India is the leading exporter of rice globally, and the move is likely going to result in rice prices increasing regionally. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
India is the leading exporter of rice globally, and the move is likely going to result in rice prices increasing regionally. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

The Bajaur bombing, India’s ban on rice exports, violence in Haryana and Gurugram and more

August - 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 the recent suicide bomb attack on a political rally in the Bajaur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and crossborder terrorism between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the impact of India's rice export ban in Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, and communal violence in Haryana and Gurugram.

In "Around Southasia in Five Minutes", we talk about the suspension of the Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's defamation conviction, Sri Lanka's ongoing healthcare crisis, the official secrets amendment bill introduced in Pakistan, the burning of musical instruments in Afghanistan, the suspension of Kashmiri journalists' and activists' passports, and the sentencing of the Bangladesh National Party leader Tarique Rahman and his wife Zubaida.

For "Bookmarked" we discuss Sarmad Khoosat's Zindagi Tamasha, a Pakistani drama film that was recently released on YouTube due to the director being unable to screen it in Pakistan theatres.

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 8 August 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 for this episode, for our big stories, we're going to be talking about a recent suicide bombing in Bajaur district and growing cross-border terrorism between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the regional impact of India's rice export ban and communal violence in Haryana and Gurugram. For Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we'll be talking about the suspension of Rahul Gandhi's defamation conviction and the no-confidence motion filed against the Modi government, Sri Lanka's ongoing healthcare crisis, the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill in Pakistan, the suspension of Kashmiri journalists and activists passports by the Indian government, and the recent sentencing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party Chairman, Tarique Rahman and his wife Zubaida. Let's begin with what's happening in Pakistan. 

[News clips from Pakistan]

So on 30th July, there was a suicide bombing at a political rally on the outskirts of Khar in Bajaur district, bordering Afghanistan. So far, 63 people have been killed, with a further 123 being treated in nearby hospitals. The rally that was targeted belonged to the religious political party, Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam, which is part of the Pakistan Democratic Alliance. This is a political coalition which is affiliated with the government. In the aftermath of the attack, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that Afghan citizens were involved in the recent spate of attacks. This may be because it is believed that groups affiliated to ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The Khar attacks are only the latest example of cross-border terrorism along the Pakistani and Afghan border. Weeks before the attack, an envoy from Pakistan travelled to Kabul for bilateral talks, amidst escalating attacks. The US State Department also said it was up to the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan being used as a safe haven for terrorist attacks. These attacks also highlight how the Taliban is under attack from rival groups, both ideologically and politically. We published a piece on the Taliban regime under siege, which included a list of all the rival insurgent and militant groups that are posing a challenge to the Taliban in November 2022. So do revisit that in the episode notes. 

SW: On the 20th of July, India announced an export ban on non-basmati varieties of white rice. The ban was implemented in response to rising domestic prices after uneven rainfall in key rice growing areas. India is the leading exporter of rice globally and the move is likely going to result in rice prices increasing, which it already has been, especially because of the war in Ukraine. Now this has implications across the Southasian region, because Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh all import most of their rice from India. In Nepal, the price of rice has already increased by Rs.200 per 20kg pack. But sources say that India's ban allows for exemptions for "friendly countries" with genuine food security needs. So the Prime Minister of Bhutan said that he has already received confirmation from Indian officials that the export ban will be lifted for Bhutan after the government wrote to the Indian government following the ban. Bangladesh is also set to hold bilateral talks with India on setting quotas for exports of six commodities including rice. 

Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, the government reportedly ordered a stop on rice being used for beer and animal feed to avert rice shortage. LKR420 million has already been allocated to cultivate 11,000 acres of abandoned paddy lands. But concerns of rice shortages aren't only because of India's export ban. Farmers in the Sabaragamuwa province have been protesting to demand water to be released for their paddy lands, which they say are at risk due to lack of water. The Ceylon Electricity Board meanwhile said that if water is released as requested, the Southern Province will face three-hour power cuts. On August 7th, the farmers' request was approved by the cabinet. But the bigger picture here really is the vulnerability of the Southasian region to the impacts of climate change and its impact on food security. 

