SAARC and India-Pakistan Relations: Mutual Interdependence and Future Prospects



by Venkkat G & Sobia Hamid Bhat     29 August 2022

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC as it is popularly known, is a regional inter-governmental organisation of countries in South Asia. It was established on 8th of December, 1985 in Dhaka, Bangladesh to promote peace, prosperity, and regional integration in the South Asian region. It currently comprises of eight members states viz. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives, with Afghanistan being the latest entrant to the original tally of seven. It’s secretariat is established in Katmandu, Nepal, and it oversees the normal functioning of the organisation. Despite occupying merely 3% of the world’s area, it is home to 1.7 billion people or 21% of the world’s population. It maintains an observer status at the United Nations, and several other extra-regional countries like China, Japan, European Union, USA etc. in turn have observer status at SAARC.

Figure 1: Member Countries of SAARC Image source – Authors

However, despite its huge potential, the region also faces several challenges. South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. The intra-regional trade accounts for merely 5% of its total trade, compared to 25% for ASEAN and 60% for EU. It is also one of the world’s most poverty stricken regions with 33.4% world’s extreme poor, closely behind that of sub-Saharan Africa. Its social indicators like hunger and nutrition, health and education, drinking water and sanitation fare poor in the UN Sustainable Development Goal matrixes. The region is ill famed for its heinous social ills like gender discrimination, social exploitation, raging inequalities, subaltern marginalization, and communal conflicts. It is also one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, and is a hot spot of global refugee crisis hosting about 3 million refugees.

In addition to all the above socio-economic challenges are the even greater political issues. The region is fractured with territorial disputes, unresolved boundary conflicts, frequent ceasefire violations, cross-border terrorism, insurgencies and secessionist challenges. It has borne witness to numerous inter-state conflicts (1984 Siachen conflict, 1999 Kargil Conflict, 2019 Balakot airstrike etc.) and even instances of all-out war between nations (1948 Kashmir war, 1965 Indo-Pak war, 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War etc). The magnitude of the danger is enhanced multifold by the presence of two nuclear armed neighbours pointing their warheads at each other, with open threats of annihilating the ‘other’. SAARC as a regional organization appears to be poorly equipped to deal with the problems of this gravity, and according to most critics, has badly failed in most regards.

However most of this criticism, although partially valid, is ill founded. SAARC is a regional grouping of its constituent member states, and is merely a reflection of the nature of relationship that exists amongst them. An organization cannot be expected to be more perfect than the society which it is a part of beyond a certain extent. The failure of SAARC is more a reflection of the collective failure of its constituent members as a whole rather than the failure of the organization per se. More often than not, it has been held hostage by the bitter contours of the India-Pakistan relations since its inception. But despite its limitations, the organization has been instrumental in steering the relationship between the arch enemies-cum-brothers towards a more amicable direction. This paper seeks to chart out the above mentioned mutual interdependence between SAARC and Indo-Pakistan relations. It first talks about how SAARC has played a positive role in maintaining India-Pakistan relations, after which it dwells on how Indo-Pakistan relations have negatively affected the functioning of SAARC. Finally, it evaluates the future prospects of SAARC in the backdrop of deteriorating Indo-Pak ties.

Role of SAARC on India-Pakistan Relations

SAARC has played a pivotal role in bolstering India-Pakistan ties since its inception. It has served as a platform for the leaders from the two countries to meet on a regular basis, initiate dialogue, seek solution and resolve differences. Such summit diplomacy between the heads of governments re-energizes the relationship between states, and serves to set in place a top-to-bottom framework for the diplomatic establishments in both sides to act upon. This political will, complemented by bureaucratic support, drives forward the agenda agreed upon at the summit, and serves to maintain the bilateral relations at the official level. It is for this reason that “unofficial meetings between leaders of India and Pakistan at the sidelines of SAARC summits often got far more focus in media than official meetings of the organization.”[i].

SAARC also provides an opportunity to help “defuse tensions, mange crises, begin or resume parleys and negotiate or sign important bilateral agreements.”[ii]. The same can be shown by tracing the role individual SAARC summits have played in landmark developments in the Indo-Pak relations. The very first summit in Dhaka in 1985 was held just a year after the 1984 conflict at Siachen glacier, and it had aided in normalizing the ties between the two countries after the clash. Similarly, the Non- Nuclear Aggression Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan on the eve of 4th SAARC summit in Islamabad, and was reached following a series of informal talks on the sidelines of the previous SAARC summits in Dhaka, Bangalore and Katmandu.

