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 disturbing video footage of sexual assault coming out of Manipur, and the Dhaka by-polls and escalating violence and repression around protest rallies in Bangladesh.
In “Around Southasia in Five Minutes”, we discuss a report highlighting corruption in Karnataka’s health sector and recent deaths in Sri Lanka due to the import of inferior drugs from India, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Paris and renewed scrutiny of the controversial Rafale deal, the Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India and commitments to domestic power-sharing, continued cross-border terrorism in Pakistan, the formation of a new opposition coalition in India, and protests from indigenous groups in Nepal over the renaming of one of its provinces, as well as the recent arrest of 74 Rohingya refugees in Uttar Pradesh.
For “Bookmarked” we discuss V V Ganeshananthan’s novel Brotherless Night, a heartbreaking exploration of a family fractured by Sri Lanka’s civil war.
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 25th of July 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 going to be talking about disturbing video footage of sexual assault coming out of Manipur, and the Dhaka by-polls and escalating violence around protest rallies in Bangladesh. For Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we’ll be discussing a new report highlighting corruption in Karnataka’s health sector and recent deaths and health impacts in Sri Lanka due to the import of inferior drugs from India, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Paris, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India and his commitments to power-sharing, continued cross-border terrorism in Pakistan, the formation of a new opposition coalition in India, and protests from Nepal’s indigenous groups of the renaming of one of its provinces. Let’s begin with what’s happening in Manipur.
[Sound clips of news from India]
RW: So on July 12th, Indian online newspaper The Print reported on the silence around rape during the ethnic violence in Manipur and in particular, it drew attention to this incident around the assault of two Kuki women by Meitei men on May 4th. Now later on, Scroll also ran an interview with one of the survivors who confirmed the incident, saying that both she and a 21-year-old had been asked to strip while being beaten and the 21-year-old had been gang-raped. Shortly after these reports, disturbing video footage of the incident began circulating on social media. As condemnation built, the government announced that they had made four arrests, including the main accused in the incident. But as people pointed out, action was only taken two months after the incident and despite an FIR filed by the 21-year-old on May 18th. As news of the incident spread, Newslaundry reported that prime time anchors chose to remain silent while print media and English carried news of the case on their front pages. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also initially remained silent about the assault, and indeed about the violence across Manipur for over two months. But eventually on July 20th, he broke his silence to say that no guilty people would be spared and that action would be taken according to the law. It is also key to note that the May 4th assault occurred shortly after the circulation of a photo claiming to show the body of a Metei woman who had been raped by Kuki men. But in reality, the photo was of a young woman from Delhi who had been killed by her parents in November 2022. As the BBC reported, this incident highlights how rape and sexual assault is often weaponised during conflicts. It also highlights how social media can both spread misinformation with deadly consequences and can also be used as a tool to push for awareness and accountability. India’s central government appears aware of this, directing Twitter and other social media platforms to remove the video showing the May 4th assault under Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act, calling it inflammatory. But it’s important to note that if not for the video, there would have been no push to make arrests at all. The delay in the video surfacing may also be the result of an information blackout due to the prolonged internet shutdowns in Manipur, part of a tool in the government’s arsenal as the state helps prevent the spread of misinformation and violence. The Software Freedom Law Center reports 18 internet shutdowns in Manipur in 2023 alone. But as activists point out, the shutdowns have failed to prevent violence and instead are hampering access to reliable information. We’ve covered the violence in Manipur a few times on the podcast, so do check out our episode notes if you want to revisit our previous episodes.
