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In this episode, we talk about the blocking of The Kashmir Walla and the state of media freedom in Kashmir, and the pushback against China’s controversial new map plus Bhutan–China boundary talks.
In “Around Southasia in 5 minutes” we talk about caste atrocities in Uttar Pradesh, India’s path-breaking lunar and solar missions, the Taliban’s ban on women visiting national parks in Afghanistan and the death of the Afghan female YouTuber Hora Sadat, pushback from the Editor’s Guild of India against a proposed official fact-checking unit in Karnataka, an increase in HIV/AIDs cases in Sri Lanka, the deletion of acting BNP chairman Tarique Rahman’s speeches from social media ahead of Bangladesh’s elections, and a controversial Supreme Court judgment on child marriage in Nepal.
For “Bookmarked”, we discuss Don’t expect anything, a short film directed by Didier Nusbaumer that led to Myanmar’s junta arresting the cast and director for insulting Buddhist monks.
This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
Shwetha Srikanthan: This episode was recorded on 5 September 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 assistant editor Shwetha Srikanthan. Hi Shwetha!
SS: Hi Raisa!
RW: So for this episode, we’re going to be talking about The Kashmir Walla and the state of media in Kashmir and debates around a new map from China and Bhutan-China boundary talks. For “Around Southasia in 5 minutes” we’ll be talking about caste atrocities in India, the recent launch of the Chandrayaan-3 space mission, Afghanistan banning women from national parks and the recent killing of a female YouTuber, the Indian Editors Guild’s pushback on Karnataka’s fact-check unit, the increase in cases of HIV and AIDS in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh court orders to delete Tarique Rahman’s speeches on social media, and a recent Nepali Supreme Court decision on child marriage.
Let’s begin with what’s happening in Kashmir.
SS: Thanks Raisa. On 19 August, staff members of the independent Kashmir-based news outlet The kashmir Walla found that their website and social media accounts had been blocked. It was later confirmed that the block was carried out under the Information Technology Act 2000. The Indian government has not formally provided a reason so far, although Section 69A of the IT Act allows for the blocking of websites in the interest of maintaining India’s sovereignty and national security among other reasons. The Kashmir Walla also received an eviction notice to vacate their offices, and the site’s editor, Fahad Shah, has been imprisoned for over a year for articles that the government says is seditious and “anti-India”, while one of its contributors, Sajad Gul, has also been imprisoned under the Public Safety Act. This crackdown on The Kashmir Walla is emblematic of the broader clampdown on media and press freedom in Kashmir.
[Audio clip from “The ‘last standing independent media’ in Kashmir” by Al Jazeera]
SS: In November 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir government created the State Investigation Agency for the investigation and prosecution of cases related to terrorism, but so far, most of the people targeted by this body have been journalists. In the recent past, journalists have been summoned for interrogation and had their houses raided. And now, the clampdown is also impacting the media who report on press freedom in Kashmir. In early September, the BBC released a report based on a year’s investigations into what it called a “sinister and systematic campaign to intimidate and silence the press” which detailed numerous arrests and questioning of journalists by police. The Jammu and Kashmir police is now threatening legal action for “misreporting facts”, while the BBC said it stands by its reporting. Due to an increasing number of detentions, many publications have also taken to deleting thousands of articles which the freelance journalist Aakash Hassan described as an “erasure of memory” to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ather Zia, the editor of an online journal Kashmir Lit, also wrote that the website for the journal was hacked and taken down, adding that writers were also requesting for the deletion of their articles for fear of becoming targets. At times, journalists from Kashmir have been placed on no-fly lists – a key case being that of Sanna Irshad Mattoo who was prevented from flying to receive her Pulitzer Prize for her reporting of Covid-19 in India. Recently, several Kashmiri journalists received emails asking them to surrender their passports for being a “security threat”. We spoke about this in a previous edition of Southasiasphere as well – do look out for that in the episode notes.
RW: On August 28, China’s ministry of natural resources released a map which caused concern and pushback from India as it included the Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh and the disputed Aksaii Chin plateau as China’s territory. In response, China has asked India to “stay calm” while Reuters reported that the Chinese president Xi Jinping may skip the G20 meetings in Delhi over the fallout from the incident, which has also received pushback from Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. This incident comes just days after the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping spoke on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. The source of these tensions is the poorly demarcated Line of Actual Control along the Himalaya, and relations have worsened since 2020, when there was a clash at Galwan valley. We do have a piece written by Shaheed Ahmed that revisits the history around the Line of Actual Control, so do revisit that in the episode notes.