[News clips from India]

RW: On July 31, there was communal violence in Nuh district in Haryana, after a rally led by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal led to clashes. Now Quint reported that rumours surrounding the attendance of Monu Manesar, a Bajrang Dal leader and cow vigilante wanted for his role in killing two Muslim men earlier this year were the flashpoint for the violence. The Wire also reported that inflammatory videos from Monu Manesar exhorting his followers to join the rally are believed to have been the trigger with the video receiving strong pushback from young new residents. Internet services have been suspended in Nuh and other areas impacted by the violence alongside curfew being imposed in what is becoming a familiar response on the part of the Indian government. There were multiple reports of stone pelting while the planned procession by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal was moving. In the ensuing violence, six people died including two home guards and four Muslims were subsequently killed in retaliatory violence. A mosque was also set on fire in Gurugram and the imam was killed. So far, two one and two people have been arrested and the police chief of Nuh who was on leave when the violence broke out has been transferred. A demolition drive has also commenced as the Haryana government bulldozed buildings where they said that they had identified stones had been thrown at this procession, claiming that they had identified these buildings through CCTV footage and adding that the violence was pre-planned. The buildings that were demolished included a hotel from where stones were pelted, at least 45 Muslim owned properties including homes and medical stores and as many as 250 shanties in Taoru where migrants from Assam live. And apparently this all came on orders from Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar as the administration claims that outsiders were involved in the clashes. At least 17 Rohingya refugees were also wanted over their alleged connection in the violence. Now Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative said that if there was proof of wrong doing the group would be happy to cooperate with police but added that the raids conducted in the camps made the Rohingya feel unsafe and harassed. The Wire also interviewed several refugees who said that this was targeted harassment. Mohamed Abdulah, a Rohingya student who has since left Nuh, asked, "we are not concerned with any Hindu Muslim issues, we are already refugees, why would any of us create trouble in a country giving us asylum?" The situation in Nuh remains tense with curfew lifted temporarily on Monday to allow residents to buy essentials. 

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

SW: On August 4th, the Supreme Court of India suspended the defamation conviction against opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. The conviction which sentenced him to two years imprisonment would have disqualified him from his position as MP. The Supreme Court noted that the lower court which convicted him gave no reason for sentencing him to the maximum two years and said that while Gandhi's comments were not in good taste, his conviction not only punished him but also the voters who elected him. Now we spoke about Gandhi's conviction in an April episode of Southasiasphere, and noted that analysts predicted it might backfire on Modi by catalysing the opposition parties into a rare show of unity. And sure enough, the opposition has been pushing the Modi government ahead of the 2024 elections. Between August 8th to 10th, the Lok Sabha will debate on a no-confidence motion brought by the Congress Party and supported by the newly formed INDIA Coalition. While the opposition acknowledges that it just doesn't have the numbers in parliament to win the no-confidence motion, its aim is to force Modi to speak on the ongoing violence in Manipur. 

[Clip from video released by Imran Khan]

Meanwhile in Pakistan, on August 5th Imran Khan was arrested in Lahore minutes after the District Court in Islamabad found him guilty of illegally selling state gifts. In a pre-recorded video released on social media, Khan called on his supporters to peacefully protest, and Dawn reported that over 90 PTI leaders were arrested in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for holding rallies against his arrest. Unlike after his arrest on May 9th, public reactions were relatively muted, and this comes amidst rifts within the PTI, which has expelled over 80 prominent members in recent weeks. Now Pakistan is due to hold general elections later this year. But law minister Azam Nazir Tarar told GeoNews TV that elections will be held according to a new census, which would take four months to complete, raising concerns that elections will be delayed. 

RW: In what's been seen as a continuation of Sri Lanka's health care crisis, there has been increased discussion of cases of medical negligence. In particular, the death of a three-year-old child at the Lady Ridgeway Children's Hospital after surgery to remove a kidney has sparked widespread discussion, after it was found that the doctor performing the surgery had removed the healthy kidney of the child as well, leading to the child catching an infection and passing away. It was also found that the judicial medical officer conducting the post-mortem had been suspended by the Sri Lanka Medical Council and had submitted contradictory reports, leading to the parents of the child to call for an investigation. Now the doctor in this case, Nalin Wijekoon, had subsequently migrated, meaning that there are limited possibilities of pursuing the case. In addition, there continued to be shortages reported for anaesthetics for surgeries. Most recently, the opposition leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya Sajith Premadasa revealed that caesarean surgeries had been halted at the Kalutara Hospital due to a shortage of a particular drug that was used for caesarean surgeries. This announcement prompted the Health Ministry to intervene, announcing that they had provided more vials of the drug, and claiming that the delay was due to a price hike. However, there are persistent reports of shortages of supplies in government hospitals, with patients reportedly being asked to bring their own gauze and bandages, and many patients having to buy drugs from private pharmacies at higher prices. We covered the impact of inferior drugs imported through an Indian line of credit in a previous episode of Southasiasphere, so do listen to that and read about the exodus of healthcare professionals in Sri Lanka in the episode notes. 

SW: In Pakistan, the Senate adopted a new spate of laws, including a controversial amendment to the Official Secrets Act. When the amendment bill was approved by the National Assembly, it contained a provision that allowed intelligence agencies to make arrests or search people or places without a warrant and even use force. But after concerns were raised in the Senate, that provision was removed. Apart from that, the government is trying to amend or introduce laws on data protection, disinformation and other areas that activists worry will be used to curtail freedom of expression and undermine press freedom. Now the National Assembly is likely to be dissolved on August 9th in a bid to lengthen the time before elections, which explains the rush to get all these laws passed. 

