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 communal misinformation connected to the Odisha train crash in India and the abduction of the lawyer and activist Jibran Nasir in Pakistan.
For “Around Southasia in 5 minutes”, we talk about developments in the wrestlers’ protests in India, a poisoning incident involving primary schoolgirls and the drop of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, anti-China protests in Myanmar, amendments to legislation in Bangladesh limiting the Election Commissioner’s powers, and the arrest of a Tamil MP in Sri Lanka and what it reveals about military surveillance in the country’s North and East.
For “Bookmarked”, we discuss the Al Jazeera Witness documentary “No Place Like Home”, tracing the roots of a potentially illegal adoption from Sri Lanka.
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 12th of June 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: So this week our big stories are on communal misinformation around the Odisha train crash in India, and the abduction of lawyer and activist Jibran Nasir in Pakistan. In Around Southasia in Five Minutes we’re talking about developments in the wrestlers’ protests in India, a poisoning incident involving primary schoolgirls in Afghanistan and the drop of opium cultivation in the country, anti-China protests in Myanmar, amendments to legislation in Bangladesh limiting the Election Commission’s power, and the arrest of a Tamil MP in Sri Lanka and what it reveals about military surveillance in the north and east of the country. Let’s begin with what’s happening in Odisha.
[Sound clips of news from India]
On Friday June 2nd there was a deadly train crash between two passenger trains, the Coromandel Express and the Bengaluru Howrah Superfast Express and a stationary goods train in the state of Odisha in Balasore. More than a thousand people were taken to hospital for treatment and at least 288 people were reported dead after this crash. Questions are being asked as to what caused the accident and a 10 member team from the Central Bureau of Investigations is visiting the accident site.
While discussions continue on to what exactly caused the accident, what has been less reported has been the spread of misinformation with a communal angle linked to this incident. For instance, there were claims on social media that the station master of Balasore was a Muslim who was absconding. Photos were also circulated appearing to show a masjid near the accident site, while some Twitter handles pointed to the fact that the accident happened on a Friday and said that this was evidence of a conspiracy targeting Hindus or as one user called it “rail jihad.” The Wire reported that there were even some accounts noting Balasore was a “hub of illegal Rohingya immigrants.”
Many of these claims came from social media accounts that shared Hindutva propaganda. As it turned out, much of the claims made were false. The station master on duty in Balasore at the time was not Muslim and had not absconded, while the structure nearby was found to be an ISKON temple, a temple dedicated to the Hindu Deity Krishna.
While fact checkers busied themselves debunking these various claims, Odisha police issued a statement saying that they would take legal action against those who were trying to create communal disharmony by spreading rumors. The main focus in mainstream media news coverage has been discussions on train safety, including discussions on whether there was a signal malfunction that led to the crash. But the Odisha train crash also illustrates how existing societal discrimination and prejudice is being weaponised, including on social media. This is something we addressed in a past edition of Southasiasphere, back when it was a newsletter in 2020. We’ll link to it in the episode notes.
[Sound clip of news from Pakistan]
SW: Our next big story is from Pakistan, where on the 1st of June, lawyer and activist Jibran Nasir was abducted by more than a dozen men in Karachi. His wife, who was with him at the time, said that around 15 men in plainclothes surrounded their car and forcefully took him away, leaving her unharmed. Following his abduction, human rights activists, journalists and lawyers protested in Karachi. The Human Rights Commission said that it was “deeply concerned that unknown men had abducted the lawyer and activist,” while Amnesty International said that his arrest is “yet another case that the country has seen in recent weeks in the wake of authorities cracking down on critical voices following violent clashes during Imran Khan’s arrest.”
Jibran Nasir returned home safely the next day and he thanked those who called for his release. But as we discussed in the previous episode of Southasiasphere, Pakistan has seen a government crackdown on the PTI and its supporters, as well as journalists in recent weeks. The whereabouts of journalist Imran Riaz Khan still remain unknown. Enforced disappearances aren’t a new phenomenon in Pakistan or in the region. It’s a tool that governments in Southasia have used both in war and peace time against journalists and activists and citizens. We’ve published several pieces on this, including a 2014 piece by Seema Kazi on increased militarisation in Southasia and the linkage to human rights abuses. Do check that out, it’s linked in the episode notes.
Now for our next segment Around Southasia in 5 Minutes.
