After many a hiccup, the SAARC summit scheduled for 4-6 January will finally happen at a difficult time in the entire region’s history. There is an epic war going on in the Hindu Kush, and within each of our borders there are bitter insurgencies and separatist struggles. George W. Bush has set the agenda for the whole world by letting the cat out of the bag to catch the terrorist but it would be a mistake for the SAARC summit to get carried away on terrorism. There is a serious worry that the SAARC agenda will be hijacked by heads of government suddenly finding the one area where they can agree – and thereby squelching the aspirations of minorities and oppositional political groups in each of the seven countries of the region.
The American need to find the perpetrators of the terror acts of 11 September and bring them to book is valid, and South Asia too is duty-bound to help find those who helped execute the plan to kill thousands of innocents at one go. But it is another thing to try and take advantage of the American war against terrorism to ease one’s own burden by accessing a political cover to do what you could not do otherwise.
Look out over the political landscape of South Asia, and you find governments alltoo- willing to try and finish the ‘terrorist’ problem once and for call. In Nepal the government has finally declared the Maoists a terrorist group and the army has been directed out of the barracks on a search and destroy mission. Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government has passed the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention and Control) Ordinance (TADO). In India, the BJP-led government is keen to pass the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO), as successor to the infamous Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), which was a much abused antiliberties legislation. The BJP has declared that those who oppose POTO are antinational.
In Sri Lanka, where it has long been the attitude of the establishment that the ‘terrorism’ in the north and east be contained by the strongest measures, the Peoples Alliance PA government of Chandrika Kumaratunga is now breathing fire in the runup to the parliamentary elections of 5 December. Known for its commitment te pluralism and resolution of the Sinhalese Tamil ethnic conflict through negotiation, the agenda of the PA is now, in the words of a well-known Colombo analyst, “to define itself in a discourse of anti-terrorism as well as Sinhalese patriotism.” Bhutan feels cornered between the Indian army and the Bodo militants who are hiding in its southern jungles. Bangladesh has just come through its most violent general elections ever, and the bomb blasts and mass killings that marked the electoral campaign are of the kind that will steel any middle class to ‘hard action’. In Pakistan, the seething interethnic and sectarian divides seem to be on the back-burner for the moment only because of the Afghanistan matter, and General Pervez Musharraf will likely find that once the Americans leave he will have massive problems of militancy on hand, which he will likely try to suppress with a heavy military hand, not having a political card to play.
It would thus seem that the summit of SAARC will bring to Kathmandu prime ministers and presidents, each for his or her own reasons, more than willing to agree on the need to tackle terrorism with military determination, and more likely than not their role model will be George W. Bush. It is our belief that this would be a waste of time, and extremely inappropriate. While the irrationally violent must always be tackled with a firm hand, the governments should not misuse SAARC for this purpose. Each government already is more than powerful with the tools of governance and war to tackle the insurgencies within each country without having to coordinate their activities at a regional level. By the looks of it, South Asia’s weak ‘civil society’ must step up its decibel level to convince all ‘POTO-inclined’ governments that the social, economic and identity-based sources of militancy will have to be addressed before ‘terrorism’ will disappear.
We know it will not happen at this SAARC summit, but we look forward to such a gathering of leaders in the future when the individual polities are sufficiently mature to allow their leaderships to discuss the ground-level issues of representation, democracy, pluralism, identity, and social and economic exploitation. Only when the SAARC leaders are ready to discuss these, should they (and the organisation) be considered mature enough to discuss terrorism.