The 10th SAARC summit at Colombo in 1998 was held just a few weeks following the nuclear tests conducted by both India and Pakistan in May 1998. Despite the initial skepticism, the informal meeting between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif helped to break the ice and paved the way for Vajpayee’s famous bus diplomacy to Pakistan and the eventual signing of the Lahore Agreement in Feb 1999. Equally auspicious was the 11th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu in 2002 after a delay of two years following the 1999 Kargil conflict, 2001 Indian Parliamentary attacks and the subsequent military standoff (Operation Parakram) at the borders. Again, the summit proved to be highly effective in diffusing the tension and normalizing the ties between the two neighbors, as represented by the symbolic handshake between Musharraf and Vajpayee in the sidelines.

Its success was soon emulated at the 2004 Islamabad summit, which saw the signing of the pivotal SAFTA agreement to enhance the economic integration amongst the South Asian neighbours. The Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting at its sidelines also paved way for initiating a “composite dialogue process” covering major irritants in Indo-Pak ties like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, nuclear security, cross-border terrorism, etc. It was also followed by a series of confidence building measures (CBMs) from both sides, including launching of a new train service connecting the two countries (Thar express), a new bus service connecting the two parts of Kashmir (Srinagar–Muzaffarabad Bus), promotion of people to people contacts, and furthering trade and economic cooperation. Similarly, the 16th SAARC summit held at Thimphu in 2010 helped to reopen talks and initiate a thaw in the bitterness that ensued after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Perhaps, unarguably the most promising role that SAARC has played in the India-Pakistan relations is not at the political level, but rather at the societal level. It has enabled more concretely to conceptualize a South Asia identity cutting across the national borders and generating a sense of regional brotherhood. It has laid down a common vision that its people can aspire to, one of peace, prosperity and regional integration. It has also provided platform for a multi-dimensional cooperation across various sectors that has significantly enhanced the people-to-people contacts between the two countries. Various initiatives like SAARC Regional Centres (for Agriculture, Tuberculosis, Human Resource Development, Coastal Zone Management etc.), SAARC Food Bank, SAARC Development Fund and South Asian University, etc. have outgrown SAARC so to speak. The organization did also pave the way for the growth of regional civil society that aided in finding “regional solution to local, national and regional problems.”[iii]. Some of the examples include the Himal Southasian magazine started by Kanak Mani Dixit in 1987 which aims to provide coverage of the issues affecting the region as a whole.

The role of SAARC in strengthening India-Pakistan relations can also be seen from a purely theoretical perspective of International Organizations in general. Liberal scholars, particularly the liberal-institutionalists, are of the firm conviction that “IOs can really transform the world politics by inhibiting conflicts and promoting cooperation among states.” According to them, “IOs  provide  forum  to  the  states  to  discuss  issues, negotiate and conclude agreements as they provide information, address collective action problem, reduce transaction  cost, brings  transparency  and  promote  trust  among  the  participants.”[iv]. Equally convincing is the communication theorists claim that “construction of, say, people-to-people, academic and societal interlinkages are basal to correct the distortions of reciprocal representation lying at the base of political non-cooperation at the institutional level.”[v]. A very convincing example in this regard can be given that of establishment of the South Asian University (SAU), which aims to “create a center of excellence and produce leaders who identify themselves as citizens of the region with a common vision of success for both their home country and the neighbours”[vi].

All the above, in one way or the other, illuminates the role SAARC plays, recognized or unrecognized, in steering the Indo-Pak relations in a positive direction.

Role of India-Pakistan Relations on SAARC

Frankly speaking, there is a near unanimous consensus, amongst both scholars and general public alike, that the bitter contours of India-Pakistan relations has negatively affected the overall functioning of SAARC. The timeline of postponed or cancelled SAARC summits because of Indo-Pak rivalry since its inception is a dire testimony for the same. According to Article III of the SAARC Charter, “The Heads of State or Government shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary by the Member States.” However this provision is more honoured in its breach than in its observance. As per the reports, “SAARC has held only 18 Summits in the last 31 years since its inception in 1985.”[vii]. It got outrightly cancelled in the years 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, with SAARC being in a limbo ever since. Even when the summits did take place, it did so after considerable postponements and venue changes, and in only five cases did the summit proceed as per plan.

As expected, Indo-Pak rivalry stands out as the single most determining factor in the breakdown of SAARC summits. It played the spoilsport by directly causing the cancellation of 1994-1996, 1999-2003 and 2016 summits, and the postponement of several others. In fact, the Indo-Pak factor started playing out even before the organization formally came into existence. India was suspicious of Pakistan’s ‘vested’ interest in using the platform to balance against India by aligning with other smaller neighbours in the region. Pakistan on the other hand was equally nervous on being yet gain cornered by another of India’s hegemonic designs. This caused much confusions and uncertainties, and brought considerable delay in setting the institution in place.

