In this special podcast, the editors of Himal mark the release of ten issues of Southasiasphere, our fortnightly newsletter, and take stock of some of the major events that shaped the region over the last several months. From militarisation of our democracies to growing Islamophobia, and from the emerging economic crisis to the plight of workers – all under the shadow of COVID-19 pandemic – we analyse what transpired in Southasia in the first six months of 2020, and talk about some key dates in the weeks and months ahead.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Amita Arudpragasam: Hello everyone! Welcome to this special Himal podcast. Today we’re celebrating the release of ten issues of Southasiasphere, our new fortnightly newsletter in which we look at evolving events in the Subcontinent. I am Amita Arudpragasam and I am joined by Raisa Wickrematunge and Shubhanga Pandey from Himal’s editorial team.
Today we hope to talk about the Galwan Valley conflict, upcoming elections, surveillance and militarisation in the wake of COVID-19, among other topics.
Before we begin though, I want to ask if we can each use perhaps one word or phrase to sum up the last six months in Southasia. Mine is ‘chaos’.
Shubhanga Pandey: I’ll go with ‘myopia’.
Raisa Wickrematunge: I’d say ‘turbulence’.
SP: I think that sums it up quite well. We started Southasiasphere in March, which was a very turbulent time for the region. COVID-19 was beginning to spread through Southasia, and our team had just started working remotely. Now that we’ve been publishing these regular updates and analysis on Southasia for ten weeks now, I think it’s a good time to reflect on some key trends and events.
I think beyond the pandemic, we were also starting to see some major political crises in the region. Just weeks before we started, I think it was the wave of protests in India and actually the violent reactions by both the government, but also the pro-government groups that really stood out. In particular, the violence in Delhi in late February, largely targeted against the city’s Muslims which left over 50 dead, and this was while Modi was giving Donald Trump a welcome at a stadium in Gujarat.
And even though there were indications of this at the time, there’s a recent report by a commission formed by the Delhi government that indicates that the violence was incited by members of the ruling BJP, and there were actually cases of inaction by the police force, deliberate inaction.
So I think one fallout of this whole pandemic has been that there is this collective loss of memory of that period of political crisis, and I think that we might see more of those in the future.
RW: Agreed Shubhanga, I think COVID-19 has really taken over the conversation globally and in the region, and the result has been that existing issues like discrimination against minority communities, have ended up being less discussed. So you know you mentioned the protests as well, and I think that’s kind of a distant memory already, the way that people stood against the violence of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. It was for me and I’m sure for many other people quite inspiring to see these protesters, many of them young women, who were speaking out, even though they were demonised and some of them experienced violence as well. And I think what’s been forgotten in both the instances of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act is that vulnerable segments of the population are being excluded. So in the case of the NRC, people who can’t prove their citizenship, and in the case of the CAA, it’s Muslims who might be fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Because you know, Muslims are never persecuted on the basis of religion, am I right?
Wow, tough crowd.
Incidentally, Islamophobia has also been a recurring pattern in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, and I think an incident that’s really characterised this has been the Tablighi Jamaat incident – this Islamic missionary group that gathered in Delhi in early March, who were then dubbed ‘super-spreaders’ after a number of cases were traced back to them, and some sections of the media were ready and willing to amplify this hatred.
AA: And Raisa, that Islamophobia was very present in other countries too.
In Sri Lanka, a popular TV channel reported that Sri Lanka would have been able to celebrate the mid-April New Year had it not been for three Muslim COVID-19 patients. And then an anchor also falsely insinuated that the majority of COVID-19 patients were Muslim. In Nepal too we saw Islamophobic reporting as well after three Indian nationals who stayed at a mosque tested positive for COVID-19.
Of course it’s not surprising to see this kind of over-attribution of cases to visible minorities during an epidemic. From a behavioural perspective we’ve seen that people generally have low facility with statistics and probabilities. But historically scapegoating during epidemics is not new. What is worrying, to me at least, is that Southasian states have not been more active in disabusing people of such false beliefs.
RW: That’s true Amita, and we’ve been talking up till now about discrimination on the basis of religion, but we’re also seeing renewed discussions on topics of race, caste and police brutality in Southasia, and this is especially after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly after the death of George Floyd. And I think what was interesting to me was the way that the Southasian community reacted. You know you had some people speaking out about racism, like for example the Bangladeshi Americans whose restaurant was burned down but who still supported the movement and then you had others who were using the hashtag but turning a blind eye to police brutality in their own countries.
