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 the Delhi Police raid on the office of the Indian news outlet Newsclick as well as numerous journalists’ homes; and debates around delimitation and the women’s reservation bill in India’s parliament. In “Around Southasia in 5 minutes”, we talk about the presidential election results in the Maldives, the reimposition of an internet ban in strife-torn Manipur, the BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri’s Islamophobic language in the Indian parliament, concerns over the Online Safety Bill and antiterrorism legislation in Sri Lanka, price controls impacting farmers in Myanmar and a recent massacre of resistance fighters in the country, and brewing controversy around elections for the position of the World Health Organisation’s South Asia regional director. For “Bookmarked”, we discuss the novel “The Laughter” by Sonora Jha.
This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
Ritika: This episode was recorded on 3rd October 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 co-host Ritika Chauhan.
Ritika Chauhan: Hi Raisa!
RW: Hi Ritika!
RW: This week, for our big story, we’ll be unpacking conversations around the upcoming women’s reservation bill and delimitation in India, and the recent raids by Delhi police impacting Newsclick. For “Around Southasia in 5 minutes”, we’re talking about the reimposition of the internet ban in Manipur, MP Ramesh Bidhuri’s inflammatory comments in Parliament and recent reports by HindutvaWatch and the Washington Post, election updates from the Maldives, proposed legislation on online speech and antiterrorism in Sri Lanka, price controls imposed on farmers in Myanmar and a recent massacre impacting resistance fighters and administrators.
Let’s begin with the discussion on delimitation in India.
RC: Thanks Raisa. So in India there was a lot of discussion about delimitation of the Lok Sabha constituencies after the government tied it to implementation of the women’s reservation bill, which would provide a 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state legislative assemblies. Essentially, this means that a census has to be conducted and territorial constituencies have to be redrawn before the women’s reservation bill can be passed. Now, this delimitation process has been met with protest, particularly by South Indian states.
The reason for this is that the parliamentary seats will be decided based on census data. The current seat division in the Lok Sabha is actually based on 1971 census data, with first Indira Gandhi and then Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government placing a freeze on seat revision through a constitutional amendment – a freeze which expires in 2026. The idea behind this was to ensure that all states implemented population control measures. The Southern states are protesting because they stand to lose seats due to their successful implementation of population control, while the northern states would gain seats in comparison. The News Minute reports that the share of Lok Sabha seats in south India could drop to 19 percent from around 23 percent, while the more populous states in north India could see their proportion of MPs rise to 48 percent from the present 42 percent. Opposition parties charge that this process will benefit the BJP and weaken the influence of regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Now there are several solutions being proposed to address these concerns – from reapportioning the existing number of seats to expanding the Lok Sabha and rejigging the Rajya Sabha so that every state gets two representatives irrespective of population, while decentralisation has also been proposed. It’s notable that the new parliament building can house up to 888 MPs – indicating that the Union government is considering increasing representation in the Lok Sabha.
Delimitation has been in the news across the border in Pakistan as well, with Pakistan’s election commission saying that an election date can’t be announced before a delimitation exercise is concluded.
RW: On the morning of October 3, Delhi police raided the homes of several journalists working at the Indian news website Newsclick, as well as the Newsclick office. The raids took place in connection with a case filed under provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and sections 153A and 120B of India’s Penal Code. Newsclick’s editor, Prabir Purkayastha, journalists Abhisar Sharma, Aunindyo Chakravarty and Bhasha Singh, and satirist Sanjay Rajaura said their homes were raided and laptops and phones were seized. Similar action was also taken against the Mumbai-based activist and director of the think tank Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Teesta Setalvad – Trinconental has written articles for Newsclick. All this is happening in the backdrop of a New York Times article claiming that NewsClick received funds from a network centred around American millionaire Neville Roy Singham to spread “Chinese propaganda” around the world – a charge that editor Purkayastha said was false. But this incident highlights how legislation like the UAPA is being used to crack down on the freedom of the press in India.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
RW: On 9 September 2023, the much-anticipated first round of the presidential elections in the Maldives ended with no candidates securing the minimum 50 per cent of the required votes, thus heading for a second round of elections scheduled for September 30, 2023. Though 8 candidates joined the presidential race, it came down to two candidates – Mohamed Muizzu of Progressive Alliance—a coalition between the Progressive Party of Maldives and the People’s National Congress —and the incumbent Ibrahim Solih of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party. Muizzu took a surprise lead in the first round with 46 percent of the votes, with Solih only able to garner 39 percent of the vote. After the first round, the Maldives Development Alliance, which formed a coalition with the MDP for the presidential election, decided to shift its support to Muizzu and the Progressive Alliance for the second round. On October 1, it was reported that Muizzu had won the election, beating the incumbent Solih with roughly 54 percent of the vote. On the ballot were issues related to the ongoing housing crisis in the overcrowded capital, and Maldives’ declining dollar reserves. However, much more of the international coverage portrayed it as a win for China (with Muizzu seen as more pro-China and Solih reportedly more open to working with India). A campaign led by the then-opposition called ‘India Out’ also drew attention to and raised suspicions about India’s investment in the Maldives.
We’ve been following the Maldivian presidential election closely – and we’ll link to some of our coverage in the episode notes.
RC: On Tuesday, September 26, Manipur once again suspended mobile internet services just two days after internet service was restored, following fresh protests in the state that flared up after two Meitei students were brutally murdered. Scores of students took to the streets and marched towards Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s residence demanding justice for the victims. The unrest took place after photos of the two students’ bodies, Hijam Linthoingami (17) and Phijam Hemjit (20) went viral on social media. Internet services have been suspended for five more days. In our last episode of Southasiasphere, we spoke about the Editors Guild of India’s fact-finding report on Manipur, which highlighted the impact of the internet ban on journalism, making it harder for the press to access verified information and allowing for the spread of misinformation. We’ve reported on the impacts of Manipur’s internet ban in past episodes of Southasiasphere, so do check those out in the episode notes.