Meanwhile, a new technical team has been set up by Bhutan and China for delimitation of the disputed border. Now this was the outcome of a meeting held in Beijing on August 21 specifically to discuss Bhutan-China boundary issues. During this meeting, it was reported that there were discussions to in the future implement a “three step road map” which has not been made public yet. There have been 13 of these meetings so far and more are planned. However there has been a long history of boundary talks between the two countries, which began in 1984 according to the Hindustan Times. More recently in 2017, after a 73-day confrontation in Doklam when Chinese forces attempted to build a road in an area claimed by Bhutan, there have been attempts to settle this disputed border. We’ve covered the Doklam border dispute in a past episode of Southasiasphere as well, and we’ll link to that in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around southasia in 5 minutes
SS: In Uttar Pradesh, the Neha Public school in Muzaffarnagar came under the spotlight when a video surfaced of one of its teachers instructing students to hit one of their classmates while referring to his Muslim faith. Following a police complaint by the boy’s family, the teacher faces a case of causing hurt and intentional insult, however both offences are bailable and do not lead to immediate arrest. In interviews to news channels, she dismissed her actions saying that they were necessary to “control” children in school and denying it as a Hindu-Muslim issue.
Days later, a 14-year-old girl died by suicide in Barabanki district, also in Uttar Pradesh, because she questioned her teachers after she had paid her school fees but was given a slip showing an amount lower than what had been paid. In response, two teachers continually taunted the student over her poverty and for being from a oppressed-caste background. The girl’s parents also told NDTV that they were unable to file an FIR until they approached the superintendent of police.
[Audio from news on Chandrayaan-3 landing on the moon’s south pole]
RW: On August 23, India made history by becoming the first country to land on the moon’s relatively unmapped south pole, days after a Russian probe crashed in the same region. India’s rover, named Pragyaan or wisdom, is already at work mapping the lunar surface, most likely searching for water. So far, the rover has already detected the presence of several elements including oxygen, sulphur, iron and silicon on the surface, with more discoveries expected in the near future, including investigating the cause of a seemingly natural event on August 26 which caused vibrations of the rovers on the lunar surface.
A little over a week later, on September 2, India launched the Aditya-L1 rocket, carrying scientific instruments to observe the sun’s outermost layers. Back on Earth, pundits on social media compared the cost of the Chandrayaan mission with white elephant projects such as the Lotus Tower in Colombo in Sri Lanka, while others asked if the money couldn’t have been spent on more urgent needs. But it’s undeniable that both missions are significant achievements for India, especially as India is only the fourth country to make the landing on the moon, after the US, Russia and China.
SS: In yet another move to erase Afghan women from public life, the Taliban has banned women from the Afghan national park, Band e Amir, sparking widespread criticism. Mohammad Khalid Hanafi, the Taliban’s minister for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, claimed that women visiting the national park were not wearing the mandatory hijab properly and that sightseeing was not a must for women. However, Afghan women told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that women who were visiting the park were already being questioned before the ban. Shopkeepers stationed near the national park fear the drop in visitors would impact on their business. The holy shrine to the prophet Ali in the park also a site of major religious and cultural significance for Muslim pilgrims.
[Audio from TOLO news report on banning of Women from Band-e-Amir]
Meanwhile, the editor of Cartoon Movement said that two cartoons dealing with oppression of women under the Taliban were removed by Meta for violating the platform’s policies. The Cartoon Movement editor said “I believe cartoons also have an important role in the public debate, and cartoonists should be able to produce political satire without fear of having it taken down randomly.”
In other news from Afghanistan, concerns are being raised about the female YouTuber, Hora Sadat, who died under mysterious circumstances in Kabul on 21 August. Reports suggested that she was poisoned while attending a public event, and two suspected people were arrested according to the Taliban. Reports have variously pointed fingers at the Taliban and personal enemies as the perpetrators, with many noting that Sadat also produced videos on social issues, though she did not publicly criticise the Taliban.
RW: India’s Editors Guild has voiced concern over a proposed fact-checking unit set up by the government of Karnataka to monitor misinformation. The guild called for the government to identify the scope and powers of this proposed unit and the governing mechanism under which it would operate, adding that it hoped the government would not use it as a tool to quash dissent, in a formal statement. In response, the minister Priyank Kharge said that the unit would be apolitical and devoid of bias, and that the ministry was looking at the establishment of independent bodies for fact-checking.
SS: In Sri Lanka, there has been a reported increase in cases of HIV/AIDS according to the National STD/AIDS control programme, with Sri Lanka reporting 181 new HIV cases – a 9 percent increase from the previous quarter and an increase compared to the same time period in 2022. Dr Janaki Vidanapathirana, the director of the National STD/AIDS Control Programme said the expansion of testing capacity after the pandemic, the lack of sex education and unchanged behaviour with regard to unprotected sex, were among the factors leading to the increase. The UNFPA also highlights stigma and discrimination as being barriers to HIV prevention and treatment in Sri Lanka.
