On 14 June, more than 750 migrants and refugees, including 350 Pakistanis, were on a trawler that sank off the coast of Greece. Global attention was more focused on the  Titan submersible – which had 2 Pakistanis onboard.
On 14 June, more than 750 migrants and refugees, including 350 Pakistanis, were on a trawler that sank off the coast of Greece. Global attention was more focused on the Titan submersible – which had 2 Pakistanis onboard.

Modi’s US visit, Pakistani migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, Myanmar’s flower strike and more

June - 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 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent visit to the US, and the sinking of a trawler off the coast of Greece with almost 300 Pakistani refugees onboard.

For "Around Southasia in 5 minutes", we talk about communal violence in North and Northeast India, the encroachment of land in Sri Lanka for the building of Buddhist temples, progress on amendments to Nepal's citizenship laws, Myanmar's recent flower strike, the resurgence of Jamaat-e-Islami and the call for an ICC probe into war crimes allegations in Afghanistan.

For "Bookmarked", we discuss the 2022 movie "Kamli" from Pakistan, directed by Sarmad Khoosat.

Episode notes

This podcast episode is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube


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 27th 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 episode for our big stories, we're talking about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's US visit and the resulting impact on India-US relations, as well as the sinking of a trawler in Greece with around 300 Pakistani refugees on board. For Around Southasia in 5 Minutes, we'll be talking about communal violence in North and North East India, encroachment on land for Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, progress on amendments to Nepal citizenship laws, Myanmar's recent flower strike, the resurgence of Jamaat-E-Islami, and the call for an ICC probe into war crimes allegations in Afghanistan. 

Let's get started with unpacking Modi's recent visit to the US. Now on June 21, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi kicked off a two-day visit to Washington, and during this visit, Modi and US President Joe Biden, are expected to be discussing the potential of better defence and technology cooperation. In particular, Biden is pushing New Delhi to advance a deal for dozens of US-made armed drones, and this deal has been mired in bureaucratic delays for years. With this visit, the India-US relationship is in the spotlight with Biden looking to deepen ties with India. Normally, policymakers who discuss the India-US relationship, they talk a lot about things like shared values. There's a lot of talk about the "world's oldest" and the "world's largest democracy" coming together, and this is rhetoric that has been used by multiple US presidents. But more recently, there's questions being raised about whether this kind of rhetoric holds any water anymore, given Modi's crackdown on critics, including the media and nonprofits which are documenting rights violations. And also, of course, the rise in attacks on minorities, especially Muslims during his regime. For instance, independent journalist Kalpana Sharma noted that while the New York Times had no front-page news on Modi's visit at least on his first day, there was a scathing op-ed which spoke about how Modi's authoritarianism and repression should be disturbing to its readers. 

Now, despite this, the US does see India as a vital actor and buffer against Chinese and Russian interests and influences, and of course, this is why they're seeking a closer relationship. But Biden's message about democracy being a preferable model to the autocratic methods embraced by countries like China and Russia sounds a bit unconvincing now, given the red carpet which is being rolled out for Modi, despite growing criticism of his policies internationally. It's also worth noting that India has in the past not always aligned with US goals, ranging from, you know, forging ties with Moscow during the Cold War period to India refusing to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and even working with Myanmar's military regime post-coup and maintaining ties with Iran as well. Given all this, I think the US won't be expecting to form a deep relationship with India, such as for example with its so-called Five Eyes partners, but they may attempt to find common ground on shared interests. For the moment though, the rhetoric on democratic values and ideals continues. 

SW: Our next big story is from Pakistan. On the 14th of June, more than 750 migrants and refugees, including 350 Pakistanis, were on a trawler that sank off the coast of Greece. This is one of the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean Sea, with 104 men being rescued, 78 bodies being recovered, and the remaining hundreds, still missing and now presumed dead. Pakistan declared the 19th of June as a day of mourning and has begun arresting several people for human trafficking. 

Now, reports from survivors have emerged and they've raised several questions. So the Guardian reported that leaked testimonies from survivors shows that Pakistanis were forced below deck, with other nationalities being allowed to remain on the top deck, where they had a greater chance of survival. Women and children were also forced below deck, and no women and children were reported among the survivors, with Pakistani media reporting that at least 298 Pakistanis died. Conditions on the trawler were bleak, particularly for those below deck, and they lacked access to water, and several people had died before the trawler sank. 

In the wake of this tragedy, Greek authorities and European policies more broadly on refugees and migration are being criticised. Reports say that the trawler was at a standstill for days, and that those on board desperately called for help, while Greek authorities sat back and watched. Some reports even accuse authorities of tying a rope to the trawler that destabilised it and ultimately caused it to sink.