RW: On May 28, several Indian wrestlers were charged with rioting and disorder in Delhi after they tried to march to the new parliament building which had been inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The protesters included Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia. Photos and videos of them being tackled to the ground by police went viral.
The wrestlers have been protesting over the lack of action taken against bridge Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, a member of the BJP and former head of the Wrestling Federation of India, who has had several sexual harassment charges leveled against him, as we discussed in a past episode of Southasiasphere. Singh continues to deny the charges. Meanwhile, Sakshi Malik pointed out that the filing of FIRs against the protesting wrestlers took less than seven hours while it took seven days for the police to file one against Singh, in contrast.
The protests which have been ongoing for over a month in New Delhi have drawn widespread support, including from farmers who had been protesting the 2020 farm laws in nearby Haryana. Amidst growing pressure, both Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Sports Minister Anurag Thakur invited the wrestlers to talk. After Thakur promised a swift conclusion to the investigation into allegations leveled against Singh, the wrestlers have suspended their protests until June 15th and say that they will continue their protests if no action is taken by the date.
SW: In Afghanistan, nearly 80 primary school students, mostly young girls from two schools, were hospitalised after they were believed to be poisoned. This comes as the Taliban authorities continue to restrict women’s rights, including the access to education. Girls are permitted to attend school only up until around age 12. And poisoning attacks on school girls aren’t new. Students were reported in 2012 and 2015 for example, and the attacks in 2012 were blamed on the Taliban.
[Sound clips of news from Afghanistan]
Also in Afghanistan, analysis by the BBC shows that opium poppy cultivation has decreased drastically, potentially up to 80%. In 2022, Taliban authorities banned the cultivation of poppy, which is used to cultivate opium. New research using satellite imagery showed that the ban has been successful, with poppy cultivation in Helmand reducing by more than 99%. The province previously produced more than 50% of opium in Afghanistan. And as per the BBC, Afghanistan used to produce more than 80% of the world’s opium, and 95% of heroin in the European market is made from Afghan opium. The BBC report follows Taliban authorities entering poppy fields and destroying them, as local farmers respond angrily. As the farmers say in the report and as analysts have noted, poor farmers suffering the effects of the economic crisis in Afghanistan have no other alternative than to cultivate opium.
We published a piece by Matthew Starnes in 2009 called “Opium den,” which analyzed a previous crackdown on opium cultivation by the previous authorities with support from US soldiers. In it, he points out a similar issue; that eradication of poppy cultivation alone without providing support for alternative crops, targets poor farmers and is counterproductive. Do check the piece out, it’s linked in the episode notes.
RW: In Myanmar, there have been anti-China protests and some attacks on junta troops guarding Chinese-funded pipelines and copper mines after Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang visited Naypyitaw earlier in May. Qin Gang held talks with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on May 2, making him the first prominent Chinese government official to meet with military leadership since the coup in 2021. The Chinese government in statements also spoke about their friendship and support for the regime. Gang also visited former dictator Than Shwe. So far, there have been protests in Letpadaung, Yinmabin and Salingyi, Sagaing, Magwe, Yangon and Mandalay, and solidarity protests in London and San Francisco. Many of the protesters burned Chinese flags or held posters condemning China’s support of the regime. There have also been attacks by resistance groups on junta in Natogyi, Kyaukpadaung and Taungtha townships in Mandalay. Despite this, China is continuing its support. Recently, Myanmar hosted an expo for Chinese goods in Naypyitaw with 300 merchants in attendance.
SW: In Bangladesh, a new bill amending the Representation of the People order was tabled in parliament, and critics say that this bill limits the powers of the Election Commission. The current law allows the Commission to stop voting at any stage of polls if it feels that it will not be able to hold a lawful election due to regularities and various malpractices. The proposed amendment would give the Commission the power to cancel the voting of the parliamentary constituency only, and will not be able to cancel the result of an entire constituency after the declaration of the result by the returning officer, only in polling centres where irregularities are reported. The Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, Iftekar Zaman, said that this amendment is linked to incidents last year where the Election Commission suspended the controversial Gaibandha by-election, which was boycotted by all candidates except those from the Awami League. He said that this bill undemocratically and unconstitutionally curtails the Commission’s power to prevent electoral irregularities. Bangladesh is set to hold general elections early in 2024.
