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In this episode, we look at the Gwadar Rights Movement and other burgeoning protests across Pakistan, from demonstrations against the local government elections in Karachi to protests around skyrocketing inflation in Swabi and against rising militancy in Sindh. We also unpack the recent BBC documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots – and the Indian government’s reaction to it. In Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we talk about the impact of the Afghan winter and malnutrition in Sri Lanka, an eviction drive in Jammu and Kashmir, an attempt to merge madrassas and allow for state surveillance in Assam, proposed amendments to the Press Council Act in Bangladesh. For Bookmarked, we discuss the Mozhi Prize for Tamil fiction in translation.
The podcast episode is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube.
This episode was recorded on 23 January, 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere. I’m Raisa Wickrematunge, Deputy Editor of Himal Southasian and I’m joined by my colleague and researcher Saheli Wikramanayake from Colombo. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: Our major stories today are going to be on protests in Pakistan, and particularly a movement which is emerging out of Gwadar. We’ll also be unpacking a recently released BBC documentary on Modi and his role in the 2002 Gujarat Riots which is causing quite a stir. And in Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we’ll be talking about the Afghan winter and malnutrition in Sri Lanka, a recent eviction drive in Kashmir, a move to regulate and merge madrasas in Assam, and proposed amendments to the Press Council Act in Bangladesh. For Bookmarked, we’ll be talking about the Mozhi Prize for translated Tamil Fiction. You could say this week what we’re really looking at is repression and reactions to state repression, be it protests or official and unofficial methods to ensure accountability for repressive leadership. Let’s begin with what’s happening in Gwadar.
SW: So in Gwadar there have been protests that initially started in 2021 but restarted recently in late 2022. On January 13th the leader of the Gwadar Rights Movement was arrested in the Gwadar High Court when he tried to apply for pre-arrest bail. He was arrested over the killing of a policeman by unidentified assailants during protests in Gwadar in late December. A First Information Report was filed against him on charges including murder, attempted murder, and provoking people for violence. The Balochistan Bar Council condemned the arrest, saying that applying for interim bail is a right and that arresting Rehman without respecting the court is contempt of court. They announced that they would not appear before court in protest. Protests have been going on for months, and in late December authorities cracked down on these protests through the Criminal Procedure Code, banning all rallies, protests, sit-ins and gatherings of five or more people. As part of this, internet services were blocked and over a hundred people were arrested.
RW: Saheli, I’ve been reading that there’s actually quite a lot of unrest happening in other areas in Pakistan as well. So on January 19th some nationalist parties, including the Sindh United Party, and activists had held rallies and staged demonstrations in Sindh. This was the day after police action against workers on the occasion of Sindh nationalist leader G.M Syed’s 190th birth anniversary in Sann. Police said that they were really worried about anti-state slogans at the event. There was a gun battle that broke out and also stone pelting, and baton charging from the police, and eventually torching of vehicles. There were also protests led by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and Jamaat-e-Islami, who accused the Karachi provincial administration of rigging the results of the local government elections. Now this was due to the delay in announcing the results. The Election Commission took around 36 hours. As a result there were also clashes with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party who was involved in the violence. According to the results the PPP dominated the elections with the Jamaat polling second, and the PTI was a distant third. The PML-N offered to mediate between PPP and Jamaat and the two agreed to work together. Apart from that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa there have been protests around rising militancy and unrest. This has been led by Pashtun political parties and it started around January 11th. There have been peace marches and sit-ins in the Mohmand tribal district. Nisar Momand, who is a member of the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said that if the law and order situation in the tribal areas deteriorates the unrest could spread everywhere. There have also been protests in the Swabi district around the cost of living, especially on the shortage of wheat flour and skyrocketing inflation.
SW: And a similar situation can be seen in Gilgit-Baltistan where there have been protests about the long powercuts, a reduction in the amount of subsidised wheat provided by the government, as well as longstanding issues about land rights, and the newly introduced Gilgit-Baltistan Revenue Authority Bill. Now the land issue is relevant to China’s interest in the region because of Gilgit-Baltistan’s location and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This is also true of Gwadar, where China’s presence is central to the ongoing protests. Gwadar is a key location in the Economic Corridor but locals say that they are excluded from any benefits that the development supposedly brings. Protests also concern longstanding issues of surveillance, exclusion and lack of power over the region’s natural resources. The issues in Balochistan are actually something that we discussed in an upcoming brief by Salman Rafi Sheikh, so do check that out.
