The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has been struggling to survive in a conflict ridden environment since its birth in 1985, received yet another body blow earlier this week.

The Indian Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, stated categorically that India will not accept Pakistan’s invitation to attend the organization’s summit to be held in Islamabad.

If India does not attend, the summit cannot be held, because, according to the SAARC charter, all governments will have to be represented for a summit to be held.

India cited cross border-terrorist attacks and the bombing of a Nirankari shrine in Amritsar by a Pakistan-based outfit as reasons for the boycott, “Terrorism and talks cannot go together,” Minister Swaraj said.

Strangely, the boycott announcement came close on the heels of very encouraging statements from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, in connection with the start of the construction of a road between two Sikh shrines, one in India and the other in Pakistan.

Modi said that the road link will shatter barriers between India and Pakistan just as the breaking of the Berlin Wall shattered the division between East and West Germany. And Imran Khan said that if India takes one step towards peace and understanding, Pakistan will take two.

Political circles feel that while the building of the corridor is meant to help Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) get back Sikh support in Punjab which it lost in 2017, the anti-Pakistan tirade and the boycott of the SAARC summit in Pakistan, are meant to keep the Hindu votes with it. Indian parliamentary elections are due to May 2019 and every action has a political import.

Be that as it may, politics has again harmed SAARC, further crippling an already crippled organization by preventing dialogue and meaningful cooperation between neighbors to bring peace and economic development to a backward region.

Disunity at the summit level stops or hampers interaction and cooperation at lower non-political levels, where a lot of good work is being done but these remain unimplemented because of conflicts at the Heads of Government level.

Not The First Time

And this is by no means the first time that a SAARC summit will not be held because of a boycott. The first summit was held 1985 (December 7–8) when SAARC was officially launched. Since then, only 18 Summits have been held, i.e. ten in the first 15 years (1986 – 2000) and eight in next 15 years (2001 – 2016).

Summits were cancelled in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

First Decade

Dr.Manzoor Ahmad in his paper:” SAARC Summits 1985-2016: The Cancellation Phenomenon” that in the first decade (1986–1995), only seven Summits were held. Summits could not take place in 1989, 1992 and 1994. The venues were changed in 1987 and 1988. The summits were victims of strained relations among SAARC members, especially India, Ahmad says.

Political and security tensions between New Delhi and Colombo over the Tamil issue undermined the summit process from 1988 to 1991. Sri Lanka refused to host the summit until India withdrew its troops. Consequently, the Fourth summit was shifted to Islamabad in 1988. The Fifth Summit was to be held in Colombo in 1989. But again Sri Lanka refused to host it in protest over the continued presence of IPKF on its soil.

The 1991 summit in Colombo was postponed at the last minute when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan announced his inability to attend because of unrest and violence in his country.

According to Ahmad, SAARC members were willing to go ahead with a representative of the Bhutanese King, but India opposed declaring that it would be a violation of the charter.

Indo–Bangladesh Tensions

The summits in Bangladesh (1992) and India (1994) were delayed till 1993 and 1995, respectively. The 1992 summit in Dhaka was postponed when Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao refused to attend saying that the security situation in Bangladesh was bad with Muslims protesting against the demolition of a 500 year old mosque in North India on December 6, 1992. This was the first occasion when India refused to attend a summit.

India-Pakistan Row

The Eighth Summit was to be held in Pakistan in 1994. But it had to be cancelled because of the India-Pakistan row over Kashmir. While Pakistan accused India of suppressing Kashmiri Muslims and wanted to be involved in finding a solution to the Kashmir problem, India said that the violent incidents in Kashmir were the handiwork of Pakistan inspired and funded terrorists. New Delhi also insisted that Kashmir’s integration with India could not be questioned.

India and Pakistan, which had started a dialogue in 1990, had suspended it between 1994 and 1997. However, a summit was held in Delhi in 1995 with Pakistan’s participation.

Second Decade

In the second decade (1996–2005) ,only five summits were held. They could not be held in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003. The reason was, one again, India-Pakistan tension. .

However, at the 1997 summit in the Maldives, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his counterpart, I. K. Gujral, got along famously pledging to settle all disputes as per the Simla Agreement reached in the 1970s.

But the rapprochement was short lived because of Pakistan army’s covert capture of the hill posts in the Kargil sector of Kashmir in 1999. There was also a military coup in Pakistan which further aggravated ties with India.

Therefore, the Eleventh summit was delayed till 2002. The 42 month gap between the Tenth and Eleventh summits was the longest gap in the history of SAARC summits.

The Eleventh Summit, which was to be held in Kathmandu in November 1999, was postponed to 2002 because India did not want to sit with Pakistan President Gen.Pervez Musharraf.

The Twelfth summit was to be held in Pakistan in 2003. Using trade liberalization as a lever, India refused to participate in the summit saying that until Pakistan agreed to make substantial progress in trade liberalization there would be no interaction.

This was the fourth time New Delhi had precipitated a summit postponement, Dr.Ahmad says. But after Pakistan agreed to trade liberalization, the summit was held in Islamabad in 2004.

The Dhaka summit to be held in 2005 was delayed because Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had refused to attend citing undemocratic actions of the Nepalese, King Gyanendra. Gyanendra had declared a State of Emergency after sacking the elected government in February, 2005.

In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government had become very anti-Indian and was using Islamic radical groups to target Indian interests.

This was the fifth time in the then 20 year-SAARC history that New Delhi had caused a delay in the summit. The Dhaka Summit was finally held in November 2005 after a nine month delay.

Third Decade

In the third decade (2006-2105) also, SAARC continued to witness long delays and cancellations. Only five Summits were held during this period. No summits were held in 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2015.

In 2014, SAARC heads decided to meet once in two years and not once in an year perhaps looking at the ground realities.

Fourth Decade

In the Fourth Decade (2016-) there has been one cancellation. The summit, which was to be held in Pakistan in 2016, was cancelled because of a boycott by several countries, led by India.

India accused Pakistan of using its agents to attack an army base at Uri in Kashmir. Other countries were persuaded to boycott giving their own reasons as many of them had issues with Pakistan.