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Pak feud hijacks Saarc meet

New Delhi, Nov. 12: Bilateral disputes between India and Pakistan have dominated the proceedings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) yet again despite claims that the third conference of information ministers has been successful.

This was the first time since Vajpayee offered a de-escalation of tensions in April that India and Pakistan were meeting at the ministerial level, albeit in a multilateral forum.

Pakistan’s information minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed today insinuated that despite the warmth with which he has been greeted, differences are so bitter that he does not quite have the space he had sought during his visit here.

The Pakistani information minister is a Kashmiri. He said he was from Srinagar’s Habbakadal, where his family has ancestral property and where he was born. “I am here for a Saarc meeting and I do not want to say that I have asked for permission to see my ancestral property and I could not go there.”

Asked categorically again if he had asked for permission to visit Srinagar, Sheikh Rasheed said: “I do not want to talk about it at all.”

Union information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, chairman of the conference, has said that in the conference, issues were sorted out smoothly. But not one decision has emerged out of the deliberations on subjects such as transnational broadcasting and, even, as uncontentious a proposal (from India) as a South Asian Film Festival.

For example, on the proposal for model guidelines on transnational broadcasting, Pakistan and Bangladesh have sought 45 days to respond. On the film festival, it was decided to consult culture ministers. On a Saarc-backed regional media forum, a draft paper has been sent back to Bangladesh for revisions. On the proposal for a relaxed visa regime for media workers, the forum “decided to request” member countries to consider the matter.

It was Sheikh Rasheed who today said that “I came to Delhi with an open mind, high hopes and expectations. We firmly believe that the South Asian region has great potential. Unfortunately, so far Saarc has been unable to realise even a fraction of that potential”.

As an official from Bangladesh put it privately: “They (India and Pakistan) do not even agree to allow each other’s films into their countries. How can they solve Kashmir'”

On the agenda for the information ministers were subjects that touch upon most aspects of media. Sheikh Rasheed, however, is even chary of naming his favourite heroine from Indian films, that are so popular in his country.

In a statement today that actually made it clear that Saarc was hostage to bilateral disputes, Sheikh Rasheed said: “The continued hostility between the two largest countries in the region — Pakistan and India — has quite adversely affected growth of trade, economic and cultural relations in South Asia.”

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