The Taliban has extended the ban on women workers to UN offices across the country from 4 April. The UN mission in Afghanistan said the ban was “unlawful," but has asked all UN workers to stay home in solidarity. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
The Taliban has extended the ban on women workers to UN offices across the country from 4 April. The UN mission in Afghanistan said the ban was “unlawful," but has asked all UN workers to stay home in solidarity. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

Air strikes in Myanmar, Taliban restrictions on women in Afghanistan, changes to India’s school curriculum and more

April - Updates and analysis from around the region

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 recent airstrikes in Pazigyi village in Myanmar and new restrictions on women's rights from the Taliban, from restrictions in access to green space in Herat to a ban on UN women workers across Afghanistan.

For "Around Southasia in 5 minutes", we'll be talking about the debate around an antiterrorism bill in Sri Lanka, sexual harassment cases in south India and Bhutan, the controversial Adani-funded Godda plant which recently began power supply to Bangladesh, the hosting of G20 meetings in Kashmir in the backdrop of some explosive revelations from a former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, and a firing incident at the Bathinda army base in Punjab.

For "Bookmarked" we talk about Joyland, an Urdu and Punjabi language film from Pakistan exploring queer relationships and desire in a multigenerational family. We also tease our upcoming film for Screen Southasia, our monthly documentary screening in partnership with Film Southasia – "Is it too much to ask?" by Leena Manimekalai. To catch this and future screenings, please register here.

Episode Notes:

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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 18th of April 2023.

RW: 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!

SW: Hi Raisa!

RW: So this week for our big stories we're talking about airstrikes in Myanmar, and new restrictions on women's rights from the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we'll be talking about the debate around an anti-terrorism bill in Sri Lanka, sexual harassment cases in South India and Bhutan, the controversial Adani funded Godda plant for power supply, the hosting of some G20 meetings in Kashmir, and a firing incident at the Bathinda Army base in Punjab.

Let's start off with what's happening in Myanmar.

SW: So in Myanmar on the 11th of April the military junta launched an airstrike on Pazigyi village in the Sagaing province, killing an estimated 170 people, including women and children. The victims were attending a ceremony to mark the opening of a new town office under the government in exile, the National Unity Government. The military junta spokesman confirmed the airstrike, but said that if civilian casualties occurred it was because they were forced to help "terrorists." Much of Sagaing is not under the control of the military, including Pazigyi, and on April 15 another village in the region held a night strike to commemorate the attack.

Now the junta has increasingly been using airstrikes to attack areas that aren't under military control, that have led to widespread civilian casualties. But this would be the deadliest attack since the military coup in 2021. The response from the international community has been fairly weak. ASEAN condemned the attack–because stopping violence in the country is part of their 5-point Consensus peace plan for Myanmar, which has been pretty ineffective so far. But at the UN, Russia and China blocked a resolution condemning the attack and calling for accountability from being passed. The Russian ambassador said that there is conflicting information on the attack and a clear picture is needed, while a Chinese diplomat said that the UN Security Council should encourage the parties in Myanmar to solve differences through dialogue and reconciliation and should refrain from taking sides in the internal affairs of any country. Now it's important to remember that the December 2022 UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar didn't contain any references to arms embargoes, though Reuters reported that an initial draft did urge that the transfer of arms to Myanmar be halted. Of course, China and Russia are the largest suppliers of arms to the military junta, including aircrafts, aircraft guns, missiles and armored vehicles. So it's quite unsurprising that this was removed. But violence in Myanmar is escalating and the conflicting interests in the international community mean that the response has been weak. Meanwhile, Thai media and officials report that almost 5,500 people have fled Eastern Myanmar to Thailand in recent days because of the violence. So it's certainly a regional issue for the Southasian region and Asian region as a whole.

[Sound clips from reporting on Afghanistan, and the UN briefing]

RW: Over in Afghanistan, there has been a fresh ban imposed on women entering restaurants with gardens and green spaces in Herat. Now these are only the latest restrictions that have been imposed by the Taliban. Women have already been banned from gyms, parks, public baths and from universities as well. The reason for this ban is because there have been complaints of mixing of genders in these spaces from religious scholars and apparently members of the public as well. Apart from that, the Taliban has also extended the ban on women workers to UN offices across the country from the 4th of April. Reacting to this ban, the UN Mission in Afghanistan has said that it was unlawful under international law, including the UN Charter, and for that reason, the UN has said that it cannot comply. However, despite this, the UN has actually asked all its workers to stay home in solidarity. Speaking further in their statement, the UN Mission has said that through this ban, the Taliban de facto authorities are seeking to force the United Nations into having to make an "appalling choice" between staying and delivering in support of the Afghan people and standing by the norms and principles they are duty bound to uphold.

