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Summit off: Nepal too on board, Delhi dialled Saarc hotlines

After India and three other nations decided pull out of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad, Nepal on Sunday said the regional environment is not conducive for the summit.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire , Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi/kathmandu |
Updated: October 19, 2016 5:24:40 pm
SAARC 759 After 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the terror attack in Uri, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had decided not to attend the SAARC Summit. India’s decision was followed by Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka skipping the SAARC Summit.

Stating that the regional environment is not conducive to host the SAARC summit in Islamabad on November 9-10, Nepal Sunday urged SAARC member states to “ensure that their respective territories are not used by terrorists for cross-border terrorism”. As SAARC chair, it officially informed all members about Pakistan’s decision to postpone the summit.

The Indian Express has learnt that late afternoon September 27, the embassies of SAARC countries — barring Pakistan — got calls from South Block for the boycott of the summit. This was about 36 hours before India conducted surgical strikes against terror launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

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Sources said the final decision to boycott the SAARC summit in Islamabad was taken after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj delivered her speech at the UN General Assembly on September 26.

Diplomats from SAARC member countries told The Indian Express that they got calls from the Ministry of External Affairs last Tuesday, between 4 pm and 5 pm, calling for the boycott of the SAARC summit.

Sources said within days of the Uri attack, New Delhi had made up its mind to corner Pakistan and isolate it in the region.

South Block deliberated on the pros and cons of the decision — since Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pitched himself as the leader of the region during the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014 — before it reached out to its neighbours.

The final trigger, sources said, were two developments: First, Pakistan’s establishment calling the Uri attack a “false flag operation” or, in simple terms, a stage-managed attack. This response, which was made by Pakistan’s top diplomat at the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, angered many in the establishment.

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Hours later on September 27, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar summoned Pakistan envoy Abdul Basit — for the second time in a week — to share information about the arrest of Pakistan’s nationals who had acted as guides for the Uri attackers and had also identified two of their handlers and one of the four slain terrorists.

This, in a sense, sealed New Delhi’s decision to boycott the SAARC summit. But none of the SAARC neighbours were given any indication of the surgical strikes that followed, sources said. While there were foreign minister-level discussions with some of these countries like Sri Lanka, diplomats worked the phones with other capitals.

Sources, privy to backroom negotiations for the boycott of the summit, said Indian embassies in these countries played a key role in bringing them on board.

While getting Bangladesh was expected since Dhaka’s relations with Islamabad had dipped in recent years over the war crimes trial, the “game-changer” was Kabul’s stance.

“Having Afghanistan on our side was key,” a source said, and said multiple conversations at diplomatic as well as political levels made it possible. Thimphu, which was also perturbed by the latest turn of events, came along with New Delhi. “No country was big or small… we wanted to isolate Pakistan in the region. Every country’s involvement counted,” a source said.

The first letter on the boycott, sources said, was sent by Afghanistan to the SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu. Kabul’s use of phrase “imposed terrorism on Afghanistan” was the result of its increasing frustration with Islamabad. President Ashraf Ghani, who visited India early September and met Prime Minister Modi, had conveyed his disappointment with Pakistan’s establishment, especially after the talks with Taliban did not make progress.

Following the Uri attack, when Ghani called Modi to convey his condolences, he also indicated his support to India for its actions against terrorism. This was a strong signal of unequivocal support from Kabul to Delhi. Thereafter, Afghan diplomats and South Block also exchanged notes.

For New Delhi, getting Bangladesh on board was not very difficult. Pakistan has been critical of the war crimes trial in Bangladesh, initiated by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and has repeatedly criticised Dhaka for the hanging of the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders. In fact, Bangladesh did not send its Home Minister for the SAARC Interior Ministers’ meeting in Islamabad last month, which was attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

Bangladesh government sources said Sheikh Hasina, who is likely to visit Goa next month for the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit, would have skipped the SAARC summit in Islamabad, and was planning to send the Bangladesh President instead.

However, the turn of events in Kashmir and then, Uri, led Delhi to exchange notes with Dhaka before the decision to boycott the summit was taken.

Bhutan, which was not directly affected by the terrorist attacks from Pakistan-based groups, conveyed its inability to attend the summit, since it wanted to show its solidarity with South Block.

“The window of decision-making was very narrow… the embassies worked closely with South Block… there was tremendous pressure on us,” a diplomat from one of the SAARC countries admitted.

A government source said, “It was a coordinated move… but the coordination was not difficult.”

Sri Lanka’s announcement, however, came after the surgical strikes and there was a clear reference to the “decisive” nature of India’s response. Soon after, Maldives also came out with its statement, followed by Nepal’s on Sunday.

In its statement, Nepal said it “regrets that regional environment is not conducive to host the 19th SAARC summit”.

The current chair of SAARC, Nepal said it “unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and expresses its solidarity in the global fight against terrorism”, and that it “strongly believes an environment of peace and stability is essential for a meaningful regional cooperation”.

“Most recently, Nepal has condemned the terrorist attack on Indian army base in Uri… that resulted in the loss of life of Indian soldiers,” it said, adding it will initiate “necessary consultation” for holding the next summit.

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