RW: In Bangladesh, a court order was issued to the state-run regulator to delete speeches of the acting chairman of the Bangladesh National Party, Tarique Rahman, from social media. The incident is only the latest crackdown on the BNP leader who is currently exiled in London. This act of censorship is a further blow to the BNP after Rahman was sentenced to 9 years in prison on corruption charges and a court in Dhaka ordered to seize his assets. Given planned elections in January 2024, this is also a blow as the BNP has been fighting to make an electoral comeback given public discontent with the spiralling cost of living. We covered Rahman’s latest sentence in a previous episode of Southasiasphere – so do check that out in the episode notes.
SS: In Nepal, a recently released judgment by Nepal’s Supreme court has drawn criticism for diluting the concept of statutory rape. The Supreme Court held that an adult male who had married a female minor was not guilty of child rape or kidnapping, but only child marriage. In doing so, it overturned an 11-year prison term and reduced his term to just 6 months with a fine of 10,000 Nepali rupees. The court held that statutory rape didn’t apply as the couple were married, after the girl who was not yet 16, claimed that they were in love. Given that in Nepal, nearly 38 percent of women in the age group of 20-49 were married before the age of 18, activists have noted that the decision sends a message that child marriage is not considered a serious issue and warned that this could lead to an increase in child marriages as a result.
And now for the next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa, do you have any recommendations?
RW: Thanks, Shwetha. Yes, I do. This episode, I’m recommending Don’t Expect Anything, directed by the Swiss Didier Nusbaumer, and it was uploaded on a Youtube channel called “isi Dhamma”. So this short film is broadly about past lives and it focuses on the story of a mischievous 12-year-old girl who is very playful, very in touch with nature and very content with her life. But while she is sitting in the fields one day, she has this vision and she sees that she was a very well-known Buddhist monk in a past life, and she then calls on her parents to take her to see this monk once stayed. And it basically follows her attempts to make sense of this vision and trying to live up to the Buddhist principles that he advocated and ends up where it started, full circle, with her returning to her family and thinking about how to apply this in her day-to-day life. So this is broadly what the story is, and while the theme of it was past lives, it was the opening segment of the movie which raised some controversy in Myanmar. This was shot and is set in Myanmar, and it is this one particular scene where this girl confronts a Buddhist monk in a temple and says that the life she sees around her doesn’t reflect the Buddhist principles that the monk is preaching and she very fearlessly challenges the monk and says that even monks nowadays have fallen victim to corruption. She challenges him very fearlessly and the monk responds and says she’s spiritually very mature, and doesn’t react in the movie. But in real life that particular scene seems to have caused quite a bit of controversy in Myanmar, and as a result of it, the junta has announced that it was going to take action against 14 people in this movie for using offensive and disrespectful language, and they’ve said that they had insulted the virtue of Buddhist monks. They’ve also said the movie harms Myanmar’s culture and Buddhist traditions. A pro-junta Telegram channel reported that 14 people were arrested over this movie on August 8. It has even displayed photographs of 11 detainees, including the 12-year-old girl who stars in the movie.
[Audio from film Don’t Expect Anything]
RW: This is obviously a very unfortunate turn of events, and it does definitely amount to censorship. If you look at the whole film, it is very clear that it is talking about Buddhist principles and implementing them in your day-to-day life and responding to hatred with love, and these kinds of principles are what the film is broadly about. But it seems that the very fearless way that she challenged the monk in the movie, which is something that I noticed when I was watching as well, has led to controversy and a crackdown with a 12-year-old girl being arrested, which is very unfortunate and is clearly a crackdown on freedom of expression.
Shwetha, what did you think?
SS: Yes, Raisa, this incident reminded me of the Sri Lankan stand-up comedian, Nathasha Edirisooriya, who was arrested in may this year under the ICCPR Act . She was arrested based on allegations that she had made derogatory remarks about Buddhism and a Buddhist Girls School during her performance in a comedy show in April. The show went viral and triggered a wave of outrage among some viewers. There was hate speech, harsh criticism online, and even death threats followed. So there’s some parallels here how states crackdown on creative expression in the name of protecting religious belief, not just in Myanmar, but across the region.
RW: Thanks, Shwetha. Yeah, I fully agree, it did remind me of that case as well and I was thinking about while watching this. Also parallels with one of our big stories about the silencing of journalism in Kashmir. There’s definitely echoes of this happening all across the region.
And on that note, that’s in for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do tune in for the next episode. Thanks everyone. Bye!