India, Pakistan PMs highlight ancestral ties at SAARC meeting
The prime ministers of India, Pakistan met at the annual meeting of SAARC, a notoriously ineffective regional bloc. But it offered a rare opportunity to highlight the shared ancestry of eight South Asia nations that make up one-fifth of humanity.
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This year's SAARC meet-up brought the leaders of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives to the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. The conference is focusing on climate change, an issue that is increasingly being led both regionally and internationally by the small states of Bhutan and the Maldives. Both countries view climate change as an existential threat due to receding glaciers and sea level rises.Skip to next paragraph
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Coordinating green development and climate adaptation efforts might be the kind of regional issue to energize SAARC, says Haider. Established in 1985, the group has focused on raising trade and development across the region. It mapped out a free-trade zone for the region, known as SAFTA, though tariff reductions are lagging, partly due to distrust between India and Pakistan.
In an interview earlier this month with the Deccan Herald, the head of SAARC denied that tensions between the two rival nations have hampered the regional body.
"It's not true at all. Pakistan and India have been supportive of various SAARC activities, initiatives, and programs," said secretary-general Sheel Kant Sharma. He has also trumpeted SAFTA, saying that trade between the eight nations reached $688 million in 2009.
WTO bigger catalyst for trade – but not mutual respect
However, Haider notes that the World Trade Organization has largely overtaken SAARC as a regional driver for free trade.
But the WTO doesn't exactly provide venues for icebreakers like Singh's respect for Gilani's forefathers. Gilani descends from a line of Qadiri Sufi Muslims. Legend holds that Mian Mir, a Qadiri Sufi based in Lahore, befriended Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth guru of the Sikh faith. Together the two men laid the foundation of the Golden Temple in the 16th century.
"The assumption is that both Guru Arjan Dev and Mian Mir who was a Sufi were catholic enough, tolerant enough, to appreciate each other's position. They respected each other, though they knew the differences," says J.S. Grewal, a historian at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study based in Shimla, India.