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Informal Indo-Pakistan rivalry: Is South Asian University going into shoes of SAARC?

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Vikash Kumar
Vikash Kumar
Pursuing LLM from South Asia University, New Delhi. Subscribing to the political philosophy of integral humanism and Hindu Nationalism. An ardent believer in calling a spade a spade no matter how people judge me!

An added example in the series of the propaganda effort by Pakistan can be seen in an effort to defame India by putting spurious allegations against the later regarding the affairs of South Asian University.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) has rightly opined in an article, published on South Asia Monitor, titled “India needs to hit Pakistan economically, carry out limited military operations” that Pakistan is indulging in fake news campaign to vilify the image of India. This desperation can be better understood in the light of the grand and ensuing success of ‘Operation All-Out’ in Kashmir which has brought down, profusely, the number of foreign terrorists operating in Kashmir. To compensate the loss, according to Lt Gen Hasnain, “Pakistan has chosen to up the ante with a combination of activities…where fake news, doctored videos and messages on social media have all been combined to create greater alienation among the people against India and paint India red in the eyes of the international community…” He cited an example of this in the fact of serious effort being made “towards creating a wedge against the Indian expatriate community in the Gulf region of West Asia.”

In furtherance of this, an added example can be found in a case of the baseless allegations made against India regarding affairs of South Asian University (SAU). SAU is an international University, in the nature of International Organisation relishing diplomatic privileges and immunities under the canons of International law and also through an act of Indian Parliament – the South Asian University Act, 2008. It is jointly established and run by 8 member-states of SAARC regional grouping. A report has been published in a Pakistani Media agency titled “India using SAARC-approved varsity for nefarious designs” which contains factitious and defamatory claims against India backed by no data & evidence and smell of this can be sensed by just having a glance over it!

Firstly, it is alleged that despite a million dollars funding by Pakistan, the number of its students, faculty & non-faculty members are very low. The actual reason for this anomaly is that there is a provision for reservation of students from each country and Pakistan has been allotted 10% of the pie. Notwithstanding the unfortunate fact of denial of visas, in few academic sessions, due to perennial border tension or otherwise charged atmosphere, many selected Pakistanis have been unable to come here due to their own preconceived notion and stereotype about India or reasons best known to them. For instance, out of 3 selected candidates from Pakistan in the merit list, only 2 joined the LLM programme this year! Blaming one country for this anomaly does not seem to be in tandem with a logical analysis of prevailing facts and circumstances in which SAU runs its affairs. Taking into cognizance the fact of a low level of advertisement of SAU in SAARC member states, how can one expect a greater number of students joining the varsity when the total number of applicants for the course is lesser or approximately equal to the seats allotted to a particular country?  

A pertinent mention may be made of zero presence of Maldivians in SAU. Yet, Maldives is making its contribution to SAU operational expenditure in tune with its obligations under the international agreement it has entered into. Therefore, an argument that because a country is not getting its reserved portion in the total pie, it is incurring unnecessary expenditure and, therefore may not do so, is not a legally tenable one. The performance of a state’s obligation under international law, voluntarily undertaken in this case under the gamut of SAU agreements, that is the payment of agreed share, is not conditional upon fulfilment of any other condition.

Contrary to the Maldives, countries like Pakistan have been serving as an impediment in taking SAU to the pinnacle of glory and success. Illustratively, as reported in Indian Express in news piece dated 19th April 2010 titled ‘Faculty salaries for South Asian University set to be slashed’, the Maldives along with India were only two countries which were in favour of higher salary packages for faculties to attract talents having international repute! This proposal met with counterblast due to opposition by other six member states. To quote the same report, “Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan were the most vociferous in their opposition” arguing the salaries to be fine in the light of the cost of living in India and exemption of the same from income taxes.

Secondly, a spurious allegation has been made that ABVP (Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad) is “causing severe hardship to Muslim Students, especially Pakistani students, and sometimes preventing them from praying.” This news is taking the falsity to the apex level as ABVP has no official member or office bearer working in SAU. There is just a page name “ABVP South Asian University” that has been created to help prospective students of SAU in admission related matters. Some people at the university openly termed this ‘apolitical’ act of SAU as ‘unfortunate’, some even declaring it as an ‘illegal step’ in view of International stature of the university. These critics, mainly affiliating themselves to left ideology, are of the opinion that notwithstanding the presence of SFI (Student Federation of India) office bearers and activists in SAU under the banner of so-called ‘indigenous student bodies’, ABVP cannot continue its Facebook page in the current form.