But while this tragedy unfolded, global attention was elsewhere and more focused on the missing Titan submersible, which happened to have two Pakistanis on board. An extensive search and rescue mission was conducted to try and find the vessel, though experts likely knew that chances of survival were slim. Both these tragedies illustrate how migrant and refugee deaths receive far less attention, and are almost seen as "normal." And both show the disparities in Pakistani society. So those on the Titan paid USD 250,000 for an 8 hour expedition, while the migrants on the board paid USD 7,500 to traffickers for a place on the board and a chance for a better life. 

And while Pakistani and Greek authorities are cracking down on the traffickers who operate these boats, it isn't really going to the heart of the issue of why these people are so desperately trying to leave in the first place that they are willing to take such a risky journey. The exodus of people from Pakistan is another statistic that really illustrates the grim economic reality of the country. As economist Ammar Khan puts it, "this is purely a failure of the state where it has not just failed to educate or enable work for its people, but is also failing to feed its people." So the deaths of these migrants really just illustrates the failures of several states that seem like they are going to continue. 

And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 Minutes. 

RW: In North and North East India, there has been a spate of communal violence in recent weeks. Violence continues in Manipur, for one, with two soldiers in Imphal West injured on June 22nd morning, and there was also intermittent firing reported throughout the week. Now more than 100 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in the ethnic violence. On Tuesday, June 20th, the Supreme Court also refused an application for an urgent hearing filed by the Manipur Tribal Forum, which sought for the army to take control of the law and order situation and for a special investigation team to be deployed. More than 1500 school children who were displaced from Manipur have also been enrolled in schools across Mizoram, while the internet ban continues until June 25th. We spoke about the violence in Manipur in a previous edition of Southasiasphere, so do look out for that in the episode notes. 

Meanwhile on Tuesday, June 20th, the Uttarakhand police booked 50 to 60 people for ransacking Muslim shops in Nainital and tonsuring a man from the minority community who was accused of bestiality. This incident comes after similar violence in neighboring Purola in Uttarkhasi, after the abduction of a 14-year-old girl, which Hindu right wing organisations claimed was a case of love jihad, though this was contested by the girl's family. On June 3rd, Muslim shops were again targeted and posters went up asking Muslim traders to leave before a mahapanchayat on June 15th. And in Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh, a mob burned two houses and damaged government vehicles after the murder of a 21-year-old herder. Now these incidents continue to impact relations between communities. But in more positive news across the border in Pakistan, this week the Higher Education Commission withdrew a letter objecting to celebrating the Hindu festival holi in universities after public backlash including from journalists and activists on orders from Education Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain. 

SW: In Sri Lanka, stories of encroachments on land for Buddhist temples have been making the news again. In Mullaitivu, the archaeological department sought to declare 229 acres of land surrounding the Kurundi Viharaya, a Buddhist temple, as an archaeological reservation. Locals say that farmlands and residential areas are included in the proposed reservation. Rumour circulated that the government was planning to transfer land associated with the temple to the public, which the president's office denied. But the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, a Sinhala nationalist party led by Udaya Gammanpilla, announced that a group of 50 of its members would visit the site on 21 June in protest. Meanwhile in Colombo, the Sunday Times reported that the Environment Minister is seeking to amend the Gazette designating the Thalanagama wetland as an environmentally protected area, to legalise the presence of an unauthorised temple in the area. 

RW: On June 22, the Supreme Court in Nepal cleared the way for amendments to the country's citizenship act, despite an interlocutory order by Justice Manoj Sharma, after sustained protest. The amendments will allow the children of parents who receive their citizenship by birth to acquire citizenship by descent. An estimated 400,000 people are waiting for citizenship through this amendment. The bill will also allow non-resident Nepalis to acquire dual citizenship without the right to vote. Nepali citizenship laws have long been deemed discriminatory to single mothers, as citizenship by descent was easily granted through the Patrilineal line, with children of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers only eligible for citizenship through naturalisation. 

Meanwhile, foreign women married to Nepali men would immediately obtain naturalised citizenship as long as they renounce the citizenship of their country of origin, while there was no provision for foreign men married to Nepali women to receive citizenship. Much of the legislative delay is due to the contention that the President Ramchandra Poudel should not have approved a bill passed by a lapsed parliament, but the amendments will allow many people, especially those living in the Terai, to obtain citizenship. 

We published a piece on Nepal's citizenship battles in 2020 by Abha Lal – do revisit it in the episode notes.