SW: In Bangladesh, Awami League candidate Mohammed Arafat won the Dhaka 17 by-polls. Particularly notable about the polls was the very low turnout rate. So just 11.5% of eligible voters cast their vote. The election commission said that the voter turnout was low as the tenure of the current parliament is nearing an end. During polling, Hero Alam, an independent candidate was assaulted while leaving a polling centre. Also in Bangladesh, protests have been taking place across the country as the opposition party, the BNP, is calling for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s removal ahead of elections in December or January. So they are demanding that power be handed over to an interim government to restore democracy and to allow that neutral caretaker government to oversee the elections. The BNP alleged that the protests were attacked in Dhaka and in 16 other places. One death was reported from the violence in Laximpur. The BNP and activists have also been alleging that Sheikh Hasina’s government is fast-tracking pending police cases against opposition leaders to prevent them from running in the upcoming elections. Meanwhile, leaked minutes of a meeting chaired by the Deputy Inspector General of Police revealed that senior officers were allegedly directed to focus on cases targeting accused BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, especially those who are expected to contest the next general elections. So NewAgeBD and VOAnews both reported that according to the minutes, officers said that the government is under huge pressure internationally, that the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami should not be allowed to contest the elections, and that if both are disqualified through court cases of arson or violence, it would not be questioned internationally. It was also reported that letters were allegedly sent to police units from the police headquarters, including them for updates on cases filed in 2013, when the BNP launched an anti-government movement. VOANews also reported that many news organisations were sent the leaked minutes from this meeting, but all outlets except for the DailyStar and NewAge refused to publish it, fearing reprisals. And all these stories just point to the growing authoritarianism under the Sheikh Hasina government, as it tries to hold onto power ahead of the upcoming elections, while also knowing that it is under international scrutiny. We’ve published several pieces on this, so do check out Kamal Ahmad’s piece on how the government began a campaign against Prothom Alo, one of the only largely independent media outlets in the country, to understand the current situation that the media is facing. And also check out Anupam Debashis Roy’s piece on the BNP’s attempts to make a political comeback in Bangladesh. Both pieces are linked in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 Minutes.
RW: In Karnataka, the Public Accounts Committee has revealed that the state had severely underreported the number of deaths due to COVID-19 by as much as 120,000, and this was across the first half of 2020 and 2021. Now the Public Accounts Committee tabled a report in Parliament on July 17th, and this report was very critical of the Department of Health and Family Welfare’s response to the pandemic. The report also found that medical equipment had been purchased at inflated prices, companies which won supply bids never fulfilled medicine orders, and in some cases unnecessary medicines had also been procured at the behest of the Department of Health and Family Welfare. For instance, about 165 ventilators which were purchased under the PM-Cares fund had been distributed to private hospitals who used it on patients without any cost exemptions. The Department also made orders for the controversial drug Ivermectin and used it on patients despite the WHO issuing a warning on its use in March 2021. Now the Public Account Committee was set up to look at corruption around the procurement of drugs and medical equipment during COVID-19.
In Sri Lanka, imported medicine from India came under the spotlight after the June 16th death of a patient who was undergoing treatment at Peradeniya Hospital. This was after the patient had been administered the Indian anaesthetic Bupivacane. Less than two months before, a pregnant woman was reported dead at the same hospital after also being administered an Indian anaesthetic. These incidents prompted the Health Ministry to announce that they would re-examine the quality of two medicines that were imported under an Indian line of credit which allowed for the procurement of medicine, food and other essentials in response to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka. In May, India extended the USD 1 billion credit line for another year. And in April this year, Sri Lanka’s Health Ministry was also forced to suspend use of the Indian eye-drop Prednisolone after several patients in Nuwara Eliya and Batticaloa reported complications after using the drops. This included damage to their vision. Later on, bacteria were found in these eye-drops. The issue of inferior drugs has also come into the spotlight again more recently with the death of a 21-year-old who passed away, also at Peradeniya Hospital after a scheduled surgery during which she had been administered Ceftriaxone. The hospital claims that the death was due to an allergic reaction, but has now been forced to withdraw this drug after two other patients had allergic reactions as well. All these incidents highlight how Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is impacting the provision of health care in Sri Lanka, and this is particularly the case for patients in government hospitals. We recently published a piece on the exodus of health care workers from Sri Lanka, so do check that out in the episode notes.
