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A summit in trouble

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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THE postponement at the eleventh hour of the 13th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, which was scheduled to be held in Dhaka from February 6-7, has put a question mark on the future of the regional grouping. It was for the first time that the summit was called off at such short notice. The summit was initially scheduled to be held in the first week of January. It was postponed because of the crisis caused by the tsunami in Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives.

This time around, the decision of the King of Nepal on February 1 to arbitrarily asume dictatorial powers seemed to be the trigger. The assassination of a former Finance Minister of Bangladesh, Shamsul Kibria, a senior functionary of the Awami League, the main Opposition party, in the last week of January, had apparently created doubts in New Delhi about the security situation in Dhaka. However, according to most observers, the final decision by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to not attend the summit seems to have been taken after the King, disregarding New Delhi's advice, reverted to monarchy after a decade and a half of political pluralism. It was felt in New Delhi that sharing a platform with the monarch would send the wrong message to the Nepali people as well as to the international community.

The Manmohan Singh government consulted the major political parties in the country before taking the precipitate step. New Delhi initially hoped that the events in Nepal would inhibit the King from participating in the summit. The King, however, was quick to intimate Dhaka that he would attend the SAARC summit.

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, while trying to rationalise India's decision to stay away from the summit, told the media that the decision was taken "against the background of the recent developments in our neighbourhood, which have caused us grave concern". He said that the security system in Dhaka had deteriorated after the killing of Kibria. There were reports of grenade attacks near the Dhaka Sheraton Hotel, the official venue of the SAARC, when an Indian security team was in the country to assess the security situation.

The government of Bangladesh is, however, in no mood to buy the Indian argument. It issued a statement describing New Delhi's action as "unwarranted and unexpected". It went on to say that it was "a sad commentary for South Asia that its largest member-state should retract its commitment to the SAARC charter". The Bangladesh government was particularly livid that the "security issue" was given as the prime reason for India deciding to abstain from the summit. It said that India's comments about the security situation in Bangladesh were "unacceptable".

In New Delhi, Shyam Saran could not give a credible reply when he was reminded that India participated in the January 2004 SAARC summit in Islamabad in the wake of two serious assassination attempts against Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in late 2003.

Which government, Bangladeshi officials ask, will condone assassinations of political opponents on the eve of an important regional summit? The Awami League has been claiming that government agencies are involved in the targeting of its leadership. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury said that it was "ironic" that New Delhi took the decision when an Indian security assessment team was still present in Dhaka consulting Bangladesh security agencies.

The Khalida Zia-led government has already started blaming the Awami League, the country's major Opposition party, for allegedly being in league with New Delhi, to get the SAARC summit derailed. A grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina in August last year had vitiated the political atmosphere in Bangladesh and widened the gulf between New Delhi and Dhaka. More than 19 people were killed in that attack, which took place when Sheikh Hasina and other top leaders of her party were addressing a meeting in Dhaka.

The previous National Democratic Alliance government and the present Congress-led government have accused Dhaka of harbouring and providing succour to Indian separatist and terrorist organisations. The Home Ministry has said that there are more than 200 camps for insurgents from northeastern India on Bangladesh soil. Dhaka has denied these charges. It has also decried accusations that Bangladesh has become a sanctuary for Islamic militants. There are reports in the Bangladeshi and international media about the growing clout of an Islamic militant who goes by the nom de guerre of "Bangla Bhai". Al Qaeda-linked web sites have described him as Osama bin Laden's representative in the country. Bangladeshi officials, however, claim that the hype surrounding "Bangla Bhai" and Islamists is an exaggeration.

THE real reason for the Indian non-participation seems to be related to the events in Nepal. External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh had told this correspondent in the last week of January that he would be in Dhaka for the summit. New Delhi had cited the "democracy" issue on earlier occasions also. The Kathmandu and Islamabad SAARC summits were considerably delayed because of India's reluctance to engage with Pakistan. Musharraf had usurped power from a democratically elected government in Pakistan in October 1999 and India-Pakistan relations had hit a stormy patch after that. It is another matter that the "democracy" issue was conveniently put on the back burner later.

According to many South Asia experts, New Delhi should have focussed more on Nepal while announcing its decision to pull out of the summit. New Delhi had been advising the King against making such a move for the past two months. "We had repeatedly expressed our concern to the King that any attempt to marginalise the democratic forces will give more ground to the Maoists," Shyam Saran had told the media. India has demanded the release of all political leaders who have been taken into custody following a crackdown.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, in a report issued soon after Nepal's return to absolute monarchy, said that the King's actions were a "direct attack" on the democratic system in Nepal. "In fact, those supporting the King have reportedly been allowed to rally and express their support. This creates a dangerous situation giving way for Royalist groups to hunt or harm members of the democratic parties and others. At least one such clash with students has already been reported," the statement said. The United Nations, the European Union and even the United States have been sharply critical of the King's move. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) noted with concern that the royal decree had suppressed all trade union rights and banned meetings. The Maoists had raised the banner of revolt demanding that Nepal become a republic so that the "autocratic monarchical rule" can be brought to an end.

"The Government of India should make it clear that this coup against the Constitution and democracy in Nepal is unacceptable and respond in a manner which will help to restore the democratic system in Nepal," said a statement issued by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). New Delhi, from present indications, does not want to burn all its bridges with the Palace at this juncture. The Indian Foreign Secretary has said that no "benchmarks" were being put to restart serious talks with Kathmandu. The new Army chief, General Joginder Jaswant Singh, has postponed his trip to Kathmandu. There is talk that New Delhi may scale down the substantial amount of military assistance it provides to the Himalayan kingdom.

The priority for Delhi will be to safeguard national security. Top security officials have come to the conclusion that at present the threat from the ultra-left groupings to the country is greater than the one posed by Islamic militancy. The Maoists in Nepal have indicated that they are now willing to form a broad front with other mainstream parties to put up a joint struggle for the restoration of democracy. They had indicated on several occasions that they were willing to enter into the electoral arena provided the role of the monarchy in Nepalese politics was diluted.

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