Just a few years into its functioning, Indo-Pak ties hit a snag in early 1990s with the growing unrest in the Kashmir valley. India pointed fingers at Pakistan for ‘orchestrating’ the militancy while Pakistan blamed India for its ‘military occupancy’ of the valley. The eighth summit became a hostage to poor bilateral relations and the 1994 session at New Delhi couldn’t take place. Following a brief thaw, the bilateral relations reached a new low in 1999 with the onset of the Kargil conflict and subsequent military coup in Pakistan. Eleventh summit, originally scheduled to take place in November 1999 at Kathmandu, was postponed several times, and finally took place only in January 2002 after a gap of long 42 months.

Soon following that, the 12th session scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2003 was postponed by a year after India seemingly ‘failed’ to confirm its participation on time. “Islamabad accused Delhi of ‘sabotaging the event and adopting devious methods to derail’ the Summit.”[viii]. Finally, the cancellation of the 19th summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016 appears to be the final nail in the coffin for SAARC. India steered a boycott of the summit following the terrorist attacks at Uri, for which it blames the ‘sinister’ Pakistani hand behind the incident. India has adhered to its policy that “terror and talks cannot go together”, and as it stands today, has indefinitely postponed the cancelled session until further notice.

Even the national leaders, state diplomats and public intellectuals have publically acknowledged the fact that Indo-Pak relations lie at the root of dysfunction of SAARC. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen blamed India-Pakistan enmity as the main reason why SAARC is not prospering[ix]. Similarly, S Jaishankar, the former foreign secretary and current Minister of External Affairs of India, has termed SAARC as “jammed vehicle” and directs the blame at “one country” for not being on the same page as others in matters of vital interests for the region[x]. International political analyst C Raja Mohan calls Pakistan as the “camel that slowed down the pace of the South Asian caravan” and advocates the formula of “SAARC minus one” to drive the regional project forward[xi]. From the other side of the border, India is blamed for giving a “‘severe blow’ to the process by causing arbitrary postponement”, and they highlight that “At least six Summits were postponed because India refused to attend them on one pretext or another.”[xii].

Finally bringing in the theoretical perspective, realists, from the onset itself, were highly skeptical on the role of international organizations in the realm of inter-state relations. They view international politics purely in terms of power politics amongst sovereign states where other non-state actors do not have any real agency. According to them, international organisations “are just the instruments in the hands of powerful states to promote their national interests” and that “they have no real potential to significantly change the power structure of the anarchic international system.”[xiii]. Now that we have seen both the positive and negative mutual interdependence between SAARC and India-Pakistan relations, what are its future prospects?

Future Prospects of SAARC and India-Pakistan Relations

With the rise of Hindu nationalist forces to power under the premiership of Narendra Modi, there has been a remarked shift in India’s policy towards Pakistan. After a brief thaw in relations post 2014, the bilateral relations has been in a downward spiral ever since. First came Pathankot (Jan 2016), then Uri (Sept 2016) and its subsequent surgical strike, then Pulwama (Feb 2019) and finally the Balakot airstrike to seal it off. India has stood fast to its narrative that ‘cross-border terrorism’ remains the core issue, and has continued with its policy of ‘cornering’ Pakistan before rest of the world. Pakistan on the other hand claims that Kashmir is rather the core issue and is invested in pointing out India’s ‘military occupancy’ in the region. Matters took a turn for the worse with India’s ‘unilateral’ revocation of Article 370 in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the downgrading of its status as a Union Territory. The bilateral relation has hit a dead end ever since, with the end of tunnel nowhere in sight.

In such a backdrop of deteriorating India-Pakistan ties, the future prospect of SAARC has come under scanner. The 19th SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 was indefinitely cancelled and no new dates have been announced so far. There is a growing fear that India could abandon SAARC altogether for a more practical alternative like BIMSTEC for the regional cooperation. Its early signs are becoming fairly evident with the kind of diplomatic investment India is making into BIMSTEC, as seen from the 2016 BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit, 2018 Kathmandu summit, 2019 invitation for swearing in ceremony, regular Ministerial meetings, Disaster Management exercises etc. It also fits perfectly into the Indian strategy of ‘isolating’ Pakistan and realizing a ‘SAARC- Pakistan’ to take the regional integration project forward.

