Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out every two weeks. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get episode links for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about recent events in the Doklam border dispute in Bhutan, with India and China both involved; an escalation in attacks on journalists in Bangladesh, Kashmir and the Maldives, and the tragic drowning of an Afghan journalist; and the Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP in India, following a recent court conviction for defamation.
For “Around Southasia in 5 minutes”, we’re talking about the search for the Sikh radical Amritpal Singh in India, a High Court case on sedition law and legislative amendments curbing the Chief Justice’s powers in Pakistan, attempts to criminalise predatory lending in Nepal, Sri Lanka receiving the Extended Fund Facility from the IMF and developments in the 2019 Jamia violence case in India.
For “Bookmarked”, we talk about Hami kunako manche, a classic Nepali documentary, featured in the first edition of Screen Southasia, our monthly documentary screening in collaboration with Film Southasia. To catch future screenings, please register here.
This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
This episode was recorded on the 4th of April 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, our fortnightly roundup of news events and regional affairs. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleague and fact-checker and researcher Saheli. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: This week for our big stories, we’re talking about recent events in the Doklam border dispute in Bhutan, an escalation in attacks on journalists in Bangladesh, Kashmir, the Maldives and Afghanistan, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s possible disqualification as an MP in India following a recent court conviction. For Around Southasia in 5 Minutes, we’re talking about the search for Amritpal Singh, a High Court case on sedition law and curbing the chief justice’s powers in Pakistan, attempts to criminalize predatory lending in Nepal, Sri Lanka receiving the Extended Fund Facility from the IMF, and developments in the 2019 Jamia violence case in India.
Let’s start off with what’s happening in Bhutan.
[News clips on the Doklam border dispute]
SW: So, in Bhutan, the Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering’s comments recently in an interview with a Belgian newspaper about the Doklam border dispute has sparked concern in India. He said that it’s not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem and “there is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third.” And he also denied that China has built any infrastructure in Bhutan. Now, Indian media interpreted his comment about China having an equal say as being a change in Bhutan’s stance from 2019 and suggested that Bhutan is becoming more allied with China instead of India. The Congress Party General Secretary (Communication), Jairam Ramesh also raised concern about the interview. In a separate interview with The Bhutanese, Tshering denied that there has been any change in stance on the part of Bhutan. The article clarifies that the reference to all three countries being equal was simply just that Bhutan has an equal say despite being the smallest of the three countries. Now in January 2023, talks between Chinese and Bhutanese officials on resolving border disputes progressed though both countries don’t have diplomatic relations. And this recent situation with the interview reveals the pressure on Bhutan coming from both China and India. Even during the Doklam standoff, some commentators interpreted Bhutan’s stance as a “careful use of silence” to sort of avoid triggering nationalist sentiments in China or India. And the reaction sort of shows how tough that is.
RW: Thanks, Saheli. And speaking of borders, there has actually been an escalation in attacks on journalists and their family members in the past couple of weeks across the region. Now these include arrests and investigations under the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh. So one of these incidents is the arrest of Shamsuzzaman Shams, who is a Protham Alo correspondent and he was arrested by plainclothes police officers on March 29th. At the same time, investigations were also opened into Protham Alo’s editor, Matiur Rahman. Shamsuzzaman, an unnamed camera operator at the outlet and other unidentified people were also investigated under the Digital Security Act. The allegations were that they were spreading false news, and this was related to an incident where a child’s photo was erroneously used and it accompanied a quote from an adult labourer in an article about price hikes in Bangladesh. And once again, these attempts to crack down on the journalist reporting only drew more attention to the article itself and the broader issue of the economic crisis in Bangladesh. Also in Bangladesh, the brother of journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan alleges that he was beaten by four men in connection with his brother’s work. Khan worked with Al Jazeera on All the Prime Minister’s Men, A documentary on how a criminal gang is colluding with the security forces of Bangladesh with links to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. At the same time in India, Irfan Mehraj was also arrested. Irfan is a Kashmiri journalist and he was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on 20th March. Incidentally, he is also a former contributor to Himal Southasian as well. Now the NIA is alleging that Mehraj is a close associate of Kashmiri rights activist Khurram Parvez who has also been arrested under the UAPA ever since 2021. In the Maldives, journalist Hussain Juman was arrested and assaulted by police on 17th March when he was covering an opposition rally calling for the release of Abdulla Yameen who, as you may remember, was convicted on corruption and money laundering charges in December 2022. Juman was later released without charge. We actually unpacked Yameen’s conviction in a January episode of Southasiasphere, so do check that out in the episode notes. And in Afghanistan, there was the tragic story of the female journalist Torpekai Amarkhel who drowned when the boat carrying her and over 200 asylum seekers capsized on the way to Italy from Turkey. A total of 60 asylum seekers died in that incident.
SW: Our final big story is about Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi who recently filed an appeal against his criminal defamation conviction. So the case was filed against him for comments made in 2019 at a rally in Karnataka where he said, “why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname?” The case was brought by Purnesh Modi who is a BJP lawmaker, and alleged that Gandhi has defamed the entire Modi community. His conviction would mean that he is disqualified from next year’s general election, and this decision was heavily criticized as a sign of continually deteriorating democracy in India. But some commentators also say that the decision might backfire on Modi and the BJP because it resulted in a rare show of unity by the opposition parties.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 Minutes.
