In December this year SAARC -South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation- which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal, will celebrate the 33rd year of its founding. The region home to five main religions of the world -Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism faces a multiplicity of ethnic/racial, religious, and gender-based problems.
At the time of its formation, SAARC was derisively referred to by some, as an association of beggars. Today though, while the region is known for its riches in mineral resources and growing economic clout, a large section of its people continue to be among the most deprived in the world with around 451 million people living below the poverty line. India and Pakistan, the two leading members of SAARC are nuclear powers. India is seen as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
The region is home to 23% of the global population and a single country in the association – Afghanistan – sits on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world with an estimated value of $ 1 trillion according to ‘Live Science’. SAARC countries have also been plagued by both inter-country and intra-country disputes as well as tensions based on race, caste and ethnicity. India and Pakistan have as yet not come to terms over the carnage which followed partition at the time of their independence and have gone to war over Kashmir three times.
Neither has time healed the scars of the massive human suffering which followed partition. Today there exists a continuing hatred in India over the Muslim minority, leaving the community feeling vulnerable amid a large Hindu population, many of whom are very vocally extremist. Despite legal protections, Indian democracy has not been able to secure the rights of its many minorities. With low-caste Dalits (‘untouchables’) suffering pervasive marginalization in public and private life, as do tribal people (Adavasi).
Attacks on Muslims and Dalits in India are reported on a near daily basis. Statistics show that 86% of people killed in cow-related violence since 2010 are Muslims. The World Watch List 2017 ranks India 15th worst among nations where Christians are persecuted. Four years ago, India ranked 31st on the list.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil minority claims discrimination and has been demanding a greater role in government since independence. The community has suffered three major attacks based on race, including a state sponsored pogrom which led to a Tamil-led insurgency. Since the brutal crushing of that insurgency, the dominant political voice in Sri Lanka is that of a “political Buddhism”. Muslims and Christians have become targets of nationalist forces which appear to have state protection.
In Pakistan, the government has participated in attacks on Pashtun villages along its border with Afghanistan, alienating large sections of that community. In Bangladesh tensions between Bengali settler communities and indigenous Jumma settlements continue, again with apparent tacit government backing. In Nepal, the minority ‘Madhesis’, with ties to India, accuse the Nepalese authorities of having failed to meet their aspirations for greater participation in government.
Most countries in the grouping also accuse India of meddling in their internal affairs. Unfortunately none of the countries within the SAARC group has as yet been able to come up with a satisfactory solution to the issues of
Despite India being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, millions of Indians continue to live in darkness. Rape in India continues to grow alarmingly, and India has been described as the rape capital in the world. Sadly politicians within the Indian government itself have been implicit in backing rapists rather than their victims.
Do the countries within SAARC have the will and ability to tackle the problems of minority interests in their respective countries? Or will communalism, racism and ethnicity continue to dictate the fate of millions within the group?