SW: Three weeks after a busy visit to Washington, DC, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi headed to Paris on 13 July to meet French President Emmanuel Macron. Much like in America, France rolled out the red carpet for Modi. He was the guest of honour at their Bastille Day celebrations and was conferred the Legion of Honour, which Macron said was granted to salute “the role of the Prime Minister in the excellent relations of friendship and confidence that unite France and India.” Amidst all the celebrations, New Delhi and Paris came to a preliminary agreement for India to buy 26 Rafale fighter jets and 3 submarines from France. They also discussed cooperation in space, energy and environment, and agreed on a roadmap for French-Indian cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
While Modi was being honoured in Paris, elsewhere in France, in Strasbourg, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution calling on India to end the violence in Manipur and condemning the nationalist rhetoric of the BJP government in the region. Like we discussed in the previous episode of Southasiasphere, when discussing Modi’s visit to the US, the treatment of Modi by Western leaders like Biden and Macron shows how important they view India in countering Russian and Chinese influence. So much so that they are willing to put aside concerns about human rights and democracy. Meanwhile, French investigative journalism outlet Mediapart reported that the Paris magistrate court sent a request to Indian officials asking for cooperation in an ongoing investigation into the previous purchase of French Rafale fighter jets by India. The French court reportedly wants access to Indian investigations into payments allegedly made by Dassault Aviation to Indian businessmen Sushen Gupta to secure the purchase in 2016. Mediapart also reports that around that time, Anil Ambani wrote to a manure Macron who was then the economics minister asking for a reduction in his 151 million euro tax bill. Ambani was with Modi in France in 2015 when the initial deal was being negotiated. In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed petitions seeking an investigation into allegations of corruption in the purchase from Dassault Aviation, after Mediapart’s report was first published. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, the French investigation has on France-India ties.
RW: On July 20th Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited India, signing a number of agreements relating to trade, development and energy, signalling growing economic ties between the two countries. However, less discussed were his commitments to power sharing via the 13th amendment to the Constitution which was made during his visit. An outcome of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, the 13th amendment created nine provinces as devolved units and announced a temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. However, certain elements of the 13th amendment, including those relating to land and police powers have never been fully implemented due to broad presidential powers. Shortly before his trip to India, Wickremesinghe met with representatives of Tamil political parties and committed to fully implementing the 13th amendment but minus police powers. This was criticised by Tamil parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, who called his statement a hollow promise and highlighted the timing of this commitment just before Wickremesinghe’s state visit to India. The timing was also significant given that July 23rd to the 28th marks 40 years since the Black July ethnic pogrom targeting Tamil civilians, which occurred during the UNP administration in 1983. Undeterred, Wickremesinghe has pledged to hold an all-party meeting on the implementation of the 13th Amendment next week.
SW: In Pakistan, on July 18th, eight soldiers were wounded after a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The attack was claimed by Tehreek-e-Jihad, a new terrorist group that first announced its formation in February of this year. On the 20th of July, the Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for killing two police officers and wounding two others in a gun attack at a police checkpoint in Peshawar, as well as a twin suicide bomb attack on a police station and government officers that left four policemen dead and 11 injured. And on July 12th, 12 soldiers were killed in two attacks on army bases in Balochistan. Pakistan Army Chief General Asim Munir said in a statement released on July 14th that Pakistan has serious concerns about Afghanistan providing a safe haven for militants who carry out attacks on Pakistan, and warned that these attacks would elicit an effective response from security forces. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif raised similar concerns and accused Afghanistan of not fulfilling its obligations under the Doha Agreement, specifically to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorist activities. The US State Department has also said that the Taliban has a responsibility to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for launching terrorist attacks. Though US officials also said that there was no evidence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan or along the border being involved in these terrorist attacks, and thanked Pakistan for the “incredible generosity… to so many Afghans.” This comes amidst growing harassment of Afghan refugees by Pakistani officials as tensions between the countries over cross-border terrorism intensifies.
[Clips of news from India]
RW: In India, 26 leaders of opposition parties have come together in an electoral alliance called the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA for short. The alliance is a strategic move to take on Narendra Modi’s BJP ahead of general elections next year. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said the parties were coming together despite electoral differences to save democracy. But taking on the BJP’s a formidable challenge as the party still governs 15 out of 28 states, either by itself or as part of coalition. The opposition parties are also battling internal rifts and differing political ideologies, though they remain positive after their initial meeting which took place over two days involving Chief Ministers from Delhi, Punjab, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Bihar. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerji, who also attended, called the discussions constructive and fruitful. SW: In Nepal, indigenous groups continue to protest the naming of Province 1 as Koshi. When the province was named in March this year, protests were held to demand that it be named to reflect the ethnic identity of the province. Recently, more than 300 youth on motorcycles participated in a protest rally and thereafter announced a 151 member youthful identity group. The ruling CPN has officially regretted the decision taken by its provincial committee to vote in favour of the name Koshi. But newly appointed Chief Minister Uddav Thapa said that a name change isn’t possible, which agitated the protesters further. Commentators worry that the issue isn’t being taken seriously by the government, which might lead to further flare ups in the protests.
