Protests in Swat Valley, Kashmiri journalists barred from travel, ‘Trijya’ and more.
In this episode, we unpack the recent protests against militancy in Swat valley following an attack on a local school bus in Mingora and an increasing number of violent incidents in the region.
In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we talk about Sanna Irshad Mattoo and other Kashmiri journalists being barred from international travel, the killing of ARY News journalist Arshad Sharif, recent airstrikes in Myanmar, and developments in the dispute over the contested Chagos Islands.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss the Marathi-language film Trijya (2019), plus our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our monthly roundup of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I'm Raisa, and I'm joined by my colleagues Marlon, Shwetha and Saheli from Colombo, as well as Aimun from Karachi, and Sana from New Delhi. Hi guys!
RW: Our main story this week is going to be on recent protests against militancy in Swat valley. We'll also be talking about Sanna Mattoo and other Kashmiri journalists being barred from international travel, the sudden killing of ARY News journalist Arshad Sharif, recent airstrikes in Myanmar, and developments in the dispute over the contested Chagos islands.
Let's begin with what's been happening in Swat.
[Audio of slogans from Swat valley protests]
Sana Amir: On 10 October, in Pakistan's Swat valley, an unidentified person opened fire at a school bus killing the bus driver and injuring two school children. This has sparked some of the largest protests in the valley joined by local organisations, residents, school teachers and students who are protesting against a surge in such killings and militancy in the region. The protesters dispersed after over 40 hours after the authorities agreed to investigate the matter and pay compensation to the driver's family.
Swat valley was a stronghold of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP till 2009 and the residents fear resurfacing of TTP in the region and blame it for recent attacks. However, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack so far.
Some of the slogans raised at the protests were "We demand peace on our soil", "We cannot let the hard earned peace be destroyed" and "Act now against the attackers before it becomes too late."
Shwetha Srikanthan: Yes Sana. These protests in Mingora, Swat, demanding that the authorities protect them from the militants, comes exactly ten years ago this month from when Malala Yousafzai, who was 15 at the time and had become a target for her campaign for girls' education, she was shot in the head by the TTP militant group (which was similar to the recent school van attack on 10 October). Now, a decade on from the TTP's attack on Malala, hundreds of TTP fighters have been returning to the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Malala's home district of Swat Valley, where the militants are accused of carrying out targeted killings and attacking locals.
RW: From what I've read, ever since the Taliban took over in August 2021, militant groups operating in the region have been strengthened. Groups like the Islamic State Khorasan and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have been increasing the frequency and sophistication of their attacks. This is what the UN Security Council has been noting in their frequent reports. Many groups, including the TTP, are actually operating across borders as well. The Pakistan government says that the TTP for example, is actually based in Afghanistan but carrying out attacks in Pakistan. In 2021 alone, the TTP and its allies actually carried out at least 128 attacks in Pakistan according to the Islamabad-based think tank, the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, and they have killed hundreds of people, including dozens of security personnel. Meanwhile, there was recently a suicide bomb attack at the Russian Embassy in Kabul, which was claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan on 5 September, leading to six deaths, including embassy staff. While these attacks indicate that the groups in the area have gained in confidence, they also show that the Taliban is not really able to consolidate its regime. And this something that we are actually exploring in an upcoming piece that will be out soon.
Saheli Wikramanayake: And on 30 September, a suicide bomb attack targeted the Kaaj education centre in a predominantly Hazara neighbourhood in Kabul, where students were sitting for a university practice exam. Taliban security officials said that 25 people were killed. But the UN and Associated Press reported more than 50 deaths, mostly young women between the ages of 18 and 25, from the Hazara community.
No group claimed responsibility, but the Taliban attributed the attack to Islamic State Khorasan. On 22 October, a Taliban spokesperson said that 6 IS-K members were killed in a raid on a hideout in Kabul, including the orchestrators of the suicide bombing.
Aimun Faisal: Thank you Saheli. Many suspect that the recent spate of attacks in Pakistan are a possible result of the growing animosity between the Pakistani state and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. The two parties came to the negotiation table back in July, facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, however, conversation has stalled since then. According to reports, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan demanded a demerger of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) from the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A demand that the Pakistani state has refused to accommodate. The Taliban have also alleged that the Pakistan military has been conducting regular raids and arrests at their stronghold which makes it impossible to conduct any further peace talks.
On the other hand, residents of Swat valley view the Pakistan military's decision to go to the negotiating table with the Taliban with suspicion as well. Locals have long held that the military has regularly reached agreements with the Taliban group at the cost of the safety and security of the people who reside in the region. The recent spate of attacks, thus, are being viewed as signs of the Taliban regaining control of the valley, as the military turns a blind eye towards these developments. You can learn more about this in our recent Himal Brief, Talking to Tehreek-i-Taliban by Salman Rafi Sheikh.
Now, moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
AF: On 18 October 2022, Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri journalist Sana Mattoo was prevented from flying to the US to collect her award for her coverage of the Coronavirus in India as part of a larger team working for Reuters. This is not the first time that a Kashmiri journalist has been arbitrarily withheld from traveling outside the country by Indian immigration. In fact, at least four other journalists have been prevented from flying out of the country since the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019. These include Akash Hassan, Zahid Rafiq, Bilal Bhat, and Gowhar Geelani.
The government has not provided a reason as to why Kashmiri journalists are not being allowed to travel despite proper documentation and no pending criminal cases, which makes it difficult to not link these incidents to the systemic silencing of Kashmiri voices currently underway in India.
SA: In Pakistan, a journalist, Arshad Sharif, 49, was killed in Nairobi, Kenya on 23 October by the Kenyan police in what it called a case of "mistaken identity". The journalist had left Pakistan two months ago in August. The Dawn reports that the Kenyan police have given contradictory statements on the killing and some political parties in Pakistan have called Sharif a victim of "targeted killing". The Pakistan government has now made an inquiry committee to investigate the murder of the journalist.
