SAARC should shed the rule "barring discussion on contentious bilateral issues" and agree to a larger role for China and the US to improve its functioning, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy said on Sunday.
Founded in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) charter excludes "bilateral and contentious issues" from the ambit of deliberations, he said at a panel discussion on regional cooperation in South Asia at the World Peace Forum here.
Swamy, however, clarified that he is expressing his own views on the issue and not on behalf of the ruling BJP.
His observation calling for an end to India's longstanding view that no bilateral contentious issues should be raised at SAARC evoked immediate reaction from a Pakistani participant, who asked whether Islamabad could raise the Kashmir issue at a SAARC meet that New Delhi has tried to stall since the beginning of the grouping.
Acknowledging that it was a sharp question, Swamy said Pakistan could raise Kashmir issue at SAARC if Islamabad agrees not to raise it at the United Nations and other forums. "If the suggestion is that it can be discussed only in SAARC, nowhere else, then there is no difficulty in discussing it. But if Pakistan says no and wants to raise it at the UN and elsewhere, the meaning of it goes," he said.
He mentioned former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had taken the Kashmir issue to UN and there were differences about the way partition was handled.
"Minus that, there is no room for dispute and even that we could discuss. But the commitment has to be from Pakistan they are not going to discuss it anywhere else," Swamy added.
Significantly, besides Swamy the panel comprised of representatives from Bangladesh, China and Myanmar.
None of Pakistani leaders and officials attending the meet that includes former Prime Minister Shoukat Aziz, former Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar and former Joint Chief of Staff of Pakistan Army Ehsan-ul-Haq, were present at the discussion on South Asia. "We have bilateral problem that made SAARC look like an anaemic body. We had a dispute with Pakistan on terrorism, they have issues with us on Kashmir.
"We have problems with Bangladesh on infiltration, issues with Sri Lanka," he later told PTI elaborating his stand.
He said the stiff rule not to let discussion on contentious bilateral issues made SAARC "toothles." USA, China, Iran, EU, and Myanmar have observer status in SAARC. Its membership includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Swamy said SAARC will play an important role under the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"Neighbours come first in Modi's foreign policy. Modi said the civilisation aspect that is Asia, neighbours, SAARC countries will come first followed by the US," he said.