Imagining a South Asia Beyond SAARC

By- Uddipta Ranjan Boruah, New Delhi

Genesis of SAARC

The most concrete step in terms of regional integration in South Asia came up in 1980 under the aegis of the Bangladeshi President, Ziaur Rahman. He proposed for the first time the need for a regional integration organization in South Asia thus eventually making way for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation on December 8th 1985 at Dhaka. There was an initial reluctance among the South Asian countries (mainly India and Pakistan) to accept the Bangladeshi draft proposal. Rahman’s proposal became tangible when India and Pakistan eventually decided to come to the table after the draft dropped all references to security matters. Coming up originally as the South Asian Regional Cooperation (SARC) under the Delhi Declaration of the Foreign Ministers’ conference in 1983 it obtained its present name South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation presently comprises of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The primary reasons behind Rahman’s proposal for a regional integration organization in South Asia were predominantly domestic. In the classical realist understanding, they best served Bangladesh’s ‘national interests’. Few of the reasons being the Bangladesh President’s need for India’s support to legitimize his coup d’état regime and ensure stability and growth, the need for collective utilization of resources to deal with an acute balance of payment crisis faced by Bangladesh and other South Asian countries; the renewed momentum of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Rahman’s own failure to join ASEAN as a member etc.

The Story So Far

When it comes to progress in terms of institutional arrangements and program implementation the SAARC has followed the most pedestrian path possible. The growth has been extraordinarily slow. The much talked about South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) remains almost in debris given the level of indifference among the members who have been showing more preference for parallel trading rather than for reducing intraregional tariffs and trade barriers. Success of the SAARC Food Security Reserve has remained almost a far cry as it has been rarely used to meet the needs of member states. ‘Soft’ issues have been dominating the meetings of SAARC revolving around numerous talks, discussions and seminars. Although SAARC has successfully established a permanent secretariat with a Secretary General at Kathmandu, the secretariat has remained mostly toothless so far. The South Asian leaders have shown no interest in strengthening the Secretariat and the Secretary General, mostly on account of mutual suspicions and lack of confidence and trust. The unfair obsession of the South Asian leaders with sovereignty has further contributed to the SAARC secretariat remaining toothless. As a result the region lacks a supranational organization in line with the European Union. In the absence of a strong Secretariat and Secretary General it has been difficult to move the SAARC agenda. SAARC annual summits and summit-related activities have been providing a platform for the South Asian leaders to find mutually acceptable solutions for many of their domestic and regional issues. But this cannot undermine the fact that the SAARC in the past has failed to hold its annual summits on 10 occasions. The failures in holding summits primarily accrue to the political tensions among the members, mostly India and Pakistan. The existence of two polar forces – India and Pakistan within the organization and the circumstances and compromises under which the two came up to the table initially still remains the major bone of contention. Each side fears the possibility of the other taking up the SAARC forum in exerting pressure with the support of other members. The consistent antagonisms between India and Pakistan together with increased nuclear weapons proliferation in the region has given rise to an acute security dilemma in the region making the success of SAARC a murky affair.

Above all its failures the one thing in which the entity has failed drastically is to create a South Asian consciousness. The organization has failed to inculcate the solidarity among the member nations. The citizens of the member states are being continuously injected with a dose of banal nationalism by undoing and abandoning the shared history of the region, as a result of which they fail to identify themselves with a common South Asian identity. Given the strong dose of nationalism injected to the citizens by the respective nation states the idea of a “project South Asianization” could not come up in lines of the “project Europeanization” of the European Union. SAARC unlike its European counterpart lacks common insignias ranging from South Asian flag, currency, anthem and the like. It is unfortunate that the SAARC has mostly remained a state centric affair where people and their imaginations have rarely figured in.  The member nations have failed to realize the curious phenomenon in Europe wherein a Belgian, French or a Spaniard in unison shares the pride of being European. It still remains a challenge for the South Asian countries of the region to rise beyond their national identities to form a shared regional identity.

South Asia beyond SAARC


After three decades of the existence of SAARC, its shortcomings as a regional organization are more than explicit. The question that must stimulate the consciousness of every South Asian today is – Do we still need SAARC as it exists to sustain the idea of regional integration in South Asia? In pursuit of better integration in South Asia the South Asian community as a whole must rise up beyond the confinements of the SAARC. Looking up to the organization as the only actor for promoting integration has brought negligible fruits in the past three decades and now is the time to promote the agency of the people at large. The new model must take on board the imaginations of the people as the primary actor for promoting integration. The SAARC must draw valuable lessons from its South East Asian counterpart, ASEAN. The rise of civil society and people’s involvement in regional integration is a curious phenomenon in South East Asia, which unfortunately is lacking in South Asia. Regions come into existence when people inhabiting the area begin imagining themselves to be a part of a greater regionnes. As argued by Luk Van Langenhove, people do not talk of regions because they exist, but because they are talked of, regions begin to emerge. SAARC must thus form mechanisms to incorporate the imaginations of people and move beyond its four walls at Kathmandu (the SAARC Secretariat). There must be an increased engagement of civil society with a mechanism for holding civil society summit meetings simultaneously to the SAARC annual summits. A model to be followed could be the ASEAN People’s Forum. After the failure of the top-down bureaucratic approach to regionalism in South Asia for the past three decades, now is the time for an alternative bottom-up approach. If a Madhesi in Nepal recognizes his commonalities with a Bihari in India or a Sindhi in Pakistan shares his history with a Punjabi in India what better opportunity can there be to unite them all under a South Asian identity without stripping them off their national identities.

(Uddipta Ranjan Boruah, Student of International Relations at South Asian University, a SAARC initiative. Write ups feature in International Policy Digest, Eurasia Review, South Asia Monitor and Greatway among others)

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