Southasiasphere is our monthly roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we look at how increasing volatility in climate events in Southasia, from untimely heavy rains and floods to unprecedented heat waves, is impacting countries already vulnerable to food insecurity and health care challenges. We also talk about how governments are cracking down on recent protests across Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we discuss the wave of protests against the restrictive statute of limitations on rape and sexual violence in Nepal, life imprisonment given to Yasin Malik – a pro-freedom leader in Kashmir, and more.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we talk about Sharanya Manivannan’s debut graphic novel, ‘Incantations Over Water’, plus our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia.
I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha from Colombo, Sri Lanka, as well as Aimun from Karachi, Pakistan, and Sana from New Delhi, India. Hi guys!
RW: So, our big stories in this edition are on climate impacts across the region in light of World Environment Day and on how governments are cracking down on protesters in Myanmar and elsewhere.
Let’s talk about the climate crisis. Shwetha, I hear you’ve been following the impact of the heatwave in Pakistan?
[Audio from news clips on Pakistan’s heatwave]
Shwetha Srikanthan: Yes Raisa, Pakistan is facing a severe and unprecedented heatwave over the last three months which is putting the lives of millions at risk. It was the hottest April in 61 years for Pakistan where Jacobabad, already one of the hottest cities in the world, hit a record-breaking 51 degrees. This extreme weather has killed at least 65 people in Pakistan, though the true number of casualties is likely much higher.
The worst impacts are felt in both urban and rural areas, particularly the most vulnerable populations who don’t have access to cooling, shelter, or water, and they are forced to work in dangerous weather conditions and have to manage power outages and rising energy prices. Pakistan is also facing a water crisis exacerbated by the heatwave which has been linked to a recent cholera outbreak from contaminated drinking water that has infected thousands in central Pakistan.
This is also a wakeup call for what’s in store for the region. Climate scientists are saying that heat waves are growing more frequent, more dangerous and lasting longer as the baseline temperatures from which they begin are higher than they were decades ago.
Aimun Faisal: Thanks Shwetha. The heatwave, compounded by the water crisis, is also impacting Pakistan’s agricultural production, which might lead to an economic crisis and food shortages in the near future. Rising temperatures have resulted in reduced crop-yields and the Southern Punjab region faces a serious prospect of desertification. Locals have also reported that livestock was unable to bear the high temperatures, resulting in cattle death, adding to the worries of the farmers.
In the northern region of the country, Pakistan’s large glacial landscape is melting at an accelerated rate, which might lead to flooding and landslides. An example of this was seen when glacial lake outburst flood associated with Shishper glacier caused the Hassanabad bridge on Karakoram Highway to collapse.
[Audio from news clips on India’s heatwave]
Sana Amir: Just like Pakistan, severe heatwaves were recorded in India as well. At least 15 Indian states and union territories witnessed heatwaves. The average maximum temperature over northwest and central India for April this year has been the highest in 122 years.
Heatwaves are so intense that even hill stations in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand saw a rise in average temperatures.
It is also important to note here that heatwaves are common in India. What is unusual this time, like Shwetha also mentioned, is that heatwaves started early and are staying longer and intensity of it has increased.
The severe heatwaves have affected wheat harvest in India which is being seen as one of the reasons for India’s ban on its wheat exports. The government has also warned about an increase in forest fires hotspots.
While north India saw high temperatures, in the east, Assam’s Dima Hasao district has been hit by flash floods and massive landslides at several places. According to climate experts, rise in temperature would increase flood events in the region as well.
Shubhanga, I think Bangladesh has also been witnessing similar flood events, right?
Shubhanga Pandey: Yes Sana, Bangladesh recently suffered what was being reported as the worst flood in two decades in the region, which affected over two million people, killing at least ten, and leaving large parts of the northeastern region submerged under water. The pre-monsoon flash flooding was caused by prolonged periods of rain, which caused the swelling of two important rivers, Surma and Kushiyara, which then eventually broke a river embankment in Sylhet district in northeastern Bangladesh, which is also the most impacted district. In fact, over 60 percent of the district was underwater. And this is part of the same extreme event that mentioned affecting Assam, which happens to border Sylhet.
