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 ongoing court cases on marriage equality in India, decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in Sri Lanka, and recognition of foreign same-sex spouses in Nepal. We also talk about the fencing of the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For “Around Southasia in 5 minutes”, we’ll be talking about April marking 10 years since the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, and 8 years since the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, as well as developments related to the acquittal of 69 Hindus who were accused of murder during the 2002 Gujarat riots in India. We’ll also be talking about Bhutan’s cryptocurrency holdings, voter data theft and manipulation in the lead up to Karnataka‘s state elections, revelations around a bribe impacting the X-Press Pearl disaster litigation in Sri Lanka, wrestlers’ protests in India, and the last photos of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, who was killed in Myanmar.
For “Bookmarked”, we talk about Rima Das’ 2018 film, Bulbul can sing, a coming of age story set in Assam. We also tease our upcoming edition of Screen Southasia, ‘Is it too much to ask?’ directed by Leena Manimekalai, which will be screening from 5-8 May, with a Q and A on 8 May. To catch this and future screenings, please click 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 2 May 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 factchecker and researcher, Saheli. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: This episode for our big stories, we’re talking about ongoing court cases on marriage equality in India and decriminalisation in Sri Lanka. We’re also talking about the fencing of the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’ll be talking about April marking 10 years since the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, and 8 years since the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, as well as developments in [accountability for] the 2002 Gujarat riots in India. We’ll also be talking about Bhutan’s cryptocurrency holdings, voter data theft and manipulation in the lead up to Karnataka‘s state elections, revelations around a bribe impacting the X-Press Pearl disaster litigation in Sri Lanka, wrestlers’ protests in India, and the last photos of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai who was killed in Myanmar.
Let’s start off with discussing marriage equality in India.
[Sound clips from the Marriage Equality hearings in India]
SW: In India, the Supreme Court is hearing petitions that were filed in November last year seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriages. The petitioners argue that non-recognition of same-sex marriage violates their right to equality, freedom of expression and dignity, and that the current law is unconstitutional because it is discriminatory and denies same-sex couples, matrimonial benefits such as adoption, surrogacy, employment and retirement benefit. Now this case is the latest in a series of landmark cases that have been brought to the Supreme Court, dealing with the rights of the LGBTIQ community. The Supreme Court legally recognised trans and third-gender rights in 2014 and decriminalised homosexuality in 2018.
But the Union Government has been staunchly opposing the legalisation of same-sex marriage, saying that it goes against religious values and called it an “urban elitist concept.” Leaders of religious communities in a rare show of unity have also opposed it, saying that marriage is between a man and a woman and is for procreation only. The Indian Psychiatric Society, whose input was very important in the 2018 decriminalisation judgement, however, released a statement supporting same-sex marriage and cited multiple studies that show that being raised by a same-sex couple is not detrimental to children. The Bar Council released a statement urging that the court allows the legislature to amend the law, given how widespread the impact of legalization of same-sex marriage would be across India’s legal system. Of course, it’s very unlikely that the legislature would make such amendments given the government’s strong stance against same-sex marriage.
Proceedings in this case, which were livestreamed in public interest, were carefully followed not just in India but regionally too, because India could potentially be the first Southasian country to legalise same-sex marriage.
RW: In Sri Lanka, on 9 February, a private member’s bill was submitted to Parliament to decriminalise same-sex relationships. Currently, sections 365 and 365A of Sri Lanka’s Penal Code have been used to target and harass the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka, although the wording doesn’t specifically target same-sex relations. The community has long called to repeal these colonial era laws. Now the SLPP government has indicated that they are going to support the bid for decriminalising same-sex relationships. But news of the bill was met with scepticism from the queer community since it was submitted soon after the first discussion that Sri Lanka had with the IMF for the release of funds. And the SLPP has and members of it have often made homophobic comments.
On the 19th of April, the bill was also challenged by three well-known supporters of SLPP and the Rajapaksas, who argued that decriminalisation could impact children’s ability to make decisions freely and that it might make more children identify as trans. Shortly after, several LGBTIQ rights organisations, activists, psychiatrists and psychologists, academics and members of civil society filed intervening petitions arguing that decriminalisation would “remedy a long-standing injustice” against the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka. The bill has yet to be passed into law.
In Nepal, the Supreme Court has also instructed the government to recognise the same-sex foreign spouse of a Nepali citizen, according to Human Rights Watch. The court has also instructed the government to urgently consider a 2015 court-ordered report, which recommends broader recognition of same-sex relationships. So in general, there’s progress on this front – or at least discussion about same-sex relationships and decriminalisation across the region.
