M.L. Sondhi and Shrikant Paranjpe

Hindustan Times, July 27, 1990

During his recent visit to Maldives, the Prime Minister, Mr. V.P. Singh, gave special emphasis to the development of SAARC as a “peace community”.  He suggested, “The SAARC nations cannot afford the luxury of feeding old antagonisms and letting them become roadblocks in the evolution of the region into a community of prosperous nations at peace with themselves and with the world.”

The collective push to the process of regional cooperation of which Mr. V.P. Singh spoke can only come about if the possibilities of creative democratic dialogue are enhanced and institutionalised.  SAARC has until now gone through some of the early formative problems of any regional organisation.  After the initial Dhaka summit, the meetings at Bangalore (1986), Kathmandu (1987) and Islamabad (1988) widened the scope for specialist consultations and crystallised a range of new options which could enhance the utilisation of human resources and technology in South Asia.


Although the orientation of some countries, including India has been that political and security issues of a bilateral nature are outside the scope of SAARC, it is interesting to note that all the summits were marked by intensive and continuous interactions among the SAARC leaders on matters which included security and political concerns, at least on an informal basis.  Moreover, at Kathmandu the issue of terrorism, which is directly relevant to the settlement of intra-regional disputes, was discussed.  At Islamabad, in spite of the linkage of Indo-Pakistan problems to extra-regional and global security issues, observers saw serious efforts on the part of India and Pakistan to transcend bilateral issues of contention and build bridges of cooperation.  India clearly favoured an incrementalist approach to South Asian cooperation and there were tangible signs of progress towards defusing underlying causes of Indo-Pakistan hostility.  Sceptics, however, believed that this change was more apparent than real, and especially after the Kashmir issue erupted and both countries began to consider the possibility of an all-out war, questions about the futility of SAARC for meeting challenges to regional peace and security began to be raised publicly.

The omissions of the sceptics lies precisely in the fact that they have not been able to relate the development of SAARC to the process of democratic transition in South Asia and the concomitant need to relate political pluralism to new conceptions of regional order.  A broad-based popular parliamentary forum in south Asia can meet the challenge of trends which would otherwise lead to instability and potential crisis.  We must emphasise that SAARC is not a static concept and the development of a parliamentary dimension must be seriously considered if it helps to stabilise the politico-economic environment in South Asia.


The European Parliament has helped to harmonise the moral and political aspirations of different European groups and helped the European Community to evolve its strategy of integration.  The proposed SAARC Parliament will have to adhere to certain basic principles: (1) that it is not dominated by any single nation-state in South Asia; (2) that it promotes the shared management problems on an equitable basis; (3) that in dealing with political and security issues the operational norms of partnership and common security are adhered to; (4) that political trust and cooperation are fostered by legislative conflict resolution; and (5) that it unreservedly recognises the right to identify at local, national and regional levels and will foster solution of social conflicts through mutual understanding and non-violent means.

Conceptual and empirical evidence suggests that there is a common social morality in South Asia which can help in containing instability and conflict if ideological and political impediments are lowered and there is a freer flow of ideas and information across the subcontinent.  The SAARC Parliament can help bring into prominence regional problems and also give voice to different interests who feel stifled in the existing circumstances of centralised political control.  A regional legislature has greater freedom to work for reconciliation and peaceful settlement of social and ethnic conflicts since it can take advantage of a larger vision that encompasses the entire region and does not have to cater to chauvinism, which can devalue objective criteria when explosive national impulses are evoked on the floor of a national legislature.

A modus vivendi on an issue like Kashmir is certainly possible between India and Pakistan, but it is rendered more difficult in the absence of a regional legislature.  Whether it is the military-bureaucratic politics in Pakistan or it is the different cognitive influences on Indian and Pakistani military and non-military engagement, their national legislatures cannot act as catalysts for peaceful change on heavily polarised issues  With the acute conflict for power between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif it is hardly possible to take steps which are needed to move matters in the direction of peaceful conflict resolution in Kashmir as envisaged under the Simla process.  Similarly although the Indian Parliament is an effective channel for political pluralism, yet no Government in India can extend the concept of democratisation to result in the secession of Kashmir.


It is precisely in such a context that a SAARC legislature could recognise and accommodate Kashmir’s interests within a cohesive regional unity and break the vicious circle by which both India and Pakistan undermine each other’s credibility.  It is quite clear that South Asia’s future will remain quite dismal as long as issues like Kashmir are sought to be settled through subversion and political violence.  The transformation of Kashmir from an arena of terrorism and State suppression of secessionism to an area of social and communal harmony is conceivable only within a framework of friendly and improving relationships among the south Asian community of nations.

Pakistan’s recent efforts to wrench Kashmir out of the Indian Union could be very costly and unpredictable.  India has the resources and political will to consolidate its hold on Kashmir but its paramilitary actions will exacerbate the secessionist assertiveness of the Kashmiri people and inevitably imply the suppression of civil liberties in the Valley.  A SAARC Parliament could deal with the Kashmir problem with long-sightedness and while steering away from divisiveness stress the commonalities in an interdependent South Asia.  The regional legislature can conduct debate in which the attitudes, assumptions and policies of individual countries are perceived in the context of war-avoidance and interdependency. 

It is of course necessary to recognise the limitations of a SAARC legislature which can only facilitate the process of opinion formation on a regional basis but cannot go against the logic of national sovereignty and its bearing upon aggressive and expansionist designs.  At the same time it has to be accepted that the time is more than ripe for South Asians to take advantage of the new atmosphere of preventive diplomacy and peace-keeping and join the current trend of multilateral contacts and exchanges.

Indo-Pak war

It is simply not possible to comprehend what an Indo-Pakistan war, with the possibility of nuclear escalation, would imply.  We know from the experience of the Iraq-Iran war that experts engaged in technical and policy discussions about a short war were proved wrong.  Pakistan’s hope of security from the United States and India’s similar hopes from the Soviets may both prove to be illusions in the altered framework of world politics.  The political implications of South Asian regionalism provide an opportunity for regional peace and security which must not be lost.  The setting up of a SAARC Parliament will contribute to the building of regional confidence and would help political elites in South Asian countries to adapt the Helsinki process in Europe to regional requirements for the sub-continent.

The setting up of a SAARC Parliament may not register immediate success against nationalist and divisive appeals.  It will, however, add prestige and leverage to efforts to strengthen the foundations of South Asia as a peaceful community.  A strategy of integration requires norms of regional behaviour and regular and continuous interactions of members of the South Asian Parliament will help in the institutionalising of legislative norms which in turn will help strengthen SAARC’s viability in the long run.

It remains a question whether the SAARC Parliament will be capable of promoting concrete measures for regional peace and security.  It is, however, more likely to be outward looking than the existing national legislatures.

Finally, the SAARC Parliament should help to fortify regionalism and multilateralism and through rational and open discourse work for the reduction of military budgets so that military expenditures can be reallocated for the purposes of socio-economic development.

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