Now this is also highlighting the continued dire situation in Afghanistan, where the WFP has called for urgent assistance of USD 800 million for the next six months and has also warned that the country is the closest to famine that it has been in a quarter century.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in Five Minutes.

SW: In Sri Lanka, the government has proposed a new Anti-Terrorism Act to replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act. The PTA has long been used as a tool to crack down on dissent and target minorities in Sri Lanka. And in some ways, the ATA is an improvement on it. For example, it takes away the provision that allowed confessions made to a police officer to be used as evidence, which was widely reported to be used to lead torture and false convictions. But the ATA still has major issues, including the fact that the definition of terrorism itself is very broad. And many critics point out that it could be used to further crush dissent and peaceful protests, especially given the Sri Lankan government's history of abusing anti-terrorism laws and the current regime's harsh treatment of protests. The bill is likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court soon.

[News clips from India]

RW: In South India, arts and cultural institution, Kalakshetra and the associated Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts have become the centre of controversy after students accused several staff members of sexual harassment. Students have also highlighted casteism, body shaming and colourism at the institution. Now, the faculty initially said that vested interests were trying to sully its reputation, but later announced a three-member panel to investigate the claims. Assistant Professor Hari Padman was later arrested on sexual harassment charges, while three other staff members were also accused of sexual harassment and dismissed from their posts. Padman says he's innocent and his wife has filed a counterclaim against one of the survivors and two teachers. However, Padman's bail application was denied by Chennai courts on the 11th of April.

Over 200 students gathered to protest in front of the campus calling for action to be taken by management. Seven students from Rukmini Devi College also filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court for the formulation of a proper safety policy and a redressal mechanism to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. The Tamil Nadu State Women's Commission has also made several recommendations to the state government after their probe into the issue, including taking legal action against the Kalakshetra Foundation's administration. Beyond this, the news media have also been highlighting caste discrimination that is embedded in the world of Bathanatiam, including the denial of access of Sudra women from these cultural institutions.

In Bhutan, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the College of Language and Culture Studies, which is affiliated with the Royal University of Bhutan, and overturned the lower court's decision, which had been calling to reinstate several lecturers who were accused of sexually harassing female students. A total of 10 lecturers filed a wrongful termination suit, despite the office of the Attorney General finding sufficient evidence to prosecute three of the accused. While the lower court's found that the College of Language and Culture Studies had not followed due process in compulsorily retiring the lecturers, the Supreme Court held that reinstatement would set a bad precedent since their conduct had violated the teacher's court of conduct.

SW: In India and Bangladesh, Adani Power Limited began supplying electricity to Bangladesh from the Godda Power Generation Unit in Jharkhand. The Adani Group says that this will bring down the cost of power purchased in Bangladesh by replacing power generated from liquid fuel, which is more expensive. But the deal is not without controversy. We discussed the lopsided nature of the deal in a previous edition of Southasiasphere. And we also recently hosted a Southasian Conversation on Adani's dealings across Southasia, including Bangladesh. So do check that out.

RW: In India, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has been changing the school curriculum. The sections that are gradually being erased from school textbooks include the achievements of Mughal emperors, including details of Mughal Era manuscripts, details of Gandhi's assassination by Nathuram Godsi, a Hindu hardliner with links to the RSS, and the 2002 Gujarat riots which were recently refreshed in public memory thanks to a BBC documentary, which raised questions about Modi's role in the violence targeting Muslims. This is not the first time that such erasures of history have taken place. Earlier, sections dealing with Darwin's theory of evolution were quietly removed from the textbooks for the year 2021- 2022, after Satya Pal Singh, who was the Minister of State for Human Resource Development, said Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was scientifically wrong. While some media have reported on these erasures as part of a broader campaign by both the BJP and RSS to revise Indian textbooks so that it more closely resembles their conception of the Indian state, NCERT itself has said that it consulted 25 experts, and that in the past year it has revised the curriculum in order to reduce curriculum load and help make a speedy recovery for students after the impact of COVID-19. However, NCERT also did not make public many of the deletions that it made, including the ones on Gandhi's assassination, until it was highlighted by the media.

This has parallels to the situation in many other countries, including in Sri Lanka, where for example, the battle between King Dutugemunu and Elara is often presented as a liberation from foreign rule in Sinhalese textbooks, while Tamil textbooks talk about Elara's rule of justice. Not to mention that most of Sri Lanka's history textbooks do not mention contemporary history, including the history of the civil war and the flashpoints leading up to it.