Basically, they are advocating that ‘you can do indirectly a work that you cannot do directly’. This advocacy goes against a much-celebrated legal doctrine of the prohibition of ‘colourable exercise of power’, i.e., ‘You cannot do indirectly what you cannot do directly’. The prevailing argument opposing ABVP is nothing but putting ‘form’ above ‘substance’ which is a hilarious claim shorn of any sense of logic. Acceptance and justification of physical presence and working of SFI in strictly political affairs and opposition to ABVP’s social media presence and its apolitical work are making the argument of these critics fallacious, incoherent and unsustainable.

The genuine reason for opposition is strong ‘dislike’ by the critics for ABVP’s political ideology – an ideology which is still considered politically untouchable by left-oriented academics and intellectuals. Having discussed the nature of the presence of ABVP, one can gauge the level of merit in the claim of the report that ABVP is preventing Muslims from doing prayers!

Third, it has been asserted that “the university administration has been forcing them (non-Indians) to return to their home countries”. No data or documentary evidence has been forwarded supporting this contention. Nevertheless, this is another fake claim as the university has, in its notices, ‘encouraged’ or ‘advised’ students to go home and there is a substantial difference between encouragement and forced exodus. I, myself, want to stay here and am against any sort of forced exodus. But it is not the call of fairness to raise hue & cry over a non-existent issue.

When it comes to corruption claim by varsity officials, although no solid evidence has been made available, nevertheless, one can sense some degree of financial impropriety & abuse of power. But in these circumstances, it is the internal working structure of SAU that has to be blamed. Legally speaking, SAU is an international organisation and its functioning is independent of interference of the host country. An Indian, when appointed to a post in SAU, becomes immune from the control of the government of India due to university’s privileges and immunities.

Hence, the fact of an Indian official working in SAU and misappropriating the funds cannot give rise to any sort of obligation, legal or political, of GOI. Once imputed in SAU, the concerned Indian comes under the sole jurisdiction of SAU which has been endowed with full legal personality and is legally competent enough to pursue any cause relating to corruption or other matters. In this regard, SAU act, 2008 and HQ agreement provides for ‘Tribunal for Arbitration’ or ‘SAARC Arbitration Council’, respectively, for resolving these type of disputes. SAARC member states, through their representatives in Governing body, can press for the same. So the logic of blaming India for malfunctioning of the varsity is fallacious at root and defamatory in the face. Also, no country has lodged any formal complaint till this date over any of the allegations that have been made in the report.

At last, the learned author of the report gullibly suggests that “it would be better to relocate this Saarc university to Sri Lanka…because Sri Lanka has no political ambitions.” This nonsensical suggestion is dehors the cluster of international agreements relating to SAU, Viz. agreement establishing SAU and SAU HQs agreement between GOI & SAU. More importantly, construction of the permanent campus of SAU is in full swing and the university is likely to be shifted there in one or two years. Government of India is solely funding the construction cost which amounts to 2,500 crore INR and has also provided land admeasuring 100 Acres. India does not oppose constructive cooperation, a fact which is evident from recent COVID-19 cooperation, spearheaded under her leadership. Pakistan, right from the start, was trying to stall it arguing that help should be done only through SAARC secretariat. As usual, it did not find a single supporter among other SAARC member and had to leave its stubbornness. The bilateral rivalry which has made SAARC ineffectual is, it seems, on an adventure to take SAU to the same destination.

So these allegations are nothing, but another desperate attempt to gain some limelight in media and defame SAU and government of India. This mendacious effort goes against the very idea of South Asian spirit, which is the basic premise upon which SAU is based. I am of the firm belief that, we as South Asians are fortunate to witness a ray of hope in otherwise fractured SAARC system in the form of SAU. It is a burning but sole & spectacular example of the success of cooperation among members of SAARC regional grouping. Indo-Pakistan rivalry or mutual bickering or chop logic among SAARC member states will not be beneficial for the healthy life of varsity. If malicious propaganda like this continues, then I am sure SAU is going into the shoes of SAARC. We must strive to stretch the effectiveness of SAU to further strengthen the working of SAARC, and not conspire or act to make SAU a defunct body only to kill every prospect of a revival of SAARC. As a proud student of SAU, I hope we are not heading to that direction!

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Vikash Kumar
Vikash Kumar
Pursuing LLM from South Asia University, New Delhi. Subscribing to the political philosophy of integral humanism and Hindu Nationalism. An ardent believer in calling a spade a spade no matter how people judge me!
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