So the waters have receded now, but among the most acute humanitarian crises that followed the flash floods were severe food and water shortages, and UNICEF estimated soon after the floods that over 1.5 million children were at increased risk of waterborne diseases, drowning and malnutrition. The flood also actually shut down critical infrastructures like power stations, which would obviously also impact the preparations and the plans for rescue and recovery.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Yeah and Shubhanga, I guess it’s unfortunate and even unfair, as this report from the Asian Development Bank 2020 mentions, that Southasia is a case for how countries that have contributed so little to climate change stand to lose so much. There have been many reports that have cited over the years on how the region sits precariously on the frontlines of the climate crisis as the ones who are worst affected by it. Last year we did a couple of articles on it, and you can head to our website and read our explainer titled ‘Count your climate losses’, which speaks more about the reporting on climate crisis from mainly international bodies.
RW: Yeah Marlon, exactly. Southasia isn’t necessarily the worst offender when it comes to things like carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions in general, although there’s this misconception since India is often cited as an offender due to high carbon emissions, but it does have a low historical legacy of emissions. Despite this, several countries continue to take on these development projects that impact the environment. A recent example is the Maldives, which has often been praised for its advocacy on the climate crisis, but they are currently undertaking this land reclamation project in Addu island, which activists are saying will impact the marine environment and coral reefs. We recently published an article on it for Himal Briefs, so you can check that out on our website.
MA: Yeah Raisa, now over in Sri Lanka, which is experiencing daily power cuts, the Electricity Act was just recently amended to allow the Indian Adani group to bypass the competitive bidding process in order to invest in renewable energy projects in Sri Lanka. This has been met with some serious pushback from the Ceylon Electricity Board engineers. Comparisons have been made with Sri Lanka’s hasty switch to organic fertiliser which happened last year, and this could impact the general public who are already struggling because of the economic recession.
AF: Marlon, didn’t the CEB chair, in a COPE meeting, state that President Rajapaksa summoned him and told him to award the wind power project to the Adani Group according to the wishes of Prime Minister Modi?
MA: Yeah Aimun, he made this really controversial statement which was immediately denied by the president, and then the CEB chairman, in a very strange move, withdrew the statement and he apologised saying that he was overcome with emotion when he made those claims. Then it was reported on the 13th that he had actually resigned.
SA: Also, just to mention here that this controversy with Adani and Modi, there is very little coverage in Indian newspapers on this.
RW: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think people are talking about it and I think Indian journalists are interested, but you’re right, I haven’t seen critical coverage about the Adani group, although some analysts and activists here have been sharing a lot of websites raising concerns about the Adani group.
MA: Yeah, I think yesterday I saw a brief segment by NDTV on this whole issue, especially after the resignation. So there has been some coverage, but like you said, it’s not a major story.
RW: Interesting. So our next big story is on how governments across the region are cracking down on protesters (on a similarly optimistic note).
Marlon, I hear there’s been some disturbing developments in Myanmar?
[Audio from protests against the military coup in Myanmar]
MA: Yes Raisa. As we all know, the military took over Myanmar in February 2021 and since then they have been accused of using the death penalty as a tool for repression. If you just take last week, the junta announced that it would execute four people, whose appeals have been rejected following trials behind closed doors, and the charges are on terrorism and treason. They include a former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, Phyo Zeya Thaw, and the veteran activist Kyaw Min Yu also known as Ko Jimmy. This points towards a very disturbing trend by the Myanmar junta to repress all forms of dissent through the use of death sentences. Amnesty reports that the last judicial execution took place in 1988. Now it is reported that since the military seized power in Myanmar, at least 114 people have been reportedly sentenced to death, including 41 in absentia.
[Audio from Sri Lanka protests]
AF: State overreaches were also witnessed across Sri Lanka in the past month, especially in light of the ongoing protests. The most noticeable incident took place on 9 May when supporters of the current regime arrived at Galle Face Green in Colombo and physically assaulted peaceful protesters. Protesters present at the location claimed that the police retreated when the attack began, reflecting state support for the violence on citizens. At least 150 people have been reported injured and 5 dead in similar incidents since.
