New Delhi: India and Pakistan should get over their differences and get SAARC moving again in the larger interest of South Asia, Nepal’s envoy to India Nilamber Acharya has said.
“SAARC is facing difficulties and SAARC summits are not taking place. We would like to see these difficulties be removed,” he told ThePrint in an interview. “The SAARC process should be started.”
SAARC or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is a regional grouping with eight nations as members: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan.
The last SAARC Summit was held in Kathmandu in November 2014. The gathering has been on hold since 2016, when India and five other nations boycotted the summit, supposed to be held in Islamabad, in the wake of the Uri terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Kashmir.
Concerns over Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, among other factors, have since stalled the summit, with India pitching BIMSTEC, or Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, as an alternative to SAARC.
Nepal, which is the current chair of SAARC, is also a member of BIMSTEC. However, speaking to ThePrint, Acharya said BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC.
“We understand the nature of the difficulties. India is the biggest member (within SAARC) in size, its economy is the greatest, and it is the largest democracy, and is a factor of peace and stability in the region,” he added. “So, without satisfying India, SAARC cannot move forward. But we hope it will soon be restarted and all difficulties will be removed,” Acharya said.
“About relations between… India and Pakistan… They should remove all causes that are coming in their way,” said Acharya, who took charge as Nepal’s envoy to New Delhi earlier this year. “I think, in the near future, they will come together… But BIMSTEC is BIMSTEC, SAARC is SAARC. One cannot be put against another.”
‘Projects need to be sped up’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his second tenure in office with an invitation to BIMSTEC leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony.
His Nepalese counterpart K.P. Oli was thus in attendance in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan as Modi and his ministerial colleagues were administered the oath of office.
The envoy said the Oli government expected India’s new government to speed up projects directly related to his “country’s economic growth and progress”.
Kathmandu and New Delhi are involved in various projects spanning several sectors, including agriculture, electricity, railways and petroleum pipelines.
“We have to speed up (the pending projects)… We have to complete what has been agreed upon. We have a vast area of cooperation. The Nepal and India relationship is very important for Nepal’s growth and prosperity,” he added. “There were delays from both sides but now there is an oversight mechanism.”
Delays in such projects was something External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also referred to at an event last week, saying he would take a leaf from the Prime Minister’s ‘PRAGATI’ initiative to regularly take stock of progress made.
The BRI question
Nepal, a landlocked Himalayan nation located snug between India and China, is one of the partners of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to forge trade connectivity between Africa, Asia and Europe.
As part of the BRI, Nepal is reportedly planning to build a ‘Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network’ that will also include a cross-border railway line between the two countries.
This has been seen with some trepidation in India: One of the BRI’s showpiece projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and New Delhi and China have struggled to see eye-to-eye on the project.
Speaking to ThePrint, Acharya said Nepal’s BRI embrace was symptomatic of a changing world order.
“China is growing, so more and more developing nations are forging a relationship with China,” he added. “India is also doing the same. This is a changing world order and shifting weightage of countries.”
He, however, said Nepal’s relationship with China was “not at the cost of its ties with India”.
‘Madhesi agitation is a thing of past’
After Modi became prime minister in 2014, Nepal was one of the first countries he visited, a decision seen as a tip of the hat to his government’s promised focus on India’s neighbourhood.
But the relationship hit its nadir in September 2015 as Nepal’s bid to frame a new constitution brought several communities, including the Madhesis, a group with Indian links, out on the streets over what they claimed was their “unfair representation” in the document.
The protests caused a blockade in the border areas, spurring a major humanitarian and economic crisis in Nepal.
At the time of the agitation, which saw more than 50 Madhesis lose their lives, Nepal accused India of fanning the fire, even as India sought changes to the constitution.
“The period of blockade was an unfortunate one. It did harm our relations, but it is now a thing of the past,” the ambassador told ThePrint. “Now the constitution is working and, under the present government, Nepal is working to put our relations on the right track,” he said.
“What constitution we want is our decision. India has its own constitution and we have our own constitution. We now have a constitution that is promulgated and adopted by an elected constituent assembly and there is now a stable government,” he added. “So, now we have a stable political system. There were periods of instability in Nepal, but they are now a thing of the past.”