RW: In Herat, the Taliban burned musical equipment worth thousands of dollars in a bonfire. The equipment included a guitar, harmonium, tabla, and speakers, with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, stating that playing music would lead the young to go astray. Much of the equipment had been seized from wedding venues in the city. The BBC reports that a similar bonfire took place on the 19th of July. Music was also banned from TV, radio and social gatherings during the previous Taliban regime from the mid-1990s to early 2001. After this, there was a slow flourishing of music which was abruptly halted after the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in 2021, with many musicians fleeing the country. These are only the latest in a suite of increasingly repressive measures introduced by the Taliban, which have disproportionately impacted women. 

SW: In Kashmir, the Wire reports that the passports of some journalists and at least one activist have been suspended by the government, terming them security threats to India. Srinagar passport officer Devendra Singh said that there are "instructions from intelligence agencies" to suspend their passports. He told the Wire that they have received instructions to suspend the passports of dozens of individuals, which sources say includes some journalists, academics, lawyers and political activists. Neither of the two journalists who have been informed that their passports were suspended have criminal cases against them, nor have they been informed of the reason for the suspension. This is just the latest in a trend of crackdowns on freedom of expression in Kashmir, which has grown since the abrogation of Article 370. 

In Kashmir, the Wire reports that the passports of some journalists and at least one activist have been suspended by the government. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
In Kashmir, the Wire reports that the passports of some journalists and at least one activist have been suspended by the government. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

RW: In Bangladesh, a court in Dhaka sentenced Bangladesh Nationalist party chairman Tarique Rahman to 9 years in prison and his wife Zubaida to 3 years for amassing illegal wealth and concealing the source of income. Now this is reportedly the fifth time Bangladesh has given jail time to Tarique Rahman. The court also ordered the seizure of Rahman's wealth, reportedly estimated to be over 20 million takas or around 180,000 dollars. Rahman is currently in exile in the UK. The BNP meanwhile says that this sentence is an attempt to keep both Rahman and his wife out of politics ahead of planned elections, which are slated to be held in December or January. The BNP has been pressuring the Awami League government to hand the power to an interim administration in order to ensure free and fair elections, conducting multiple well-attended rallies that have also been highlighting the spiralling cost of living and economic crisis in Bangladesh. Now we recently covered the BNP's fight to make a political comeback despite repression in a February 2023 edition of Himal Briefs by Anupam Debashis Roy, so do revisit that piece which we'll link to in the episode notes. 

And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Saheli do you have anything to recommend? 

SW: Thanks, Raisa. Yes, I do. So for this episode I am recommending Zindagi Tamasha or Circus of Life, a Pakistani film directed by Sarmar Khoosat, who also directed Kamli and produced Joyalnd, both of which we have discussed in previous episodes. So Zindagi Tamasha is about a man in Lahore who starts off almost as like a celebrity in his area because he is well known for his religious poetry and hymns, but he quickly loses his status after a video of him dancing goes viral on the internet and is shown on TV. The movie sort of shows the hypocrisy in religious society and like the sort of things that it tolerates versus the things that it doesn't. The movie was actually set to have a theatrical release in 2020. But after protests from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party it was postponed indefinitely. So the director chose to upload it onto YouTube instead after years of it not being allowed to be shown in theatres, which I guess further proves the point of the movie. But it's definitely worth a watch to support the movie and we'll be sure to link it in the episode notes. 

[Clip from the Zindagi Tamasha trailer]

RW: Thanks, Saheli. I watched it as well and was definitely interested to watch it seeing that I saw so many people, particularly Pakistanis, kind of excitedly waiting for this movie to be live streamed. Again, as you said, it's telling that there was this attempt to not screen it at all, which proves the point that he's covering in the film. I did think, I think it definitely shows the impact of growing religious, hard line – or even extremism in Pakistan and how it's impacting on society. But I did find the protagonist, his character and some of the choices that he makes throughout the film, like the kind of cruelty that he began to display, sometimes a bit hard to believe, given in the beginning he had this very warm relationship with his family. And I think while Khoosat was trying to show the impact of this harsh scrutiny of society on a person and on the family unit, I think it didn't fully make sense in that way. But I think also there was an underlying message that was trying to be driven through there. So in a way, it makes sense. But yeah, definitely an important film and worth supporting, given that there was such an attempt to prevent it being screened in Pakistan in the first place. So yeah, definitely recommend that you check it out. 

And we will see you again soon for a future episode of Southasiasphere.  Thanks everyone. Bye! 

SW: Bye!


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