The state has also cracked down on telecommunication, blocking social media in order to disrupt the communication between activists organising the protests and the citizenry. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least six journalists were booked under Section 120 of the Sri Lankan penal code, which makes it an offense to “excite feelings of disaffection” against the government. Youth activists who promote the GoHomeGota hashtag are being abducted from their homes and being produced in police stations the next day.
RW: Yes, exactly Aimun. From what I’m seeing, a lot of activists are now talking about exhaustion as some of them, especially the student groups, since some of the protesters are university students, and those who are protesting outside particular buildings such as the police headquarters and the presidential secretariat for example are being teargassed. In the beginning, many of the protesters who were taking to the streets, particularly the Sinhalese protesters, were actually calling on the police to protect and support them, which is a stark difference to Tamil protesters and those protesting in the north and east of the country, which has long disproportionately felt the impact of both militarisation and police brutality.
On the positive side, this situation has led to a lot of discussion, debate and even recognition of entrenched divisions in the country, with protesters at Galle Face for example marking events like Remembrance Day on May 18 and the burning of the Jaffna library in solidarity, and several other protest sites, too, have been hosting discussions on the civil war and on economic and political rights. But there is this question of how long this protest can last as the government continues to arrest protest leaders and target them with tear gas, even as newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says that the protests will be allowed to continue.
SA: Raisa, the situation is also not very different in India. Several draconian laws are still used in India to control resistance. Several activists and protesters were slapped with anti-terror UAPA or Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act during the Shaheen Bagh protests and anti-Muslim riots in 2020. This anti-terror law, UAPA, makes bail quite difficult and many activists like Umar Khalid and Khalid Saifi are still in jails, even after two years.
In Kashmir also, activists and journalists are routinely harassed and booked under acts like UAPA and PSA or Public Safety Act for putting out reports on atrocities by the government and the army. We have also done a video on these incidents which is available on Himal Southasian Youtube channel.
In fact, the most recent from the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, they have started demolishing houses of Muslim protesters by giving a short notice and calling their property illegal construction. This was seen in many cases in recent protests in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi where houses of protesters were demolished in the presence of the police.
SS: Thanks Sana. And over in Pakistan, ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan held several huge rallies demanding fresh elections. The government initially banned Khan’s effort after a police officer was allegedly shot by a supporter, but the Supreme Court later permitted PTI to hold its march. Then the government launched a crackdown and detained thousands of Khan’s supporters. Riot police fired tear gas and pushed back demonstrators in Lahore. Dozens also briefly clashed with police in Islamabad. Altercations were also reported in Karachi, where protesters burned a police vehicle.
In another instance, peaceful Baloch protesters in Karachi were forcefully dispersed and around 28 protesters were detained by the police from outside the Sindh Assembly on the night of 13 June. They were protesting against the abduction of two Baloch students of the University of Karachi on June 7, who have been released since. This police action was widely condemned as footage of disproportionate use of force on women activists and also police dragging peaceful protesters emerged.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
MA: Nepali women’s rights activists have taken to the streets to protest against sexual crimes and the statute of limitation that is limited to one year, which means that victims and survivors of sexual crimes are not allowed to file cases to demand justice once their statute of limitation expires.
[Audio from Nepal protest]
The protests were in reaction to a series of social media posts by a 24-year-old woman who revealed that when she was 16, she was drugged, raped, filmed, and then blackmailed by the organiser of a beauty pageant.
SP: And just to add some context to this, there have been some notable protests and movements in recent years in Nepal, including in cases where there seemed to be complicity of the police or local political leadership in protecting the alleged perpetrator and discouraging investigation and prosecution. In recent weeks, some MPs have also spoken on the current statute of limitation on rape (some in opposition, but a few also in favour of it), and there’s also been a petition filed at the Supreme Court demanding the removal of this statute of limitations. So let’s see how it develops.
SA: From India, there were massive protests in multiple cities over offensive remarks made by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janta Party spokesperson Nupur Sharma against Prophet Muhammad on a TV debate. After several nations such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives, UAE, Iraq and Iran lodged official protests condemning the remarks, the BJP government suspended the spokesperson and expelled the media head of the party’s Delhi unit.
We had mentioned in our last podcast as well about how the Hindu nationalist government is acting against Muslims and using “bulldozer justice” by demolishing “illegal constructions”. This time again, the Uttar Pradesh police demolished the house of a Muslim activist Afreen Fatima calling her father Javed Muhammed “mastermind” of the protests in the state. There were demolitions seen and carried out in Kanpur district in the state as well. The police have arrested around 300 people from various districts in Uttar Pradesh.