In India for instance, there have been several incidents of police brutality in response to COVID-19 lockdown, supposedly for violations, and these often targeted those from vulnerable groups including vegetable sellers and migrant workers. And speaking of COVID-19, Kerala has been described as a model state in its response to the pandemic, but less worth emulating is its own record of police brutality and social and cultural prejudice. We had Urmila Pullat write in to discuss this, tracing a case of torture through the courts, and in doing so revealing how many torture survivors in Kerala come from low-income and marginalised communities.
SP: I think it’s indicative that this myopia of violence rooted in caste and class and religion, it seems to run throughout the region. I mean yeah, many Southasians have used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, they’ve been part of social media debates and there has been a lot of writing on it on social media and popular media. But I kind of feel that these conversations have been short on thinking about actual politics – so you know in terms of thinking about existing movements that already try to resist such deeply embedded violence or in crafting new policies or new politics to resist these things. And its almost always focused on specific cases while maybe ignoring that it’s much more deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. And one wonders if this can translate into material politics and movements in the future.
AA: Right, I remember Afghans criticising Tehran’s support of Black Lives Matter when Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif used the hashtag to criticize the Trump administration. That was because Tehran failed to address the deaths of three Afghan refugees who were shot at by Iranian police and then killed in a car blaze. Many have pointed to the hypocrisy of Southasians supporting Black Lives Matter but then turning a blind eye to racism in their own homes.
SP: Having said that, I think there’s been some positive development arising out of these renewed discussions on race, for example in Nepal there’s Dalit Lives Matter, and overall I think its useful in one particular sense that it has really brought out all the existing casteist attitudes that still seem to around us and to also help us notice that the assumption that time and education and economic growth will rid people of these beliefs, and these assumptions have been debunked.
I think there has also been some discussion looking at history and there have been solidarities in the past between Southasian activists and thinkers and other minority thinkers around the world. I’m thinking of a piece that we published by Dinyar Patel, which looked at solidarities between Southasian and Black leaders in the past. And I think episodes like these are very useful in reflecting, if you hope to have more real, practical solidarities among Southasians, but also around the world.
AA: I think one of the reasons that I used the word chaos to sum up these last six months though, has been the region’s response to COVID-19.
The images of tens of thousands of urban migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres back home were striking to me. I know that at least 22 people died along the way and many were subjected to police mistreatment or brutality. And that’s something, it’s an image I just won’t be able to forget.
To me, it was also an undeniable policy failure which really demonstrates how disconnected Indian leaders are from some of their more vulnerable populations. Something we’ve seen with previous policies too – such as demonetisation. And it is the informal sector which has the least social safety nets that has been most, or rather, disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
RW: Yeah that’s true, and I think what’s interesting as well is how gradual and yet inexorable the economic impact of COVID-19 has been. I recall that textile businesses in Pakistan were operating at full capacity at first, particularly as China’s factories were forced to close and countries started to turn to competitors. But, eventually, countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan were impacted by supply-side disruption from China, but also by a drop in export because of sharply reduced international demand. We also had a recent article that we published which describes the tens of thousands of garment sector workers that were laid off as a result of COVID-19 in Myanmar as well.
So COVID-19 I think has really dealt a blow to emerging economies, especially in Southasia, and the impact of that is still ongoing.
AA: Absolutely, and I think that’s something we have really tried to capture in Southasiasphere, and it’s startling given that most of the countries we’ve been looking at are facing twin crises: health and economic. The World Bank significantly revised its 2020 forecasts for Southasia, downgrading the growth rate for the region from an estimated 6.3 percent to between 1.8 and 2.8 percent in 2020.
And along with the garment industry, the tourism sector too has faced tremendous shocks. I remember for example when Nepal called off its Visit Nepal 2020 campaign. And then along with the garment and tourist sector, the flow of migrant remittances has been severely disrupted too. What’s surprising to me though is how migrant workers are being treated despite their contributions to Southasian economies. A few days ago I received a news alert that said 35 Sri Lankan migrant workers had died overseas, which is you know greater than the total number of Sri Lankans who have died from COVID-19 in the country.
SP: Yeah, I think for me the image that really captures this tragedy is that moment when three Nepalis swam across the Mahakali river to request the authorities to open the suspension bridge between India and Nepal.
The other thing that we’ve been following over the last ten weeks in Southasiasphere is the question of how the pandemic has affected domestic politics, especially the question of government stability.
In Nepal for example, you saw that after the revelation of those corruption scandals relating to COVID-19 testing kits., there was a lot of criticism of Prime Minister Oli. And in Pakistan in particular, I think there’s already a lot of talk about how the civilian government has been undermined by the military. And I think the COVID-19 crisis has really exacerbated that trend, to the point where the military is in control of a large section of the COVID response.