RW: On September 21, BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri used Islamophobic language towards Kunwar Danish Ali of the opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) inside India’s parliament. The remarks drew anger from social media users and opposition party members who demanded strict action against Bidhuri. In return, the BJP claimed that Ali had used ‘unparliamentary language’ insulting Prime Minister Modi in an earlier speech. Bidhuri’s comments must be looked at in the backdrop of a recent report by Hindutva Watch. The report found 255 documented incidents of hate speech targeting Muslims in the first half of 2023, and spikes reported in many states with upcoming elections in 2023 and 2024. 80 percent of the hate speech events took place in states governed by the BJP. Meanwhile, the Washington Post released an article unpacking how the head of Bajrang Dal Monu Manesar used social media platforms including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to livestream cow vigilante-related violence, only to be verified on these platforms. Manesar, who was also wanted in connection with recent communal violence in Haryana, recently won a silver creator award from YouTube for reaching 100,000 subscribers and was verified by Facebook and Instagram, with the platforms being slow to remove his content despite his promoting violence. The report also highlights his links with the BJP Information Minister Anurag Thakur, while the Hindutva Watch report noted that 52 percent of recorded hate speech during gatherings in BJP-ruled states and union territories were orchestrated by entities affiliated with the RSS, the VHP, Bajrang Dal, the Sakal Hindu Samaj, and the BJP itself. We’ll link to both these important reports and our past coverage in the episode notes.
RC: In Sri Lanka, the government is attempting to pass a suite of legislation that will impact freedom of expression online and freedom of movement. On 19 September 2023, the government gazetted the Online Safety Bill which while purporting to address misinformation, defamation and hate speech targeting minorities, could be used to suppress online freedom of expression due to its vague provisions on defining harmful speech. Criticism has also been levelled at the Online Safety Commission, which has been bestowed with substantial powers which could be used to crack down on dissent. This is key given widespread protests last year in the wake of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, where many protesters used social media to organise and disseminate information that was often critical of the government. And on September 15, the government published an anti-terrorism bill, a revision of an earlier version gazetted in March, which continues to contain broad definitions of terrorism and may also be used to crack down on dissent, including protests and collective action.
RW: In Myanmar, the junta has imposed price controls on farmers that will see them struggling to make profits. The price controls have been imposed on the farmers’ sales of rice to dealers – previously, farmers were able to negotiate prices with dealers. The Myanmar Rice Federation announced the controls, adding that the price would ensure appropriate profits for farmers, stabilize rice prices, and reduce the financial burden on consumers hit by surging food prices. But farmers say that while the price of rice has risen, its traders who are raking in profits, while they struggle to get by, particularly with rising fertiliser and fuel prices.
The repression imposed by the junta is more than just economic of course. On September 23, the junta killed 24 resistance fighters from Chay Yar Taw People’s Defense Force and two civilian Myinmu Township Administration staff. The fighters were armed but they lacked automatic rifles and sufficient ammunition, and surrendered to forces, Irrawaddy reported. The killings occur in the backdrop of a recent report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which reported a “sharp rise” in rights violations between April 2022 and July 2023, including an increase in incidents in which 10 or more people were killed. The report also detailed how junta troops torched nearly 24,000 houses and buildings since the beginning of 2023, as part of what it calls a ‘four cuts’ strategy to deny its opponents access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits.
RC: The elections for the WHO South East Asia Regional Office came under the spotlight as Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s daughter is contesting for the top post. Hasina’s daughter, Saima Wazed, accompanied her mother to the G20 summit in New Delhi, hoping to help secure India’s vote for the top post. Wazed has a masters degree in psychology with a specialisation in autism. She is going up against Nepal’s Shambu Prasad Acharya, one of the WHO’s most senior officials. News of Bangladesh’s nominee raised questions from health experts on Wazed’s suitability for the role and the WHO election process overall, the Financial Times has reported. Wazed has said that the accusations of nepotism are ‘offensive’ and cited her experience in advocacy as part of her experience (Wazed also holds an advisory position in a government committee on autism and neurodevelopmental disorders). The WHO’s regional directors are hugely influential in the health body’s hierarchy, working closely with the headquarters in Geneva to set and execute policy goals.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa, do you have any recommendations?
RW: Yes Ritika, this episode I’d like to talk about ‘The Laughter’ written by Sonora Jha. This recommendation actually comes from our Assistant Editor Nayantara Narayanan. It touches on themes of prejudice and xenophobia, inclusion and Muslim identity. The novel is set in the US, specifically in Seattle, and the protagonist is a white scholar, Oliver Harding who becomes obsessed with Ruhaba Khan, a Pakistani law professor and his colleague. Kirkus Reviews notes that Harding’s character juxtaposes both lack of self-awareness with academic grandiosity, which makes for a lot of comic relief. Kirkus Reviews also notes that “Jha impressively avoids the trap of preachiness and moralizing that stories of identity politics on campus tend to fall into; rather, hers is a subtle and nuanced look at the subject.” It adds that the novel subverts “layer upon layer of assumptions about campus culture, identity politics, religion, East versus West, racism and terrorism.”
Ritika: Thanks Raisa, it sounds like an interesting book! I’d also like to let everyone know that this weekend, we’re kicking off another edition of Screen Southasia. This time, we’ll be screening ‘’Broken’ and ‘The Story of One’, two short documentaries by Sri Lankan director Kannan Arunasalam from October 6 to 9, with a Q and A session with the director on October 9 at 6 pm IST. We’ll drop the signup link in the episode notes.
And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Thanks, everyone and stay tuned for more from us soon. Bye!