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In this episode, we discuss how one year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has been marked by a collapsed economy, humanitarian crisis, violent crackdowns on civil protests, and severe restrictions on media and the rights of women.
In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we unpack the recent arrests (or attempted arrests) under anti-terrorism laws, the devastating floods in Pakistan, developments in the Bilkis Bano case, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s official visit to Bangladesh, and more.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we talk about the second season of the Netflix reality series, Indian Matchmaking. And to mark 75 years of Partition, we revisit Garm Hava (1974) and discuss the film’s relevance today.
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, as well as Aimun from Karachi, and Sana from New Delhi. Hi guys!
RW: Our main story this week is going to be on Afghanistan after one year of Taliban rule. We’ll also be talking about recent arrests (or attempted arrests) under anti-terrorism laws, flooding in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and developments in the Bilkis Bano case, as well as import bans in Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
Let’s begin with the situation in Afghanistan.
[Audio from news clips reporting on the Taliban’s takeover and departure of the last foreign forces from Afghanistan]
Shwetha Srikanthan: Thanks, Raisa. August 15 marked one year since the departure of the last foreign forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban entered Kabul and took control of the country, forcing hundreds and thousands of people to flee Afghanistan.
And over this past year, we have seen increasing human rights violations against women. Despite their initial promises that women would be allowed to exercise their rights, the Taliban has systematically excluded women from work, education and political participation. Since the takeover, public protests have also become more dangerous – dozens of women have been arrested and tortured for holding peaceful protests demanding their rights.
[Audio from the women’s protest in Kabul]
RW: Shwetha, wasn’t there a rally that was held recently?
SS: Yes. Holding the first public demonstration in many months, on 13 August, around 40 women gathered to march through Kabul near the Education Ministry. The women were chanting “bread, work, freedom”, “August 15 is a Black Day”, and “no to enslavement.” These protesters were beaten and detained by Taliban security forces who fired in the air to stop their protest. They also grabbed the phones and cameras of Afghan journalists and international correspondents. Several reporters who were trying to cover the march were also detained.
RW: Yeah, and when I was reading about that, I was remembering how just a year ago, we interviewed the Executive Director of the Afghan Women Network (AWN), Mary Akrami, shortly after she fled Kabul. And she described a really harrowing journey, where she had to flee her office without even taking a notebook. She was talking about sleeping for two nights inside the airport amidst really heavy firing, before boarding a flight. She also spoke about how difficult a decision it was to leave, despite being under threat as a women’s rights activist, knowing that not everybody could make this choice. And indeed, many people did decide to stay back as well.
It’s notable too that US involvement in Afghanistan was often intertwined with discussions and rhetoric on preserving women’s rights as a kind of justification for their involvement, and this in turn was then tied to aid. The hasty exit of the US military from Afghanistan has revealed the brittleness of this rhetoric (at least in terms of their involvement) and it did plunge the country into crisis when the Taliban took over Kabul.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Yes Raisa. The Taliban takeover has also led to economic isolation which includes bans and sanctions which have pushed the country to complete economic collapse resulting in unprecedented poverty and hunger. It has become a humanitarian crisis as well. Since the takeover, the number of people needing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan has risen by 33 percent. These conditions have worsened due to drought and rising food prices with nearly 20 million people facing acute food insecurity as of May 2022. That is half of the population suffering from either level-3 crisis or level-4 emergency levels of food insecurity under the assessment system of the World Food Programme (WFP). Over one million children under five are suffering from acute malnutrition.
At the root of this crisis are the sanctions from countries like the US which prevent aid from reaching the needy. There is also a nationwide shortage of banknotes, where people cannot pay for daily expenses, and also businesses are unable to pay their salaries.
Sana Amir: That’s right, Marlon. Afghanistan’s central bank was cut off from the international banking system as part of the sanctions by the US and other governments and this restricted Afghanistan’s interaction with international financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank, and others. Before the Taliban took over (before August 2021), international aid accounted for 75 percent of the Afghan government spending according to World Bank data, and this completely stopped after the US exit.
Even private banks are struggling to cover withdrawals from other humanitarian aid organisations because a) due to lack of cash, funds cannot be withdrawn, and b) foreign banks in other countries are being cautious because they feel that by interacting with the Taliban and Afghanistan, they might be violating UN and US sanctions on Taliban.
The current sanctions have led to a massive liquidity crisis in the country. According to WFP data released in July, almost all Afghan households have reported no income or significantly reduced incomes since August 2021.
According to Reuters, Taliban authorities have reportedly prepared to accept independent monitoring of the central bank by outside auditors which was a key demand of the US government and the World Bank.
Aimun Faisal: Thanks, Sana. On the security front, the situation in present-day Afghanistan can best be described as an uneasy calm. While the Taliban silenced the initial resistance against them, they face two insurgencies, one led by the Islamic State’s local branch and the second is the National Resistance Front (NRF), these are groups aligned with the former government. It is the former that is a major cause for concern. The situation is not eased by the US’ continued involvement as demonstrated by the 31 July strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. For the sake of the safety of the country, it is imperative that foreign powers do not revert to their proxy war tactics.
