Saturday, Dec 13, 2003
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By Our Diplomatic Correspondent
Speaking at a conference organised by The Hindustan Times, Ms. Gandhi said that India, which was a key player in the region, must play a consistent role, a role that was always sensitive to the needs and concerns of its neighbours.
"At the same time, I believe we have every right to expect that our neighbours will not allow themselves to become sanctuaries for those who unleash their deadly tools of terror against innocent men, women and children in our country. Indeed, as neighbours, all of us must ensure that our territories are not havens for those who seek legitimacy through violence," she said.
Admitting that the demographic and physical size of India invited a degree of apprehension, she said this need not be so if India had a positive agenda that emphasised mutually beneficial relationships.
"We have consistently been in favour of engaging constructively with Pakistan on all issues under the Shimla Agreement and subsequent accords. That we can work together for the common good in spite of all vicissitudes is revealed by the durability of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty."
Calling for a credible and transparent mechanism among India, China and Pakistan to manage the consequences of a nuclear South Asia, Ms. Gandhi said that a South Asian Free Trade Area should be in place by 2005 and an economic community by the middle of the next decade.
"India and Bangladesh should establish a bilateral framework for closer cooperation as well as a regional one that embraces Myanmar, Thailand and provinces of China," she suggested.
"We share the hopes and desires of Sri Lanka that its ethnic strife comes to an end and an agreed power-sharing and devolution arrangement is put in place soon," the Congress president hoped.
With China, she said, India must continue to pursue closer economic and political ties as it had done since 1988 [when the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, visited Beijing]. "While this has a logic of its own, a deeper Sino-Indian relationship has a positive impact on our immediate neighbourhood."
India had to remain an outstanding exemplar of an open, liberal, pluralistic democracy, committed to secular values, committed to combating religious fundamentalism of all kinds and to preserving and protecting its composite heritage. "We must fight those forces that seek to use regional tensions to polarise our own society."
Over time, South Asia could conceive of a regional Parliament as a permanent deliberative body on all issues of regional concern and importance. "Such a body could expand the perspective on South Asia among all our member countries." Referring to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Congress leader said posturing at SAARC tended to hit the headlines. "But not enough credit is given to the initiatives that have been taken."
"Eleven summits have been held in the past 13 years and the 12th is to be held soon in Islamabad. Each of the Summit Declarations is a mission statement in itself. If implemented with a single-minded sense of collective purpose, they can transform our region."
But the SAARC was not given the same importance as accorded to other bilateral, regional and international organisations. "Not all this is of India's making but the need for a whole new mindset on the SAARC in our country cannot be denied. As a beginning why should India not take a bold step to substantially increase the core capital base of the South Asia Development Fund that now stands at a paltry $6 million."
Beyond the SAARC, Ms. Gandhi suggested the deepening linkages with the Association of South-East Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Gulf Cooperation Council especially on security-related issues. "The time may have come to think in terms of a South Asian Security Forum."
She argued it was in the interest of South Asia to see that the situation in Afghanistan stabilised, that all ethnic groups were adequately represented in any new political arrangement and that its reconstruction proceeded apace.
The achievements of the gifted and talented sub-continental diaspora was a source of pride for all, Ms. Gandhi said. "But there is a dark side to this as well we all know how dangerous long-distance, offshore nationalism could be."
"We have experience of both the positive and negative impact of overseas communities on domestic politics and social relations...the real hope lies in the new generation of the diaspora that is in a better position to free itself from the shackles of the past and become the harbinger of a new South Asia."
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