In the state of Jharkhand, two people died after the police opened fire on protesters in its capital city Ranchi. Curfew has been imposed in many parts of Ranchi.
In reaction to the demolitions that happened in Uttar Pradesh, a Muslim body, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, has filed two pleas in the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure that no further demolitions are carried out without following due process and a section of former Supreme Court and high court judges along with senior advocates have also issued an urgent appeal to the Supreme Court to take suo motu cognisance of the “violence and repression by state authorities” in Uttar pradesh.
RW: Also from India, Accredited Social Health activist (ASHA) workers, India’s frontline community healthcare workers, won the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2022 Global Leaders Award, and this was announced on May 22 for their contribution towards protecting and promoting health.
This is an important milestone because ASHA workers are often overworked and underpaid. They have been staging protests for non-payment of salaries and incentives for several years now.
To put their plight in words, here is a quote by an ASHA worker published in an Indian newspaper, “When we went to press for our demands, we were beaten up, our numbers were traced and some of us were put under house arrest, when they have to pay us, they say we aren’t regular employees, and only volunteers, but when they have to choke our voices, they invoke ESMA.” The ESMA law makes it mandatory for essential service providers to report for duty. Incidentally, there is a similar situation in Sri Lanka for essential services compelling state workers to report for duty. This happened here recently too in the context of power outages, when they were striking and they were compelled to report to work.
AF: In Kashmir, Yasin Malik, a pro-freedom leader in Indian-administered Kashmir and chief of the now banned Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was sentenced to life imprisonment by a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in New Delhi. JKLF has been a non-violent group since 1994. However, Malik was convicted of committing “terrorist” acts, which included illegally raising funds for alleged terror groups, membership in a terrorist organisation, criminal conspiracy, and sedition. Human rights group have criticised the verdict, claiming that this demonstration of the politics of revenge will further sour the relationship between the Indian state and Kashmiri citizens.
This became evident soon after the verdict, when mobile network services were suspended in the city of Srinagar as security forces took charge of the streets to discourage protests. Despite this, several areas saw public demonstrations protesting the court’s judgment.
And now it’s time for our next segment, Bookmarked.
SA: So we had our third Twitter space on Cinema and Resistance in collaboration with our sister organisation Film Southasia on June 3. Omair Alavi, journalist and film critic from Pakistan, and Sumathy Sivamohan, filmmaker from Sri Lanka, joined us for the session. We had an interesting discussion on how similar and different film industries are in these countries, how filmmakers navigate strict censorship by the state and some interesting takes on what actually are ‘art films.’ The recorded discussion is on our Twitter page and we will soon be uploading it as a podcast on our site.
Guys, any other recommendations?
RW: Yeah, I had a book that I wanted to recommend, it’s Incantations Over Water by Sharanya Manivannan, which is actually published under Westland books, which was recently shut down by Amazon. So it was a bit of an adventure to get it here in the midst of an economic crisis. I tried messaging several Indian bookstores which basically ghosted me, but I was finally able to find a local bookstore through Instagram, who actually managed to import it for me.
About the book, it’s quite a beautifully illustrated, genre-bending novel set in Batticaloa. It’s really more of a graphic novel, and Sharanya says that she was inspired by curiosity when she noticed that Batticaloa (which is also known as the town of singing fish), was full of these statues and other iconography of mermaids, but there was a seeming absence of lore accompanying it. Part of the book actually tells the tale of Suvannamaccha, who is a mermaid queen, and her love story when she encounters Hanuman trying to build a bridge to Sri Lanka.
Yeah, It’s quite lyrical, and beautifully illustrated. I believe some Indian libraries made pledges to stock some of Westland’s books, and I definitely recommend reading it if you can get your hands on a copy.
Fans of ‘Love, Death + Robots’, the series on Netflix, might also be interested to know that on the most recent season, the siren in the last episode which is titled ‘Jibaro’, might be partly inspired by Suvannamaccha.
MA: Oh wow, seriously? I loved that episode.