SW: In Myanmar, more than 100 people, mostly women, were arrested for wearing flowers on June 19th, as a protest in support of Aung San Suu Kyi on her 78th birthday. Witnesses say that women were seized and beaten for wearing flowers in their hair, and police have also been arresting people buying and selling flowers, and those posting birthday messages or photos of them holding flowers on social media. Suu Kyi, whose trial for several criminal charges resumed last week, thanked her supporters for their show of solidarity. Now this is the latest in constant crackdowns on protests since the military coup in 2021. There has also been an increase in violence from resistance groups, as the conflict in Myanmar grows. 

In Myanmar, more than 100 people, mostly women, were arrested for wearing flowers on June 19th as a protest in support of Aung San Suu Kyi on her 78th birthday.
In Myanmar, more than 100 people, mostly women, were arrested for wearing flowers on June 19th as a protest in support of Aung San Suu Kyi on her 78th birthday.

RW: In Bangladesh, the hardline party Jamaat-e-Isami held a rally in Dhaka on June 10th, demanding a caretaker government in order to hold general elections in Bangladesh. This was the first such rally held by Jamaat-e-Islami since 2013, when its registration was cancelled by a high court order. This is surprising, given that it was the ruling Awami League, who initiated war crimes trials against the party in what was criticised as a flawed process. Despite the widespread belief that the party was declining, the Daily Star reported a three-fold rise in membership due to carrying out what they called invitational activities and campaigning. Jamaat has previously been banned twice, particularly for its role during the 1971 war, when the party opposed Bangladesh's independence and killed and attacked pro-independence activists and forces. The party's resurgence is sparking discussions from analysts that this might be part of a political strategy by the ruling Awami League to open a dialogue ahead of elections. But others point to recent visa restrictions threatened by the US to Bangaldeshis undermining democratic electoral processes as the key reason. 

SW: On the 20th of June, an Australian senator requested the International Criminal Court to investigate what Australian military commanders knew about war crime allegations in Afghanistan. Australia is currently conducting inquiries into war crimes committed by Australian troops in the country and charged a soldier in March. In early June, another soldier lost a defamation case against journalists he sued for reporting that he had murdered Afghans during his time of deployment. While these internal investigations are important steps towards accountability, one shortcoming and indeed why the ICC was requested to investigate is because senior commanders aren't being investigated and held accountable. The ICC is unlikely to step in given the ongoing domestic process, but the request could pressure Australia into holding their own investigation. 

And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa, do you have any recommendations? 

RW: Thanks Saheli. So this week I watched Kamli, which is a Pakistani film directed by Sarmad Khoosat. It follows the unspoken desires of different generations of women, set in rural Punjab. In particular, I think the person who was most in focus is this young woman whose husband has actually gone overseas, presumably to find a better life for his wife and never returns. So this is set about eight years after he vanishes. And the protagonist is living with her sister-in-law who is also blind and caring for her. And it follows her life. She's a very young, vibrant character. In the start of the film, there's this very striking visual where she's posing for a painting for this artist, for whom she's kind of a muse. This very young vibrant figure, but she's almost just wilting in this rural countryside. And it really also explores how women are almost discarded, or, you know, they are not allowed to have autonomy and agency over their own life trajectories. That's something that the film really captures. 

There were parts that I found a little bit strange though. There was this scene between the protagonist and her love interest where he describes her as the prey and himself as the predator. And that to me leaned into these kinds of stereotypes you see in Bollywood where it's like the man chasing the woman. They did subvert it in a kind of nice way where she's also pursuing at one point. But yeah, I feel like it kind of leant into some of these stereotypes as well without necessarily challenging them, especially when you look at the end as well, without spoiling it. I feel like it didn't really question those kind of stereotypes. 

SW: Yeah, I watched it too. And I do agree with what you said about the stereotypes. I did find that scene you mentioned a little odd, but it was also really beautiful. The movie itself is gorgeous. So I remember when we were talking about Joyland, we made a similar comment about how the cinematography is really beautiful. So the director of Kamli actually produced Joyland. I found Kamli to be really beautifully shot, especially the use of nature in Punjab, especially given I think what they were trying to portray in those scenes and sort of like the comparison of freedom when she's there versus how you know, claustrophobic the house is. But yeah, it's worth a watch. 

RW: Also just a quick reminder that we're hosting another edition of Screen Southasia and it's going to run from the 30th of June to the 3rd of July. We'll be screening 'Sand and Water' which follows the lives and experiences of natives of Char Islands in Bangladesh. We'll also link the sign up link to watch, in case you haven't registered yet. 

And on that note, that's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Thanks everyone and see you next time. Bye! 

SW: Bye! 


Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian