The concept of SAARC was first adopted by Bangladesh during 1977, under the administration of President Zia-ur-Rahman. In the late 1970s, SAARC nations agreed upon the creation of a trade bloc consisting of South Asian countries. The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was again mooted in May 1980. The foreign secretaries of the seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981. The Committee which met in Colombo in August 1985 identified five broad areas for regional cooperation. New areas of cooperation were added in the following years.
Thus the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an organization of South Asian nations, founded in December 1985 by Zia-ur-Rahman and dedicated to economic, technological, social, and cultural development emphasising collective self-reliance came into being. Its seven founding members are Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Afghanistan joined the organization in 2005. It is headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The signatories to the declaration on December 8, 1985 were Hussain Muhammad Ershad, President Of The People's Republic Of Bangladesh, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, King of Bhutan, Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister Of The Republic Of India, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of The Rebuplic Of Maldives, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, King of Nepal, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President Of The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Junius Richard Jayewardene, President Of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
The 16 stated areas of cooperation are agriculture and rural, biotechnology, culture, energy, environment, economy and trade, finance, funding mechanism, human resource development, poverty alleviation, people to people contact, security aspects, social development, science and technology; communications, tourism. Though, initially, both India and Pakistan had their own reservations regarding the aims and objectives of SAARC, as India was suspicious of a Western hand to provide a forum for ‘India bashing’ and coming together of its neighbours. Similarly, Pakistan thought the forum was being harnessed by India to further its hegemonic design. Therefore, Gen Zia-ul-Haq had to explain at great length that Pakistan’s joining the SAARC would not compromise its ideology, independence and integrity.
The principles of SAARC are; Respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, political equality and independence of all members states, Non-interference in the internal matters is one of its objectives, Cooperation for mutual benefit, All decisions to be taken unanimously and need a quorum of all eight members, All bilateral issues to be kept aside and only multilateral (involving many countries) issues to be discussed without being prejudiced by bilateral issues.
Afghanistan was added to the regional grouping on 13 November 2005, with the addition of Afghanistan, the total number of member states were raised to Eight (8). In April 2006, the United States of America and South Korea made formal requests to be granted observer status. The European Union has also indicated interest in being given observer status, and made a formal request for the same to the SAARC Council of Ministers meeting in July 2006. On August 2, 2006 the foreign ministers of the SAARC countries agreed in principle to grant observer status to the US, South Korea and the European Union. On 4 March 2008, Iran requested observer status. Followed shortly by the entrance of Mauritius.
Due to the conflict between two major regional players and Nuclear powers viz India and Pakistan, SAARC has not emerged as a success story like European Union, ASEAN etc. Other countries including Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are also apprehensive of the growing economic, military and global relevance of India. Though India has shown magnanimity in the settlement of Teen Bigha with Bangladesh despite massive opposition on the home ground, patience on regular terror attacks aided, abated and guided by Pakistan’s Intelligence agency ISI. The task of SAARC, as an organization becomes more tough due to different ideologies of the member countries as Pakistan and Bangladesh are Islamic Republics while India a secular republic. All the members prefer to be get aligned to one or other regional organizations than identifying themselves with SAARC. For instance, Pakistan and Bangladesh are more inclined towards Organization of Islamic Countries; likewise, Sri Lanka, Maldives and India identify themselves as the members of ASEAN. Each member of SAARC is having diverse security threat perception as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka consider India as the biggest threat to their security. On the other hand, India consider the growing influence and interference of outside powers like USA and China into this region as the biggest threat to her security.
There is also a failure on the part of the civil society of the South Asian region. The civil society and society- central model needs the will of the state to operate effectively but unfortunately it is still operating in the state- centric model which has limited its utility and credibility.
It can be stated that SAARC has not been able to achieve the aim of being a successful regional organization since its inception yet during past some years SAARC has been able to gain some credibility due to ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan and the back channel diplomacy. Many issues have been clinched bilaterally with Pakistan granting MFN to India, opening of trade route between J&K & PoK and now the talk of freezing of Kashmir issue for 10 years etc.
Though some of the members states have blamed Indo-Pak rivalry as the main stumbling block in establishment of SAARC as a credible organization, and some have also demanded inclusion of bilateral issues in the Charter, yet the inclusion of bilateral issues will result in India - the largest country of the region that shares borders with all the countries of South Asia - engaging in bilateral negotiations within the SAARC forum, leaving little space for multilateral engagements. Resolving bilateral issues can be best achieved through bilateral negotiations rather than diluting the SAARC platform to find solutions to such disputes.
However, from India’s point of view, most of the problems it has with its neighbours are bilateral in nature and do not concern other member states. In that context, the argument put forward is that the role of a multilateral forum like SAARC is irrelevant and will hamper regional cooperation if it is to deal with complex bilateral issues.
It is true that unless the misgivings are addressed and resolved, regional progress will be adversely affected. While the SAARC countries blame bilateral disputes for hampering SAARC process, nothing substantial has been done to address the lack of awareness among the people of the region in spite of socio-cultural similarities. The rigid visa regime needs to be replaced by easy visa regime and an experiment like permit system between Indian Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir can be implemented among SAARC countries, more Scholarships for students/student Visas can be given for study in SAARC countries, free trade promotion etc. The political leadership of these countries cites nationalistic reasons for not accepting various economic measures but there has not been any significant move to involve the people of the region on whose behalf the governments seem to act. Only after an understanding among the people has been fostered, can the mistrust and suspicions be removed.
The Civil Society and NGOs can play a vital role for further strengthening of SAARC as a regional organization as is being played by visits of Spiritual Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, traders, film stars, signers, MPs/MLAs and other members of the civil society of SAARC nations for better understanding the concerns and aspirations of the people of various member countries.