SW: Our next big story is from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the Inter-Services Public Relations Director General of Pakistan, Ahmed Sharif, recently said that 98 percent of fencing along the Durand Line has been completed. He said that this move would help in preventing the crossing of “terrorists.” Now the Taliban government denied the building of fencing and said that commuting between the two countries should continue. The de facto government has previously said that it opposes any fencing along the border.
The Durand Line has long been a source of controversy and conflict, and recently much of the news has been surrounding the rise in terror attacks in Pakistan, linked to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. The Pakistan government is under a lot of pressure to effectively combat the rise, which we have several pieces covering, including a February 2023 piece by Hurmat Ali Shah, discussing the protests in Swat and Waziristan, and a March 2023 piece by Salman Rafi Sheikh, discussing the Pakistani government’s relationship with the Tehreek-i-Taliban.
But talks of fencing of the Durand Line are certainly not new. In a 2005 piece called ‘The Line Durand Drew,’ Daniel Lak discusses how the then-president Musharraf has long wanted to demarcate and fence off parts of the line. All three of these pieces are linked in the episode notes below.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 Minutes.
[Sound clips from news coverage marking 10 years since the collapse of Rana Plaza]
RW: April 24th marks 10 years since the collapse of the eight storey Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. On the morning of the 24th, survivors and members of the National Government Workers Federation held a memorial and called for the day to be recognised as the day of mourning. A new study by Action Aid Bangladesh found that 54.5 percent of the survivors were still unemployed, mostly due to health conditions, including breathing difficulties and vision impairment, among other conditions. The report also found that 60 percent of 200 garment factory workers who were interviewed talked of safety risks at their workplaces, including machinery problems, lack of fire safety measures, inadequate ventilation and lighting and other things. This is despite agreements like the Fire and Building Safety Accord which was brought in after the Rana Plaza incident. In January 2022, we published a piece by Dina Siddiqi looking at the continued precarity of workers in Bangladesh’s garment factories. So do check that out in the episode notes.
[Sound clip from ‘Natural Event, Manmade Disaster’]
April 25th also marks 8 years since the Gorka earthquake in Nepal. The Nepali Times published a story looking at reconstruction efforts in Laprak and Barpak, finding that only 50 out of 573 houses in Gumsikpakha, where the survivors had initially relocated, were inhabited. This is partly because the new houses didn’t have features founding traditional Gurung homes, including space to accommodate livestock. They are also not fit for extended families and accommodating them, and residents complained that the doors, windows and plastic roofs did not feel sturdy. There’s also a lack of nearby water access due to a burst pipeline. A similar situation was found in Kalitar village. Now this story highlights how even well-intentioned reconstruction efforts can fail if there isn’t an attempt to build, plan and develop considering the needs of residents. To watch the documentary produced by Himal Southasian, called ‘Natural Event, Manmade Disaster,’ produced one year after the earthquake and linked in the episode notes.
On April 20th, an Indian court acquitted 69 Hindus of the murder of 11 Muslims during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Those acquitted included former State Minister Maya Kodnani and the former head of Bajrang Dal, Babu Badrangi. Shamsad Pathan, the advocate representing the victims, said that they would challenge the decision in a higher court. India’s Prime Minister Modi has been repeatedly accused of complicity for allowing the violence to occur during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Do revisit our 2019 piece by Rakesh Shukla reviewing Revati Laul’s book, The Anatomy of Hate, linked in the episode notes.
SW: In Bhutan, the government has been secretly investing millions of dollars into Bitcoin, Ether and other digital assets, according to a report published by Forbes on April 15th. The report says that Druk Holding and Investments, which is the commercial arm of the Royal Government of Bhutan, has been depositing with drawing and borrowing cryptocurrency without disclosing it to the public, and it was only revealed through court documents after multiple crypto companies filed for bankruptcy. About two weeks after the report, the CEO of DHI confirmed in an interview with The Bhutanese that they have been mining digital assets for years now, and said that all digital assets borrowed to make investments have been paid back with no dues. In the same interview, he said that power supply, including from Bhutan’s growing hydropower sector, is used for domestic consumption, local industries and the private sector first, with crypto mining getting the last priority. DHI also stressed that steps have been taken for risk management. Now as Bhutan graduates from Least Developed Country status at the end of 2023, the government has been working to ensure a smooth transition and continue its economic growth while navigating issues like the geographical limitations of the country. While crypto might be a bold move in this regard, question marks still remain about why these investments weren’t publicly disclosed in the first place.