RW: In Sri Lanka, Tamil National People’s Front Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam was arrested on 7th June, just before he was about to table a motion in parliament regarding ongoing repression, assault and threats to his life. The arrest came after a standoff on June 2 in Maruthankerni, when he attended a meeting at a public playground. At the time, two people in plainclothes arrived on a motorbike and stationed themselves behind where the meeting was taking place. Upon being questioned, the two revealed that they were police intelligence officers, but refused to show identification, after which there was an argument during which the officers called on other police officers nearby for support. Ponnambalam was issued a travel ban and ordered to present himself to Maruthankerni police.
This is only the latest incident highlighting the surveillance of meetings, which is quite routine in the northeast of Sri Lanka. Former Human Rights Commissioner Ambika Satkunanathan pointed to attacks on TNA meetings in 2011 and 2013 by Army, Civil Defence Force and Intelligence Officers as examples where the military has sought to shut down political parties activities. There is also sustained and routine military surveillance of activists in the northeast, including protests which have been hosted by the families of the disappeared and other conflict affected people participating in protests around land issues, for example.
Now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Saheli, do you have any recommendations?
SW: Thanks, Raisa. Yes, I do. So this week I’m recommending No Place Like Home, which is a documentary by Emilie Beck, which follows Priyangika, a young woman who was adopted from Sri Lanka by a family living in Norway in the 1980s. As an adult, Priyangika looks for her biological family and tries to reconnect with her roots, and while doing so, she begins to suspect that her adoption was illegal. It’s linked to this big story from Sri Lanka a few years ago, where an illegal adoption scandal was uncovered, with thousands of babies being sold to European families, particularly in the Netherlands. And as much as this documentary is about this massive story about illegal adoptions, it’s also about Priyangika’s struggles with identity and belonging. So she says that even as a child, she wanted to return to Sri Lanka, and she never really felt like she belonged in Norway. The documentary shows her reclaiming her roots and her identity by tracking down her biological family, changing her name back to Priyangika from the Norwegian name she was given, and the fact that she learnt to speak to her biological family. It also reminded me a little bit of the exhibit at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art here in Colombo called The Foreigners, which examines similar questions of identity and belonging. And it’s a really great exhibit. I fully recommend that to anyone in Colombo. But this documentary itself, I feel, is really fascinating and honestly, heartbreaking look at the circumstances that often surrounded these inter-country adoptions. So there’s this heartbreaking scene where she’s talking to her aunt and she asks her, like, why, you know, did you give me up for adoption, why didn’t you just let me stay here? And her aunt, you know, says something along the lines of, but, you know, we wanted you to have a better life and look at you, you did. But we know that Priyangika has been struggling with identity and with belonging. So, you know, it’s such a complicated issue. And I, yeah, I really recommend this document.
[Sound clip from No Place Like Home]
Thanks, Saheli. I watched it too. And actually, I was very curious because I feel like I first heard about Priyangika’s story during the protests in 2022 because she went to the Galle Face site. I think she was in Sri Lanka at the time. And there were these posters that she put up right in front of where the protest leaders were leading chants, which was talking about this adoption racket that was happening. I think that was the first time that I had heard about this, even though the story had broken a few years before, it was not something that had really been on my radar. So I was so fascinated to see that, and then followed her work where, you know, she was always talking about this documentary and I think she has also been trying to set up an office here and is trying to help other adoptees who haven’t been able to trace their birth parents, try to help them with their search as well. With the documentary, something that really stuck out to me was her struggle to fit in, where she’s talking about the bullying that she underwent in school, which was simply because she looked and sounded different to them and didn’t quite fit in. And her dislocation when she returns to Sri Lanka and she’s sort of hoping that that will give her closure and she finds that it’s not quite as easy and neat as she’s hoping for. It really shows the hidden aspect around adoption that you might not have thought of before. And it’s also a really fascinating kind of personal insight into this adoption record and how difficult it is for her to uncover her documents in particular. I think there’s a scene where she’s talking with Salvation Army officers and just their coldness and the way that they’re giggling when they’re describing the fact that they can’t give her her documents was just really chilling to me and just yeah, the fact that she was able to respond so calmly, I thought was also really admirable. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was in a situation like that and I thought that it really shows the hurdles that you have to go through just to find answers. I definitely recommend checking out this documentary.
And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. We’ll see you next time. Bye.