Figure 2: Members of SAARC vs BIMSTEC  Image source : Provided by authors

The present global international political scenario also does not seem to act in favour of SAARC. Liberal-institutionalism in general is in a decline world over as seen from the evolving fault lines in United Nations, European Union, NATO, NAFTA, etc. Hyper nationalism is on the rise, and internationalism and globalization are facing a global backlash across the spectrum. Liberal International World Order is in a retreat with its core states in North America and Western Europe passing through an unprecedented crisis. China-Pakistan axis is strengthening against its common arch ‘enemy’, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is ‘rescuing’ Pakistan from its South Asian geopolitical isolation. And finally, the ‘clash of civilizations’[xiv] is deepening in the post-cold war world, and religion, culture and civilization are emerging as the primary markers of identity. All this does not bode well for the future prospects of India-Pakistan relations in general, and that of SAARC in particular.

However, this is not to say that SAARC will cease to exist as a regional organization. In all likelihood it will very much continue to exist as one. No country will be rationally willing to unilaterally pull out of the organization and take the sole blame for its death, as it comes with a huge cost of severely denting its image in front of the regional and international community. Nor is this to say that SAARC is no more of any relevance for the region. “SAARC still has the potential to become a platform for South Asian interests and shared growth”[xv]. It is the symbol of a shared South Asian identity informed by mutual geographical, cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary affinity, something which no other organization can seek to substitute. Notwithstanding the pessimism shown by India and Pakistan, other smaller members in the region like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh etc. attach a great deal of value to the organization. In the words of Nepal’s former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oil, “BIMSTEC cannot replace SAARC”. Similarly, Sri Lankan premier Mahinda Rajapaksa also has highlighted the importance of “cooperation and progress in SAARC”.

Therefore from our above discussion, it can be safely said that SAARC will pretty much continue to exist the way it exists at the present, slow and intermittent, meeting and talking, bickering and blaming, postponing and cancelling. But it will continue to exist nevertheless, at the political level amongst the statesmen, and at the societal level amongst the people. And SAARC will continue to play a positive role in India-Pakistan relations, notwithstanding the fact that India-Pakistan relations will continue to play a negative impact on its functioning. This is because SAARC is not just an organization, rather more importantly it is an idea. An idea that people belonging to different nations, nationalities, ethnicities, race and religion can live together in mutual harmony to bring about the peace, prosperity and integration of the region as a whole. It is said that ideas are the most powerful weapons in the world, and as it is, ideas are immortal.

[i] Naazer, M.A., 2018. SAARC Summit Diplomacy and Its Impact on Indo–Pakistan Relations (1985–2014). FWU Journal of Social Sciences, 12(1), p.74.

[ii] Naazer, M.A., 2018. SAARC Summit Diplomacy and Its Impact on Indo–Pakistan Relations (1985–2014). FWU Journal of Social Sciences, 12(1), p. 67.

[iii] Muzaffar, M., Jathol, I. & Yaseen, Z., 2017. SAARC: An Evaluation of its Achievements, Failures, and Compulsion for Cooperation. Global Political Review (GPR), 2(1), p.38.

[iv] Naazer, M.A., 2018. SAARC Summit Diplomacy and Its Impact on Indo–Pakistan Relations (1985–2014). FWU Journal of Social Sciences, 12(1), p.68.

[v] Obino, F., 2009. SAARC: The Political Challenge for South Asia and Beyond. Economic and Political Weekly, 44(9), p.123.

[vi] Muzaffar, M., Jathol, I. & Yaseen, Z., 2017. SAARC: An Evaluation of its Achievements, Failures, and Compulsion for Cooperation. Global Political Review (GPR), 2(1), p.39.

[vii] Ahmad, M., 2017. SAARC Summits 1985-2016: The Cancellation Phenomenon. IPRI Journal, 17(1), p.45.

[viii] Ahmad, M., 2017. SAARC Summits 1985-2016: The Cancellation Phenomenon. IPRI Journal, 17(1), p. 59.

[ix] Momen, A., 2019. India, Pakistan enmity main reason why SAARC is not prospering: Bangladesh FM. The Economic Times, 24 December.

[x] Jaishankar, S., 2017. SAARC is a ‘jammed’ vehicle: S Jaishankar. The Economic Times, 26 October.

[xi] Mohan, R., 2016. Raja Mandala: SAARC minus one. The Indian Express, 29 September.

[xii] Ahmad, M., 2017. SAARC Summits 1985-2016: The Cancellation Phenomenon. IPRI Journal, 17(1), p.69.

[xiii] Naazer, M.A., 2018. SAARC Summit Diplomacy and Its Impact on Indo–Pakistan Relations (1985–2014). FWU Journal of Social Sciences, 12(1), p.68.

[xiv] Huntington, P., 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1st ed. Simon & Schuster.

[xv] Haidar, S., 2019. The immediate neighbourhood. The Hindu, 5 June.



Venkkat G. is a student of International Relations at South Asian University (SAU).
Sobia Hamid Bhat is a doctoral student of Sociology from South Asian University (SAU).