RW: In Punjab, police have been looking for Khalistani separatist and Waris Punjab De leader, Amritpal Singh, since he evaded arrest on the 18th of March. The charges against him include attempted murder, spreading hatred and disharmony, and attack on police personnel. These charges are in connection with a specific incident on February 23rd when Waris Punjab De supporters stormed the Ajnala police station, brandishing swords and guns, demanding the release of Waris Punjab De member Lovepreet Singh who is a close associate of Amritpal. At the same time authorities temporarily ordered an internet shutdown for all of Punjab. Several Twitter accounts of journalists and activists were blocked in India. It’s important to remember that the Khalistani separatist movements have been born out of systematic oppression, and we’ve published a few pieces looking at the history of these movements. For instance in 2008 we published a piece by Michael Van Es called Embers of a Sikh Fire. And more recently in 2022 we ran a piece by Lina Krishnan that was called Fragments of Memory so do check those out in the episode notes.
[News clips from Pakistan]
SW: In Pakistan, the Lahore High Court declared that the colonial era sedition law is unconstitutional. This law has long been used to crack down on dissent, and it’s a similar story across the region with the use of sedition laws. We published an article in 2016 called Southasia’s Deja Vu by Beena Sarwar which discusses how the use of the sedition law in India and the blasphemy law in Pakistan both stem from hyper-nationalism. So do check that out in the episode notes. The Pakistan Parliament also recently passed a new bill that limits the powers of the Chief Justice to initiate cases suo motu or on its own accord, amidst widespread protests. This is linked to the case of suo motu notice, brought by the Chief Justice regarding elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Also in Pakistan on 31st of March at least 11 people died in a stampede at a free food distribution centre outside a factory in Karachi that was set up for Ramadan. News reports said that at least 22 people have died at food aid centres recently in Pakistan, as the economic crisis worsens.
RW: In Nepal hundreds of protesters, most of them women, marched in front of Tundikhel Khula Manch in Kathmandu demanding that the government take action against predatory lending or meter byaj, which sees many people unable to pay back skyrocketing interest rates for small amounts of capital. The protesters marched for 11 days from several districts in Terai to draw attention to how loan sharks have devastated families in the region. They were eventually not allowed inside Tundikhel Khula Manch by Kathmandu Metropolitan City Officials and so they had to protest outside on the pavement which is ironic because the Khula Manch is meant to be an open space. In response, the government took the decision to introduce legal amendments criminalizing predatory lending. Earlier it was categorised as an offense under the civil code which meant that victims had to go up against loan sharks alone.
SW: In Myanmar the Union Election Commission announced the dissolution of 40 political parties including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy after they didn’t register under the new Political Party Registration Law, which we discussed in a previous episode of Southasiasphere. So the military is laying the groundwork to hold elections later this year, which the NLD has said is illegitimate. Crisis Group warns that these elections are likely to be the most violent in Myanmar’s recent history.
RW: Over in Sri Lanka on the 20th of March the IMF Executive Board announced the approval of a USD 2.9 billion Extended Fund Facility to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has been in negotiations with the IMF for almost a year since around April 2022. Now this news was celebrated in parts of Sri Lanka with fireworks being lit especially by government supporters. But also there have been continued trade union protests against the IMF-backed reforms which include the introduction of an income tax among other measures. We’ve been running several pieces unpacking Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. For example from February 2023 we ran a piece by Ahilan Kadirgamar and Devaka Gunawardena on Sri Lanka’s great IMF lie and more recently on the 30th of March we looked at how the IMF bailout is changing Sri Lanka’s foreign policy as well. So do check those pieces out in the episode notes.
SW: And in our final story, in India, the Delhi High Court charged Sharjeel Imam, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, and eight others with rioting, unlawful assembly and other charges in the Jamia violence case, incidents in 2019 in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The High Court judgement overturned an earlier trial court verdict that discharged them from this case.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa do you have any recommendations?
RW: Thanks Saheli. Yeah I do. This week we are recommending Hami Kunako Manche, which translates as We Corner People. It’s a Nepali documentary by Kesang Tsteten. This documentary follows the lives of a village in Rasua district, north of Kathmandu. And it particularly follows their relationship with the river that they have to cross in order to buy food, sell goods or go to school. It also follows them as they work to build a bridge across the river while talking about their daily lives and hardships. It’s at times very poignant and definitely worth a watch.
[Clip from trailer]
SW: Hami Kunako Manche is the first documentary in our new initiative, Screen Southasia, in collaboration with Film Southasia. Every month we will be screening documentaries from across the region followed by a discussion with the film maker. Now Hami Kunako Manche is a great documentary on its own but being able to actually hear about the background of making it and how he found the story in the seemingly ordinary lives of the villagers and the ordinary story of the building of the bridge, was really interesting. I think it adds another level to watching the documentary and it’s great to hear the insights of the filmmaker. So if you are interested in signing up and being part of Screen Southasia, the link will be in the episode notes.
RW: Thanks Saheli. And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. See you next time. Bye!