RW: In India, police arrested 74 Rohingya refugees in Uttar Pradesh, saying that they were living there illegally. 55 men, 14 women and 5 children were detained in 60 districts of Uttar Pradesh for illegally crossing the border according to police. At least one of the women is pregnant. The rights group Rohingya Human Rights Initiatives says that the refugees have been living in these areas for 10 years after fleeing violence in Myanmar and said that though the police reported arresting 74 refugees, as many as 200 may have been detained. Many of them have been engaged in manual labour. India has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which spells out refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them and also does not have domestic laws protecting refugees. Scroll reports that in 2019, 200 Rohingya were detained in Hira Nagar prison with claims they would be sent back to Myanmar, but all except one are still behind bars more than two years later.
SW: And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa, do you have any recommendations?
RW: Thanks, Saheli. Yes, I do. So, this episode I want to recommend Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan. It’s a story that focuses on a single family in Jaffna. Basically, their experience of living through several moments of conflict in the country, including the 1983 riots that we mentioned earlier on, Black July, as well as the Civil War. And it really kind of has like a personal perspective of what it is like to be Tamil, living in the conflict areas. It’s one thing, I think, to kind of read about the burning of the Jaffna library and another thing to read it from a perspective of somebody who, even if it is, you know, a fictional account, has been visiting the space, the Jaffna library every day and has fond memories of it. And it really makes you think about what the huge impact of the loss of that institution was for residents in Jaffna. And it also gives, clearly drawing from historical accounts, an account of Black July and what it was like for so many Tamil residents to have to flee their homes, to watch their houses be reduced to rubble and to eventually have to flee to either other countries or to be internally displaced. I just think, especially this month, it’s really important to read these stories, whether you’re in the country or if you just want to know more about Sri Lanka. I highly recommend reading this book. It is a very difficult read, it’s definitely not a light read but it’s well written and highly recommended.
SW: Thanks, Raisa. Yeah, I’m part way through the book and I fully echo what you said. I think especially what you said about reading it as a first-hand account rather than just reading it out of a textbook. I mean, growing up, we didn’t even have a textbook that spoke about Black July and, you know, adults didn’t really talk about what happened in 1983 or like the early years of the war. So for me, personally, like fiction was the first place that I got to hear first-hand accounts of what happened. And I think, yeah, Brotherless Bight, does it in such a… I don’t want to say beautiful because it’s like, like you said, it’s such a difficult read. But it’s, yeah, it’s like once you start reading it, it’s so difficult to put the book down. But it’s, you know, the descriptions of what happens and, you know, like you get attached to the characters really quickly so just reading about what happens to them. It’s a really difficult read but I fully, fully recommend it. Yeah, especially given that the early years of the war, or at least I mean, the entire war isn’t really covered in history textbooks. So it’s also difficult to read a chapter about Black July and what happened and then log on to Twitter and see a video of a Sinhala nationalist completely, I don’t know, just lying about what happened back then. So yeah, it’s especially interesting to read it in the context of everything that’s happening now.
RW: Thanks, Saheli. Yes, and that’s so true. We kind of didn’t learn about this at all in textbooks. So if at all, it’s kind of only learned through conversations with people who have experienced it. And it’s important to have records like this, especially for future generations.
Also wanted to give a quick shout out that we’re screening another episode of Screen Southasia and that’s going to run from August 4th to 7th. And if you haven’t caught Taangh, which translates to Longing, which is directed by Bani Singh, we’ll be screening that with the Q&A on August 7th. So do keep your eyes out for that. That’s it for this episode. See you next time. Bye!