AF: Thanks Sana. I would also like to add that Sharif enjoyed great favour from his former employer channel, ARY, only a year ago before he was forced to resign when the relationship between the channel and the state soured following Imran Khan's ouster from the government. Following his resignation, Sharif had left Pakistan citing security threats to his person. ARY itself had enjoyed great state patronage during the heyday of Imran Khan's government when the relationship between the military and the Khan's government were amicable. Following the fissures in those relationships, ARY has found itself on an uneven footing with the military as things currently stand. Sharif's death under these suspicious circumstances have sent a wave of fear among the Pakistan journalists at large, who suspect that this "accident" might have resulted from a refusal to the bidding of the Pakistan military any longer.
RW: Over in India, the Indian Supreme Court prohibited the use of the 'two finger' test in rape cases, warning that those who continued the use of the test could be found guilty of misconduct. A two-judge bench comprising of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Hima Kohli said that the two finger test being used had no scientific basis and revictimised survivors of rape and sexual assault. The court said that it was patriarchal and sexist to suggest that a woman could not be believed when she states that she was raped merely because she is sexually active.
SS: In Myanmar, on 23 October, air strikes by the military aircrafts killed over 80 people and injured about 100 people including singers and musicians and those attending an anniversary celebration concert of the Kachin ethnic minority's main political organisation, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The Kachin News Group which reported the casualties said government security forces blocked the wounded from being treated at hospitals in nearby towns.
But the Myanmar military government's information office however called the reports of high death tolls as "rumours" and they denied the military had bombed a concert, claiming that there was an attack on the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army's 9th Brigade, and called this a "necessary operation" in response to "terrorist" acts.
This part of Kachin state has been contested for many years by the military and the Kachin insurgents because of its jade mines. There was fierce fighting in this area before and after the military coup last year. So, commentators claim that this attack may be retribution, or a warning, from the military, over the support the Kachin insurgents have been giving to other armed groups in Myanmar formed to resist the coup.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: There is a maritime border dispute brewing between Mauritius and Maldives. The contested area is the territorial waters of the Chagos island. Mauritius has made the claim that Maldives is planning to take 99 percent control over that territory to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). The stake is more than 95,000 square kilometres of ocean real estate.
The Maldives has responded saying that the Mauritius had no claim over the territory since it was part of the UK's protectorate. Ex-president Mohamed Nasheed also weighed in on the issue in a tweet stating that historical and cultural evidence points to Chagos being a part of the Maldives.
MA: And now for our next segment, Bookmarked.
SA: This week, I watched the Marathi film 'Trijya' (in English translates to radius), by Akshay Indikar. I think, Raisa, you also watched it right?
RW: Yeah, I did.
SA: What are your thoughts on the film?
RW: I really liked it. I felt like it was quite slow-moving, but ironically, it seemed to be talking about restlessness. I liked the way that it called people to slow down a bit, which is definitely relatable in this fast-paced world. What did you think?
SA: Even I liked the film. The whole idea of how they showed a person from a village who goes to a big city, and then tries to navigate the city and work and what he or she is supposed to do in the city. And I could also relate to how the character is shown questioning his being, and how society expects him to behave or to get married at a particular age now that he has a job and he has an earning.
I also thought the film was a commentary on God and believing in God – like how he's shown in the beginning, that he writes horoscopes, and then at a point where he's in a discussion with his editor and he [the editor] also says that you should write horoscopes more often and that his wife was happy that something came true for her about what he had written in that horoscope. Towards the end, when he's shown in the jungle, he meets a person who says you should find God and then he doesn't find peace there as well.
[Audio clip from 'Trijya' trailer]
What did you think about the scene where there's a path which he usually crosses after his office and there's a female beggar who's shown, and after a point he imagines to murder her.
RW: Yeah, that was a bit jarring, but I also understood, in a way, what the filmmaker was trying to do. He was feeling restless and dissatisfied, but the people around him, there were so many people who would die to be in his place. There were several characters like that.
I couldn't decipher what the filmmaker was trying to do – whether the protagonist's thought process was: this person is never going to be able to get ahead and I'm doing them a kindness; or is it just that he's so frustrated with feeling dissatisfied that he just wants to commit a random act of violence? I was just confused as to which one it was.
SA: I think, when he was shown in a jungle where he finds someone and he asks, did you really commit a murder, and then that person asks him, have you committed a murder and if you haven't committed a murder, how do you know what it feels like after that or before that. I think that was signaling that he had actually committed a murder except that he committed the murder in his imagination.
RW: I didn't put that together but you're right – there is that dialogue between them. I was just confused like, why is this happening out of nowhere?
SA: I also liked the sound design and editing of the film. The way the director has tried to show what's going on in the main character, Avdhut's mind through sound design, and he's shown travelling through trains and roads, and how they sort of zoom in and out of audio from the city to when he's walking in that jungle. I quite like that as well.
RW: Yeah, I also really liked where they were talking about what it's like to be a provincial reporter. I feel like a lot of depictions of journalists and reporting, they glamorise it a lot of the time. And I like that it shows this kind of less glamorous aspect, like you're just sent on this press conference round, and it's about getting this particular shot and writing a really punchy story to grab people's attention; how the editor is saying we need statistics to get a meaty story and make sure the picture is like this. It really shows the internal dynamics of newsrooms, even though that's not the focal point of the story.
SA: Also, like how much the journalists are paid and is it enough to sustain a living in a big city.
RW: That is a perennial thing all across the world, and I definitely liked those parts which dealt with it as well.
RW: And on that note, that's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal's work, and while you're at it, check out our membership plans and support us.
Thanks everyone. Bye.