The sections being erased from textbooks include the achievements of Mughal emperors, details of Gandhi's assassination, and the 2002 Gujarat riots. This is not the first time such erasures have taken place. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera
The sections being erased from textbooks include the achievements of Mughal emperors, details of Gandhi's assassination, and the 2002 Gujarat riots. This is not the first time such erasures have taken place. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

SW: In Pakistan, the government criticised India's decision to hold a G20 meeting in Srinagar, Kashmir, calling it an "irresponsible" move in "a series of self-serving measures to perpetuate illegal occupation of Jammu and Kashmir." Meanwhile, a senior Indian official told international media platform DW that "[t]he G20 meeting in Kashmir will serve as an opportunity for India to display the reality to the world that normalcy has returned in the union territory."

It must be noted though that India is hosting G20 meetings in a time where the last governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, made several revelations in an interview with the Wire, saying that Modi was quote unquote "ill-informed" and "ignorant" about the Kashmir issue, and that an attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama in February 2019 had occurred as a result of the incompetence and intelligence failures by the CRPF and Home Ministry. While India might be intending to display normalcy, the revelations cast a shadow over the event.

RW: And in Bathinda Army Base, Punjab, four soldiers were killed in a firing incident on the morning of April 12th. This has forced the army to conduct a security audit. After a first information report mentioned that two masked men, one of whom was allegedly holding an INSAS or Indian Small Army System Assault Rifle, fled into the jungle near the base. In a twist, the sole witness, a member of the Indian army, is now being pinpointed as the accused. The police have claimed that the Indian army member had been subjected to harassment and had carried out the killings to fight the harassment that he faced. Now the Wire, who has been quoting an unnamed senior army officer close to the investigation, is reporting that the accused had been sexually harassed and raped by the other soldiers. It also specifically notes that no militants, including Sikh militants, have been officially linked to the killings. This is notable given what we were discussing in the last episode of Southasiasphere about the hunt for Amritpal Singh.

And now moving on to our next segment, Bookmarked. Saheli, do you have any recommendations?

SW: Yeah, I do. So, this episode, I'm recommending Joyland, directed by Saim Sadiq. Joyland is a movie that has garnered a lot of international acclaim, though it was temporarily banned in Pakistan and still is banned in Punjab. So it follows the story of Haider, a younger son in a conservative Pakistani family, who gets a job as a backup dancer in a burlesque club, and he falls in love with Biba, a transgender woman who is a performer at the club. Now the movie explores ideas of gender and sexuality in a conservative society and how these shape the characters. Biba is strong-willed and determined, but she kind of has to be. She's constantly facing abuse, she's struggling to survive. Haider, you know, we see from the start that he's really gentle and soft in a society that wants him to be masculine and unfeeling, and he's so unable to pursue his own desires. And Mumtaz, Haider's wife, who is lively and intelligent. But we see her suffocating through the movie because of the expectations and the circumstances she's in. And even the characters who I guess represent the more traditional side of society aren't one-dimensional. So Nuchchi, Haider, sister-in-law is sort of, "the good Pakistani wife," but she also has life and agency and I think one of the most powerful scenes is near the end, where she contrasts the others. But even Abba, you know, Haider's father is portrayed with sympathy, though he's the one who's pushing these patriarchal values. I think it would have been easy for the movie to slip into stereotypes and common tropes, given the subject matter. But I think it avoids doing that and portrays the characters as nuanced and multi-dimensional and really, you know, portrays the sort of issues that they're facing. Yeah, so it's a really beautiful movie and I fully recommend it.

[Audio from the Joyland trailer]

RW: Thanks, Saheli. And yes, I really enjoyed watching it as well. I thought it was beautifully shot and I thought like visually it really explored the themes you were talking about as well. In a really powerful way, like I particularly loved this one scene where there was kind of lighting that was playing out over the faces of two romantic protagonists. I thought that was really beautifully portrayed. And the last shot as well, which is really symbolic, given what's explored throughout the film. And as much as it talks about, you know, kind of exploring sexuality, it's also about family, I think, and the bonds and kind of cruelty of family as well. So definitely recommend checking that out.

It's also relevant given that our film that we'll be screening as part of Screen Southasia, which is our collaboration with Film Southasia, is going to also be following the journey of the trans community in India, and we'll be screening 'Is it Too Much to Ask?', directed by Leena Manimekalai. So do keep your eyes peeled for that.

And on that note, that's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. See you next time. Bye!

SW: Bye!

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