[Sound clips from the BBC documentary ‘Modi: the India Question’]
RW: Another big story that everyone’s talking about is this BBC documentary that came out called ‘Modi: the India Question.’ Now this is in two parts, and the first part of it is looking at the Gujarat Riots in 2002. The major revelation here is about a secret UK government report which basically said that Modi was directly responsible for the violence in Gujarat, and spoke about a systematic campaign of violence which had all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. The former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed this report on camera as well. This report also spoke about the systematic rape of Muslim women, and an anonymous British diplomat said almost 2,000 people were murdered, an additional source of figures for the number of casualties. Many of them were Muslims and they described it as a pogrom; a deliberate, politically driven effort targeted at the Muslim community. Now, many of the events in the documentary are already known and there have long been questions raised about whether Modi did enough to stop the violence. But the British report hasn’t been released before. For those who have been following, you know this violence was sparked from the torching of a train in Godhra which led to 59 Hindu pilgrims and kar sevaks being killed, allegedly by a Muslim mob. The Hindu community then led riots targeting the Muslim community in turn, and the violence continued for days. This documentary quoted eyewitnesses saying Modi had ordered police not to intervene for three days after the torching of the train in Godhra and basically allow the Hindu community to react. It also talked about those who spoke out about Modi’s role being killed or arrested. These are all things that were kind of known, but the documentary definitely caused a stir.
SW: Yeah, there’s definitely been a lot of conversation and controversy about this documentary on social media, and the government’s response has been pretty predictable. On Saturday, 21 January the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting used emergency powers under the IT Rules of 2021 to have the documentary blocked on YouTube and Twitter. Kanchan Gupta, advisor to the Ministry tweeted that both social media sites have already complied with their order. Now the IT Rules came into effect in October 2022, and they were imposed as a way of regulating social media. Concerns were raised from the very beginning that it would be used as a tool for government censorship and curtailing freedom of speech. With regards to the documentary the government used emergency powers under the rules on the basis that it undermines India’s sovereignty and integrity, and has the potential to adversely impact India’s friendly relations with other states. Interestingly enough, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was asked about the documentary in Parliament. He dodged the question that was asked of him, and essentially said that he doesn’t agree with the characterisation of Modi and his role in the riots. Another interesting aspect of the Indian government’s response, and this was from the External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, in response to questions from journalists. He called the documentary propaganda, disputed its objectivity, and called it a “continuation of colonial mindset.” Similarly in an open letter by 302 signatories, including former judges and bureaucrats, the documentary was criticised, and the signatories called it “delusions of British imperialism.” Now the principal issue that they flagged with the documentary is that the Indian Supreme Court did clear Modi of playing a role in the riot. But of course, as we discussed earlier, accountability can be at best slow, at worst non-existent when it comes to very powerful political leaders across the region. We did publish a piece in 2006 about the polarisation in Modi’s Gujarat, and what this documentary does is, it brings this long-standing issue back into focus and back into popular conversation.
RW: Yeah, it’s interesting how this kind of reported work can emerge about these existing and known issues and again raise questions around accountability. Although it looks like the government in India is looking to escape and evade accountability for their actions. It’s interesting that in the region there’s been attempts from the US and Canada to impose some kinds of measures which do amount to accountability in Sri Lanka. So recently Canada actually imposed sanctions on former presidents Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse, as well as former Staff Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake and former naval officer Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi. This was for gross and systematic violations of human rights which happened during the Civil War. The sanctions include travel bans and asset freezes. Meanwhile in the US, President Biden recently signed the historic Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, which gives the Department of Justice jurisdiction to prosecute people in the US for war crimes committed anywhere, regardless of nationality. So we saw some people on Twitter tagging Gotabaya Rajapaksa, because it was known that he was attempting to fly to the US quite recently. In December the US also imposed sanctions on Prasad Bulathwatte, who was the head of an infamous army platoon. So these are all measures that are being taken to impose accountability. It will be interesting to see as this documentary unfolds whether there will be any calls to investigate Modi’s role as well. If you’re interested in reading more about the accountability question in Sri Lanka, we ran a piece on this by Bhavani Fonseka on chronic failures in criminal justice in Sri Lanka, so do revisit that.
SW: And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in Five Minutes.
Around Southasia in Five Minutes
RW: In Afghanistan, there is a mounting and known crisis in terms of the Afghan winter. So far there have already been 78 deaths in just nine days, with temperatures being recorded as low as minus 28 degrees Celsius. Climate scientists have attributed the recent weather anomalies to polar vortex disruptions, as a result of which strong Arctic winds flow much farther from the North Pole and they bring masses of cold air to our region. This may last until end January or early February. So as a result, the weather is also colder than usual, which is resulting in people being adversely impacted. For example, there’s been a rise in hospitalisations for carbon monoxide poisoning because people are using gas in order to stay warm. There has been an increase in hospitalisations for pneumonia. We’re seeing people making dire choices between heat and food. Uzbekistan is trying to supply Afghanistan with 450 megawatts of electricity because both countries are suffering from outages which is of course impacting the ongoing health crisis. Now Afghanistan imports as much as 80 percent of its electricity from Central Asia and Iran and this leaves the country vulnerable to widespread power outages. Uzbekistan actually cut power in December and January to Afghanistan, citing technical difficulties. Activists from the region were warning of a rising food crisis and of the coming Afghan winter but it seems that little has been done to cushion the blow for people. The stark choices that we are hearing about and reading about are reminiscent of what we’re seeing in Sri Lanka as well. Recently there was new data released on malnutrition by the Family Health Bureau, which showed that 43 percent of children under five are suffering from malnutrition. The most acute malnutrition or wasting is happening in rural Kurunegala and the Polonnaruwa district, while the most stunting, which is chronic malnutrition, is being seen in the estate sector in Nuwara Eliya and Kilinochchi. So parents are regularly having to choose children to feed or to go without food themselves, and generally to cut down on meals. Now this in particular is going to impact children in the long term because it’s going to affect their immune system, their brain development and it will result in diseases that will follow them into adulthood.