RW: Ahead of the upcoming Karnataka state elections in India and amidst growing concerns about data theft and potential voter manipulation by private companies, another private firm in Bengaluru has surfaced that is selling voter data, including mobile numbers to candidates for around INR 25,000 according to the News Minute. The Election Commission is investigating whether the company could have been used to bribe voters by depositing money into their Unified Payments Interface. Now we did discuss similar incidents in a previous episode of Southasiasphere. That particular instance was in Chennai where a company was being contracted to collect data on recipients of state benefits. We’ll link to that in the episode notes.
[Sound clips from Sri Lanka]
SW: In Sri Lanka, Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe claimed that a USD 250 million bribe was paid to officials in order to delay litigation against the owners and agents of X-Press Pearl, a Singaporean vessel that sank off the coast of Sri Lanka in 2021. This was the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lanka, resulting in large amounts of toxic chemicals and around 1,680 metric tons of plastic pellets being released into the sea near Sri Lanka’s west coast. The disaster impacted the livelihoods of many coastal communities and around that time the government assured that compensation from the Singaporean company would go to the affected communities. But it took two years from the disaster and the Justice Minister’s accusations for a case to be filed in the Singaporean courts, rather frantically. All the while, justice was delayed.
RW: In Delhi, police said that they would register a case against the chief of India’s wrestling federation, Brij Bushan Singh, after several athletes came forward accusing him of sexual abuse. In January and again in mid-April, several of India’s top female wrestlers protested and demanded action against Singh, who is also a member of the BJP. Police initially said that they needed to conduct an inquiry before they could file an FIR, but renewed protests have pushed them to change their stance. The president of the Indian Olympic Association, P.T. Usha, said that the protesting wrestlers were tarnishing the country’s image to sharp reactions from the protesting wrestlers and supporters. Singh himself claimed that the sport had come to a standstill due to the protests and continues to deny the charges. Now the protest is ongoing at Jantar Mantar despite rain with the core group of wrestlers staying on at the protest site.
SW: In Myanmar, the video camera of Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photojournalist who was killed while covering the 2007 Safran Revolution, was returned to his sister. Nagai’s camera went missing after his death, but the news organisation Democratic Voice of Burma managed to track it down and recover the footage, which shows the last moments before he was killed by Myanmar armed forces. His death sparked widespread anger in Japan. Widely seen footage, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by a Reuters journalist, showed a soldier aiming a rifle near Nagai as he lay on the ground injured. The Japanese government said at the time that they could not conclude that he was shot at point-blank range. His sister said that the footage from his camera that was recently recovered would be taken to Japan to be analysed and support investigations into his death.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa, do you have any recommendations?
RW: Yes, I do. So I’d like to recommend Assamese filmmaker Rima Dasa’s movie, Bulbul Can Sing. It’s from 2018 and it’s a really nice coming-of-age story set in Assam. The first half in particular is this really beautiful celebration of innocence and girlhood and childhood in general. It follows the story of three friends who are building their own personalities and exploring their sexuality, but around the middle of the film their lives are kind of struck down by tragedy and it’s really about them kind of coming into themselves despite a kind of moral policing. I really recommend it, especially if you went to a really strict school, I think that you will be able to relate to some of the issues that are touched on in the film. But I thought it was really beautifully told and understated.
[Sound clip from the Bulbul Can Sing trailer]
SW: What I found really interesting was the process of making the film itself. So I was reading about it and articles say that the director was doing all the camera work, editing and production design herself as well as, you know, writing and directing and producing it. And even the actors, they were non-professional actors, bar I think this one character. And I thought that this process reflects in the film in a very good way because it makes it more personal and intimate in the way it looks at life in the village, which is nice, I think, especially given how Assam isn’t really covered in mainstream cinema very much.
And in that vein, if you are interested in watching documentaries from Southasia, do sign up for the next edition of Screen Southasia, where we’ll be screening ‘Is It Too Much to Ask’ by Leena Manimekali as well as hosting a Q&A with the director.
RW: Thanks, Saheli. So that’s kicking off on the 5th of May and we’ll be having the Q&A on the 8th. So do keep an eye out for that. That’s it for this episode of Southasiasphere. Thanks everyone. See you next time. Bye!