RW: Yeah Shubhanga as you mentioned I think there have been leaders who have lost public support because of their response to the pandemic, but what’s been really interesting has been the surging popularity of some leaders even though they’ve instituted these authoritarian measures, and supposedly with the aim of protecting public health. And this was actually bolstered by opposition parties, which barely put up any resistance, which is something we explored in Southasiasphere as well.
So in Sri Lanka, factions of the original opposition party, the UNP, were too busy fighting with each other to effectively call for the postponement of the general elections. And then in countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, the ruling parties hold such a clear mandate that the opposition is rendered ineffectual. And in India, opposition parties took a grand total of 2 months to issue a charter on improving COVID-19 response, even as Modi’s popularity surged.
Speaking of Modi, India’s been engaged in conflicts across multiple borders. The one which got the most attention was the clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Galwan Valley in Ladakh, and this was actually the first instance of combat deaths in an India-China conflict since 1975. So each side has blamed the other for starting the fight, but whoever the culprit was, what’s been interesting to see is how these countries have attempted to maintain their position of strength in terms of geopolitics. So India has opened up trade routes with Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives, while simultaneously banning Chinese apps like TikTok, and China has granted duty-free access to Bangladeshi products.
AA: I want to go back to a point you made Shubhanga, about militarisation. It’s been very interesting for me to see how some are militarising rapidly and other countries, maybe not so much. In Sri Lanka, the accelerated levels of militarisation are not surprising, the president is after all a former defence secretary. Even prior to the outbreak, several retired military officials were promoted to traditionally civilian positions.
In Myanmar, I expected the military to take a much more active role than they have. The initial formation of a COVID-19 task force headed by a former general with a history of crackdowns, caused some concerns about growing military power, since it did not include Aung San Suu Kyi or the health minister. But that committee seems to have been subordinate to the national COVID-19 committee led by Aung San Suu Kyi and has been quite low profile since it was formed.
In Pakistan, analysts say Imran Khan has seen his influence and popularity wane as a result of his slow response to the pandemic. He has allowed the military to take a more active role not just in public health response, but also in policy, by appointing a number of current and retired military officials to key positions.
And Raisa, you’ve also been following how the underlying digital divide and infrastructure in each of these countries has led to varied COVID-19 responses and some new fears, right?
RW: Yes. So some countries have been attempting to solve issues like children not being able to go to school by using technology. We’ve seen countries like Bangladesh for example rolling out classes on national television. And at the same time, these solutions have kind of highlighted just how many children don’t have Internet access; which is making them fall behind.
So in Sri Lanka they enabled free web access on a number of university networks, and they allowed students to download Zoom, either free or at reduced charges, but these packages also excluded platforms like TikTok, YouTube and SnapChat. And Bhutan’s done the same with its special students packages. Nepal actually called on schools to stop online classes, because the digital divide just couldn’t be bridged. And you can forget about, you know, fast internet access in Kashmir where it’s still 2G – some private schools have actually filed an FR petition in court, saying the slow net violated their right to education.
At the same time, these governments have also been really smart at using technology for surveillance, mainly through these apps which do things like either harvesting your location using CCTV footage, or even requiring people to upload photos of themselves to prove they’re in quarantine. And India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan are some examples of countries which have used these apps.
SP: So all that brings us the question of how the next few elections in the region will turn out. So Sri Lanka for example has an election pretty soon, August 5th and then Myanmar has general elections in November. These are both the first post-COVID elections, so I think they will be an interesting test of the governments’ performance, particularly when it comes to COVID- response.
But more interestingly, I think there are also some fundamental constitutional stakes in both these countries. So in Sri Lanka, the ruling SLPP has been campaigning for removing the 19th amendment from the Constitution, which was introduced in 2015 to basically limit presidential powers. So they’ve been basically seeking a two-third majority necessary for that because they claim it’s caused instability and partisanship.
In Myanmar meanwhile, the ruling NLD attempted to make certain constitutional changes in the last few months, mainly to again limit the military’s role and place in the Parliament. So the Myanmar parliament has 25 percent seats automatically guaranteed to the army and you know that kind of puts a lot of restrictions on what the civilian government can do. But that attempt kind of failed, again because the army has an effective veto in the house. And the army also tried to push their own amendments to entrench themselves in the system.
So given these political stakes, I think the next several weeks and months will be a very interesting and crucial time for Southasia.
AA: Okay well that’s all from us. I hope you subscribe to Southasiasphere. Our latest issue covers foreign investment in the Southasian telecomms sector following Google and Facebook’s acquisition of stakes in the Indian firm Jio Platforms, and restrictions on protests in the Maldives.
You can subscribe by heading to our website himalmag.com.
RW: And please help support independent journalism by signing up for one of our membership packages. Head over to our website and click on the membership button to find out more.