This is not to say that the Afghan people are devoid of agency. Hundreds of Afghans participated in a protest on 5 August against the American infringement of its sovereign borders. However, any such civil demonstration against the Taliban government or its policies has become increasingly difficult to organise due to the Taliban’s monitoring of protesting groups and state abductions frequently carried out against them.
MA: Adding to that Aimun, the Afghan media continues to face overwhelming challenges under the brutal regime of the Taliban. The Afghanistan Federation of Journalists and Media states that over 200 media outlets have ceased operations and 7,000 media workers, especially women, have lost their jobs in the past year. Many media houses were forced to shut down due to the economic collapse as well, but also threats and reporting restrictions that were imposed by the Taliban.
Moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
AF: To begin, on 22 August, the Islamabad High Court initiated contempt proceedings against former Prime Minister and PTI Chairman Imran Khan for passing, what the court viewed as “controversial” remarks at a political rally against female sessions court Judge Zeba Chaudhry. Chaudhry approved a two-day remand for PTI member Shahbaz Gill. The decision was taken by Acting Islamabad High Court Chief Justice, Aamer Farooq, after Khan was booked under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act for threatening the judge and the police officers involved in Gill’s arrest. However, the court has granted Khan pre-arrest protective bail. Khan was scheduled to appear in court to respond to the allegations on 31 August and has offered to take back his words to sort out the matter. Whatever the outcome of this situation might be, it should be kept in mind that such state benevolence in the face of terrorism charges is rarely afforded to the common man.
MA: In Sri Lanka, the government led by president Ranil Wickremesinghe is engaging in what is being dubbed as a “witch-hunt” against the main faces of the Sri Lankan protests. From Wickremesinghe’s appointment to August 31, there have been 133 protesters who were arrested, 3 who have been abducted and over a dozen travel bans have been imposed on protesters. Wasantha Mudalige the convener of the university student unions along with Hashan Gunathilaka and Galwewa Siridhamma Thero were arrested and detained under the draconian legislation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. While there was widespread condemnation of this move by human rights organisations and activists, this sets a very dangerous precedent and creates a climate of fear and intimidation for those who were merely exercising their fundamental right to protest.
SA: In India, on 15 August, the Gujarat government announced its decision to free 11 convicts who were sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of murder and gang rape in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case. Bilkis Bano was gang-raped and 14 people were killed including her three-year-old daughter by a Hindu mob during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The convicts were released under the state government’s remission policy. It is also important to note that the committee that took this decision had five Bharatiya Janata Party members on it, one of whom later said that the convicts had good values because they are Brahmins.
There was a huge backlash by activists and opposition parties on the decision, and on 23 August, the Supreme court of India agreed to hear the petition challenging the remission granted to the 11 convicts.
AF: Pakistan currently faces large-scale devastation due to what the Secretary of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, has termed “monsoon on steroids”. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, the Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council, claims that Pakistan has received more rainfall this year than any other in at least the past three decades. Around 1100 people have died as a result. At least 33 million people, which is 15 percent of the country’s total population, have been displaced and thousands of acres of crop land have been destroyed. The flood has also destroyed a large portion of the country’s infrastructure, while food prices have skyrocketed due to a supply shortage. Meteorologists have warned of more rain in the coming weeks.
Several scientists believe that the floods are a result of climate change. Pakistan has been experiencing frequent extreme weather patterns. This year, the country also experienced the highest temperatures ever recorded in the province of Sindh. While the role of the Pakistani state cannot be denied in aggravating this crisis via their development policies, Pakistan produces less than 1 percent of the current global carbon emissions, however, remains among the top 5 countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
SS: Meanwhile in Bangladesh, the death toll from this season’s floods beginning in May, rose to 141 as of 22 August. One ground report from Bangladesh noted that while the floods have decreased in the last few weeks – the condition of the people in flood-affect districts continues to worsen. A large number of people in Sylhet and the northeast are still struggling with unemployment, displacement, loss of farmland, and rising debt.
And to find out more on this, do check out our recent video story on flood management in Bangladesh.
RW: Meanwhile in Bhutan, they are currently banning the import of all vehicles except specific utility vehicles, earthmoving machinery, and agricultural machinery in order to save dwindling foreign exchange reserves. In Bhutan, foreign exchange reserves have declined to 970 million US dollars by December 2021. And it’s important to note here that Bhutan is mandated by its constitution to maintain reserves to cover about 12 months of imports. That’s certainly better than the situation in Sri Lanka. But in any case, the ban is expected to be imposed for 6 months initially, and Kuensel reported that it was imposed due to more than 8000 vehicles being imported for the year up until June, and this was apparently one of the major contributing factors to the depleting reserves.
Over in Sri Lanka, there has been an import ban announced on a total of over 300 items including chocolates, perfumes, and shampoo, but also on warships, industrial machinery, and nuclear reactors, which caused some commentary on Twitter. While some of these items on the list were met with some laughter, and despite some caveats (because most of the items on this list can still be imported for re-export, and given that on approval from customs there are still some exceptions that can be made), this ban is still going to impact small and medium enterprises, and potentially even the banking sector.