RW: Yes, apparently. I found one article which said that it could be Suvannamaccha. There’s been many which have been written trying to identify the inspiration and there’s also been lines drawn to Puerto Rican or Spanish folklore. But yes, that was a really beautiful episode, Marlon. I immediately thought of it, because I had just recently read this book. It definitely felt like the parallels in appearance – she definitely resembles the way that she’s drawn in Incantations Over Water. So yeah, I definitely recommend checking that out if you can.
SP: What is the Netflix show again? Sorry I missed it.
RW: It’s called Love, Death + Robots. It’s a series on Netflix.
SP: Is it animated, like short episodes–
RW: Yeah, standalone films, like 20 minutes long. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s in its third season now.
SA: It’s mostly post-apocalyptic. There are no humans, there are robots who come to Earth and try to figure out what humans did wrong to reach this particular stage. And I agree with you, Marlon and Raisa, that episode was really interesting. And the whole dance move – there must be some special name to that dance move that she does when she comes out of the water.
RW: Exactly. Because that was my first question, she looks so Southeast Asian, and I wondered where he got the inspiration from.
MA: Yeah, the jewellery and clothes. The men didn’t look like it, the soldiers–
RW: Yeah, because it’s set in Puerto Rico. I did some research because I was really interested when I saw this and unfortunately the director just says very vaguely that he was inspired by sirens and doesn’t really go too much into it.
MA: Yeah, there’s a clear siren reference. That is clear.
RW: Yeah, and a lot of people love Jibaro. I saw so many Sri Lankans tweeting about it.
SA: Yeah, Jibaro is amazing. Even I would go as far as to say it’s one of the best episodes, maybe from the whole three seasons.
RW: Yeah, I think it was one of the best episodes. I think they definitely improved, I felt like season two they were flagging and then this season it picked up again.
MA: But it was so violent, no? It was really bloody and violent.
RW: Yeah, for sure. Incidentally, the director says that it was inspired by a toxic relationship. That’s what it’s inspired by apparently. I did a lot of just reading about it–
SA: You’ve gone deep, Raisa.
SS: Raisa, you did a Twitter thread on this right?
RW: Yeah, I complied a Twitter thread. I just posted it because I just found it really interesting and I saw so many people tweeting about Jibaro, just saying that it was really nice. But the first thing I thought was like wow, where is that person from, that person looks like they are from our region or thereabouts, but it’s not mentioned at all in the credits or anything.
MA: Yeah, that parallel you made, that’s really interesting.
RW: Yeah, I found one lone article which said it could be Suvannamaccha and I was just thrilled. I just knew it was something.
[Audio from Jibaro, Love, Death + Robots]
SA: I recently watched ‘Aani Maani’ by Fahim Irshad. It is on how a Muslim family from a low-income group struggles with the beef ban imposed in the state. And to be honest, after watching the film, I was like why did I watch it because with everything going on in India, it was a bit distressing, but it beautifully captures the ambitions of people in small towns in India as well as struggles around identity in a sectarian state, with comments that I also face and I know a lot of Muslims in India face. If you say something against the government, immediately the response is “then go to Pakistan”, and similar cases are mentioned in the film as well. I thought the film also beautifully reflects on how people react to violence by the state. Some try to stay low in order to not get in trouble, some rebel against it and some don’t have a choice but to continue what they have been doing, and that was the case in this film as well. So do watch it if you can find it online.
[Audio from the aani maani trailer]
SP: I have a book recommendation as well. So this is actually a book on the early modern poet Kabir. The book is called Kabir, Kabir: The life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher, and it’s about Kabir, who is seen as many things: as a saint, superhuman, but also a secular icon who was against orthodoxy and inequality. It’s written by a scholar, Purushottam Agrawal, who has actually worked on Kabir for almost 40 years now and written many books on him, but this is like the most, I would say, accessible introduction to Kabir and also to his poetry. But instead of looking at Kabir as like a religious icon or saint, it tries to bust a lot of myths and look at him as a human being, as a poet operating in his times, and as a weaver in Banaras, which is actually what he did. It’s a nice kind of breezy read and also because it’s written by someone who has written and thought about him for so long, it doesn’t carry any academic jargon, but is seeped in academic research and works. So that’s my recommendation. You can find an electronic version online.
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!