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In this episode of Southasiasphere, we talk about the reinstatement of Nepal’s Parliament and why these events reminded us of Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis in 2018. We also discuss a recent investigative report by Al Jazeera on high-level corruption in Bangladesh and the reactions it triggered in the country. Plus we introduced two new segments, including one on contemporary culture across Southasia. (We are still deciding on what to call this section. So send in your suggestions through our social-media pages or to our editorial email to win a copy of our right-side-up map!)
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha. Hi guys!
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi
Shubhanga Pandey: Hi
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi
RW: So our big stories in this edition include the reinstatement of Nepal’s Parliament, and a thwarted attempt to bring sedition charges against Al Jazeera after the media group contributed to an investigation of high level corruption in Bangladesh.
Let’s begin with a follow up on the situation in Nepal and why the situation there sounds so familiar to those of us following events in the region.
SP: Thanks Raisa. Yes, so Nepal’s Supreme Court has finally given its verdict on Prime Minister KP Oli’s decision to dissolve the House of Representatives late last year. Now, if you’ve been following recent events in Nepal, and also something we covered in our last episode, the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had been hearing a number of petitions against the move, and now it has decided against it and called it unconstitutional – and in doing so reinstated the house. This means that there will be no snap elections, and in fact the court has directed that the parliament be resumed within 13 days. So it’s actually reconvening on Sunday, that’s on March 7th.
Now, while this gives a much needed resolution to what was essentially was a constitutional limbo in Nepal, it also basically takes the politics back to the situation it was in before the dissolution – so you have the same kind of balance of power, PM Oli’s government is still in a tenuous state with one half of his party still trying to unseat him. And interestingly, all this has given quite a bit of power to the largest opposition party which is Nepali Congress, which has only about 60 odd seats out of 275, so that’s less than a fourth, but maybe enough to determine whether the no-confidence motion against the PM will fail or succeed.
So in the coming days we can expect quite a bit of political activity as both halves of the ruling party try to strike a winning parliamentary balance. Interestingly, a no-confidence vote in Nepal under current constitution required that there should be a name of prime ministerial candidate, and if the vote fails, another motion may not be brought for a full year. So yeah, interesting developments in Nepal.
SS: So what happens to the decisions made during the crisis, now that Nepal’s Supreme Court has overturned this dissolution.
SP: Well, the verdict makes it clear that all decisions made by what was essentially a caretaker government, those will be rendered null and void. It’s worth noting that the cabinet made about 30 appointments in some important constitutional and statutory bodies during this period, but in practical terms, it’s not clear if there are any changes in the future. So something to keep an eye on.
I mean, I imagine Sri Lanka must have experienced something similar in 2018 when the president suspended the parliament, right?
RW: Right. Exactly, so Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis in 2018 was different from Nepal in one way – which is that, of course, we briefly had two Prime Ministers, when President Sirisena swore in Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. But Sirisena also started the first members of a new Cabinet and that included ministers, state ministers, deputy ministers and secretaries to the ministries that were appointed – after he attempted to appoint a second prime minister. Of course, what happened was that the opposition parties, civil society and even the Election Commission went to court.
SP: Could you refresh our memory on what exactly happened?
RW: Yeah, so what happened was Wickremesinghe actually retained his Prime Minister position and the rogue Cabinet if you like – that is the one appointed by Sirisena, was dismissed. But a lot of the lower level appointments made during that period actually stayed in their seats. So for example I know someone at the Language Department who said that they got a new boss during the crisis, and after Prime Minister Wickremesignhe was reinstated, that person did not lose their position. So a lot of people actually remained in their seats, which led to this curious situation where some of the political appointees were actually no longer loyal to the sitting government, which led to some instability.
SP: Yeah well, definitely something to follow up in Nepal, especially because there are also some pending writ petitions against some of these appointments.
Now let’s move on to our next story, on the fallouts of an investigative report in Bangladesh. Marlon you’ve been following this story closely.
MA: Yeah Shubhanga, so this all started on the 1st of February when the Investigative Unit of Al Jazeera, they released this documentary called All the Prime Minister’s Men. Now as we speak it has over 7.8 million views on Youtube and its trailer on Facebook has garnered about 2.1 million views. And overnight, the hashtag #DhakaMafia started trending on Twitter and other social media channels.