SW: In Jammu and Kashmir, the government has begun a series of eviction drives. On 9 January, an order from the Jammu and Kashmir government was released to remove all encroachments on what they are calling state land by the 31 January. Now it’s important to remember that it’s currently the middle of winter in Kashmir, with temperatures plunging to below freezing. The eviction drives have resulted in mass protests, criticising the government for the impact that the move has on the poor. People’s Conference chief Sajjad Lone criticised the actions of the government, saying that occupation of state lands by villagers is a generational practice in the area and he criticised the government for making people essentially homeless.
RW: Over in Assam, there’s been a move to merge small madrassas with less than 50 students, with larger madrassas. This measure was announced by the Assam police, and it’s supposedly being taken to counter terrorism. There’s also going to be a survey conducted of these madrasas. The state police say that they have busted nine modules of terror outfits Ansarul Bangla Team (ABT) and al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and they arrested 53 suspected terrorists last year. Now madrassas are seen by them as an entry point to radicalisation. But while this might seem like an ordinary national security story, it’s important to note that there is an ongoing trend of surveillance and control of madrassas on the part of the state. We’re seeing police taking advantage of this measure saying that teachers in Assam who are coming in from outside of the state may be asked to appear in the police station from time to time. That statement was made by the Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. In Madhya and Uttar Pradesh there have been discussions on controlling madrasas as well. Uttar Pradesh actually did a survey, and the central government also closed the window of the scholarship programs for children from grades 1 to 5. Some people think this is yet another method of control because sometimes children join madrassas in an attempt to gain these scholarships. So while it might seem like it’s about controlling terrorism it’s also about increasing surveillance and control.
SW: In Bangladesh, the government has proposed amendments to the Press Council Act to empower the state run press council to fine any newspaper, news organisation, editor, publisher or journalist up to 1 million taka if they are found guilty of violating rules. The council can also order the suspension of public and private advertisements and other privileges for a newspaper or news agency for up to one year, and it can cancel the accreditation of a convicted journalist. The law also essentially takes away any form of judicial review to any decision by the press council. The press council can also conduct investigations and summon associated newspapers and news organisations if the publication of news or a report undermines national and public interest. Journalists have already voiced concerns about this proposed amendment. It’s important to note that Bangladesh already uses the Digital Security Act, a pretty draconian piece of legislation, to crack down on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This is something we discussed in a brief published in October 2022, so do check that out.
Now for our next segment bookmarked.
SW: Raisa, do you have any recommendations?
RW: Thanks Saheli, yes I do. I’m recommending Mozhi, which is an initiative which aims to bring together literature from various Indian languages and provide a platform for critical discussion. It was founded by two literary translators who translate between Tamil and English, Priyamvada Ramkumar, and Suchitra Ramachandran. They recently announced the Mozhi Prize for Tamil short stories in translation. There were three stories that were shortlisted as winners. The winning story was Padmaja Anant for a ‘House Without Cats,’ which was her translation of a story originally written by Chandra. The story is quite a simple one about family, childhood, coming of age and also the impact of debt. It really tells the story about the choices you have to make when you’re struggling for finances. But it’s not only doom and gloom, it’s also told from the point of view of a young boy and there’s a sense of joy and humour which I really liked. And then we had Amruth Varshan for ‘Filfilee,’ which was originally written by B. Jeyamohan. This story is actually set in Samaria, present-day Palestine. It’s told from the perspective of a nomad from the Indian Ocean region and the whole story takes place in a drinking house or a tavern of sorts. It’s full of vivid imagery and symbolism, it’s quite enjoyable to read. That took second place. The third-place story went to Anjana Shekar for ‘Cotton Fever,’ her translation of this story which was originally written by Senthil Jaganathan. This story is about a mother’s sacrifices and really the role of women as the centre of the family. It talks about the skills they possess and the invisible labour that they carry out, without which families can’t function. So in this case, how a father’s decision to grow cotton for money leads to the family and especially his wife suffering.
SW: Thanks, Raisa. Yeah, I checked the Mozhi Prize out as well and I really enjoyed it. Something I did find particularly interesting was something that the founders themselves spoke about, about the act of translation itself and how it’s tricky to find the right balance so that translation reads smoothly in the language it’s being translated to, in this case English, while also evoking the characteristics of the original language. I think this is something that anyone who speaks two or more languages can attest to—that things just sound different depending on the language it’s written in. So being able to translate something while finding that balance I think is really an art form.
RW: Yeah, I definitely enjoyed them too so do check them out.
SW: Thanks, Raisa. That’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Bye!