of Dharbang in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir’s (PoK) Muzaffarabad area. Jaishankar further informed Basit that local villagers apprehended the two guides, who helped in the infiltration, and are now in custody.
Pakistan, which is under tremendous pressure following the cancellation of SAARC Summit by four member states, has tried to justify its years of inaction on terror, with Basit claiming that Uri attack was ‘staged’ by India to divert attention from ‘atrocities’ in Kashmir. The Pak envoy also demanded international probe into the Uri attack.
Later, spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry Vikas Swarup clarified that although India is committed to regional co-operation, connectivity and contacts, PM Modi decided to skip the regional meet as the continuing attacks from Pakistan against India was unacceptable.
With four neighbouring South Asian nations deciding to pull out of the SAARC Summit, the US has asked Pakistan to act against terror safe havens within its borders, saying that Islamabad could not take New Delhi’s restraint granted for long. In an opinion piece published on Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal said: “Prime Minister Modi is practicing restraint for now, but Islamabad can’t rely on that continuing. Modi’s offer of co-operation, if rejected, will become part of a case for making Pakistan even more of a pariah nation than it already is.” It added: “If the (Pakistani) military continues to send arms and fighters across the border, the Indian PM will have a strong justification to take action.”
Diplomatic tensions between the two neighbouring countries have been rising since the September 18 attack on the Indian Army base in Uri and it seems that there is no possibility of de-escalating the tension in near future. The cancellation of SAARC summit is a huge blow to the Nawaz Sharif government inIslamabad as three of the eight member states of the bloc have expressed their solidarity with India. However, Pakistan, unfazed by India’s pull out, made clear that the event would take place in November.