SS: Sounds like this documentary has made quite the slash, so what exactly was revealed in this report?
MA: Yeah, you’re right Shwetha. So splash in the social media circles and outside of Bangladesh, more like a ripple within Bangladesh and its media – which we will get on to later. So it’s quite a dramatic piece of investigative journalism, mainly about General Aziz Ahmed who is the Army Chief – which is the highest-ranking office in the army, and about his brothers, who are part of a criminal gang colluding with the security forces of the country. The documentary also suggests that there were supposed links to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself.
SP: Yeah, what I thought was particularly scandalous and revealing was that the documentary also featured photographs from the wedding in the general’s family, with military bands and included state dignitaries like the president of Bangladesh, but also attended by two of the General’s brothers who are convicted of murder and on the run. And incidentally, the President also pardoned another brother who was serving life sentence for murder. So it seems quite a bit of nexus at the very highest levels of the Bangladeshi state.
RW: What has been the response from the Bangladesh government? And what about the media? How have they been reporting it?
MA: Well Raisa, the government actually responded immediately – the Foreign Ministry deemed it a politically motivated “smear” campaign which is “false” and “defamatory”. However, when it comes to the media there was practically radio silence over the issue.
SS: Yeah, and I saw this tweet on the 3rd of February by Shahidul Alam. This tweet had a picture of the February 2nd front-pages of three leading newspapers in the country, and strangely any news about the documentary was absent.
MA: Yeah exactly, and I think this is the sort of absence that calls attention to itself. But then, the Daily Star, one of the leading newspapers in Bangladesh, it’s front page was part of that tweet you mentioned Shwetha – now they responded in their editorial on 3rd February by saying and I quote “Readers are fully entitled to ask why there is such an absence of similar reporting in the local media. While admitting to our own limitations, it is really the reflection of the environment in which we operate exemplified by the existence of the Digital Security Act (DSA), among others, which is perhaps among the most comprehensively restrictive and oppressive laws against the free press anywhere.”
SP: So it seems to me like they’re suggesting there could be a government crackdown on those who report this story?
MA: Yeah it seems that way Shubhanga. Now, the next development in this story was on 17th of February, Moshiur Malek, a lawyer filed a sedition case against four people who were involved in the documentary including David Bergman and Mostefa Souag, the Director General of Al Jazeera. Malek accused them of tarnishing the image of the country and conspiring to topple the government. But on the 23rd the court asked Malek to withdraw the case citing that the case was filed without taking approval from the relevant authorities. Just to make it clear, the court did not refute the claim that Malek made in his case, rather it took issue with the manner in which the case was filed. Basically, it was like a logistical issue.
RW: This is actually reminding me of India, where the filing of sedition cases is now being used as a tactic to stifle dissent, with numerous instances of cases being filed against journalists and activists in the recent past – as we explored in a Mediafile as well. This situation in Bangladesh seems to have been a similar attempt which was quashed by the court.
SS: Exactly Raisa, and in India we’re seeing this visible trend where UAPA and sedition are increasingly used to crackdown on criticism. For example, the two recent judgments that highlight this are the observations made by a Delhi court while granting bail to Disha Ravi, the young climate activist who was arrested on charge of sedition. The court rejected almost every accusation by the Delhi police, and Judge Dharmender Rana stated that “citizens cannot be put behind bars simply because they disagree with the government.” The Bombay High Court also granted conditional bail on medical grounds to the poet and activist, Varavara Rao.
Moving on, we would like to introduce a new section we’re calling Around Southasia in 5 minutes where we look at interesting news stories from around the region. To start off, Raisa, you’ve been looking at Tibet?
RW: That’s right, Shwetha. So this US bipartisan bill which is aimed at dealing with coerced labour has made reference to Tibet. The bill is called the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act and it was passed with an overwhelming majority in September 2020. At first, it focused on the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, suggesting that goods from there cannot enter the US unless it can be proved that they have not been produced as a result of forced labour. The updated bill now refers to Tibet, noting the military style training, ideological education and vocational training that hundreds of thousands of residents of the Tibet Autonomous Region are made to participate in before being transferred to job postings. It also noted the similarities between the two regions.
SS: Myanmar experienced one of the bloodiest days of protests on the 3rd of March. The UN reported that 38 people had been killed by security forces, bringing the tally of those killed since the protests began to more to more than 50, and over 1000 government officials, activists and journalists detained since the February 1st coup.
MA: There is news of another coup coming from Bhutan – dubbed the most peaceful country in the region by the Global Peace Index. To be fair, it’s actually a mini-coup attempt. A top general and two judges were arrested for conspiring to overthrow the country’s top military officer and Chief Justice.
SP: And in Sri Lanka, the month of February saw some in its relations with India, after the government pulled out of a deal with India and Japan to jointly develop a terminal at the Colombo Port – the East Container Terminal, following protests by port unions against foreign involvements in the port. So more recently, the cabinet has actually approved another terminal, the West Container Terminal for development with private companies nominated by India and Japan.
And moving onto our final section where we’ll be talking about what we’ve been watching, reading or listening to. Now we don’t have a title for the section yet, so here’s a chance to win our right side up map: send us a suggestion for the section and the best title will win the map! So shall we begin?
RW: Yeah, so Marlon and I actually watched Zakaria’s Halal Love Story as part of a movie review we were working on. I found it to be quite a light and fun watch – it was quite funny in parts, but the more I worked on the review, the more mixed my feelings were. Marlon, what did you think of it?
MA: Yeah exactly, I agree. I liked it, I thought it was charming. But after working on the review by Ali and Shama, my perspective also changed quite a bit. Just to plug the review a bit more, you can check it out on our website, and there will be German translation of it coming out soon.
SP: So in the world of music, streaming and podcasting, Spotify has finally been launched across 4 countries in Southasia. So that’s Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It has been around, at least in India for the past two years. So this was seen as kind of a big news. However, it seems like one still can’t access their podcasts in these countries due to rights restrictions. So if your main interest is in podcasts then I’d recommend sticking with the platforms you already might be using.
SS: And I have two book recommendations. These are two new translated editions from the well-known Murty Classical Library of India. One is the iconic 18th-century poet Bulhe Shah’s Sufi Lyrics, and the second being Poems of the First Buddhist Women, this is one of the oldest surviving works by women, composed more than two millennia ago.
MA: Thanks for that Shwetha, I think you’ve brought in some much needed ‘refinement’ to this segment.
RW: I recently watched White Tiger on Netflix, which is based on the book by Aravind Adiga. I did enjoy certain parts of the book, especially those that talked about apathy among the upper middle class. So following on from the book there were parts that the movie did get right. So for example, the character of Pinky, which is played by Priyanka Chopra, as she careeres down the road after a night out, where she’s totally oblivious to the family sleeping by the side of the road, and it’s only the driver in the backseat who notices it. That was quite an apt way to show how the middle and upper middle class of India, they often turn a blind eye to the poverty that surrounds them. And it made me reflect as well. I think it’s something that’s quite relatable to Colombo. But at the same time, I did agree with some criticism, again extending from the book, that the characters were sometimes caricatures.
SS: Yeah, I’ve read that the protagonist is kind of portrayed as this brash person who is willing to go to any lengths to get rich, in a way that could even be interpreted as the author’s hidden bias or prejudice.
RW: Yeah, exactly. So he describes his own hometown in Bihar as ‘The Darkness’ and he paints it as a place of squalor. And the movie also too often gives way to these kinds of cliched tropes in how India is portrayed. But as I said, the apathy of the upper middle class is kind of where it rings a bit more true, and it actually reminded me of, in parts, of the much subtler movie Parasite, which I enjoyed more and it kind of touches on very similar themes.
MA: Yeah you’re right Raisa, I think there were definitely echoes of Parasite in the film. But those engagements, I felt were quite simplistic. So, as you can guess, I’m not the biggest fan of the film. I’ve also read the book over a decade ago and I remember finding it very interesting, at least in my first read, but then I studied it in university and well, I think you know what happens when you study things, especially literature.
SS: Did you start hating the book?
MA: Yeah, pretty much.
SP: That’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see the cartoons illustrating this episode by Gihan de Chickera, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support our work!
Thanks everyone. Bye!