Unlike in Bhutan, this signals Sri Lanka’s continued shortage of foreign currency and is probably a move to appease IMF officials, some of whom are in Colombo to continue talks. And in fact, they just announced today (1 September) that they have reached a staff-level agreement, which is surprisingly fast, however, there are again some caveats with that in the sense that Sri Lanka still has to negotiate with creditors in order to receive the first tranche of aid. So these bans and shortages are likely to continue, for a while more.
Shubhanga Pandey: In another story from Bangladesh, the Dhaka visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in mid-August, made some news in Bangladesh. This was also one of Michelle Bachelet’s final official visits, since her tenure ended this week on 31 August.
Now, over the past few years, the Bangladesh government has come under serious criticism for its human-rights records, particularly violations regarding clampdown on free speech, as well as the systematic use of extrajudicial killings by the state security forces. So, many in the country were curious how the visit would turn out, and if Bachelet would be critical or not in her assessment, especially in light of her criticism for being somewhat reserved on China’s human rights record. Although it seems a report accusing China of serious violations has also just come out, only hours before her exit.
In Bangladesh, what many also wondered was if the visit would be carefully used by the Sheikh Hasina government as a PR exercise and to whitewash their own human rights record. One leaked government memo in this regard indicated that the government accepted the proposal for the visit because it assumed it would be able to “manage” the visit, which could “strengthen [Bangladesh’s] standing in the multilateral system” and was also “likely to appease some of [its] bilateral partners”. In fact, the government even organised a meeting between her and what they called ‘eminent citizens’, composed of some pro-government members of the civil society.
However, the PR efforts appear to have been only partly successful. In her statement at the end of the visit, Bachelet called for an “impartial, independent and transparent investigation” into allegations of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killing, and torture. She also brought up the narrowing of civic space, increased surveillance, and intimidation against individuals and organisations. So not everything went according to the Bangladesh government’s desires. But at the same time, it is unclear how far these calls for reforms will go, especially under the current dispensation.
SA: And now it’s time for our next segment, Bookmarked.
SA: India and Pakistan recently observed 75 years of Partition and I thought it would be a good time to revisit the 1974 classic Garm Hava (or Scorching Wind), directed by M S Sathyu and adapted by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi from an unpublished story by Ismat Chughtai.
[Audio from Garm Hava trailer]
The film is set in post-Partition India and shows the struggle of a Muslim family who decides to stay in India after Partition. The protagonist, Salim Mirza, is a respected businessman and after Partition, many of his relatives start to move to Karachi, Pakistan. He doesn’t want to because he hopes that the situation will gradually calm down, but as the film progresses, Salim starts to face discrimination because of his Muslim identity. He starts to feel unwanted in his own country.
There is a dialogue at the start of the film: “badi garam hava hai, jo ukhda nahi, sookh jawega,” which roughly translates to “the wind is scorching hot, the one who doesn’t get uprooted, will dry out,” and this sort of sets the premise of the film.
[Audio of dialogue from Garm Hava film]
Watching this film after a couple of years, I thought the film is still relevant because the situation of Muslims hasn’t changed much. Just like the protagonist in the film, Muslims still face discrimination based on their identity, where they find it difficult to rent a place to live or face discrimination at the workplace, which obviously has become more overt and aggressive with the current Hindu majoritarian government in power.
Has anybody else seen the film?
RW: Yeah, Sana, I watched it. I have to say that I hadn’t watched it before. I think it really explores a quieter, more subtle form of violence during Partition, because it looked at how family relationships and romantic relationships were fractured due to Partition, and it sort of underscores the point that you were making on how the impact of Partition continues even until today.
When I was watching it, I also actually was reminded of Taangh, the winning film at Film Southasia, because again, I think that filmmaker again explored how a hockey team was divided by Partition. So, I think that’s a very interesting way to explore the ongoing impact of it.
I also liked that at one point, it talked about property loss and economic loss. Again, a quieter form of violence that often gets forgotten or glossed over. So yeah, I thought that was interesting. But, given what you were also saying Sana, about how Partition continues, I don’t know how I felt about that ending where they join the crowd, because it felt a bit like a very neat resolution, where they’re just joining the crowd and standing up. It just had undertones of patriotism, which don’t really bear out if you look at the current situation.
SA: But I also felt that, in current times also, a lot of Muslims that I know, obviously we are very privileged and whatever is going on in the country doesn’t impact us much in our daily lives. But that point [suggested that], it’s high time, you will have to fight for your rights, you will have to join the protests – you will have to do that. So, I took it that way. That was the point where, in the whole film, he stops his son to join the protests or be part of it, but towards the end, he gives permission to go and join the protest.
RW: Yeah, and in that sense, there were parts where I also couldn’t help but relate it to what’s happening in Sri Lanka as well, with all the discussion about joining protests, not joining protests, and what’s going on now with the current government. So, I was definitely also thinking about Sri Lanka during it. Even some of the things that they were doing to adapt was just reminding me of some of the things we’re going through right now. I think it was a really relevant watch in that sense.
SP: If I may add, just to go back to the question of relevance, and that ending as well. I had also not watched the film until now, but I’ve heard a lot about it and knew what the overall story was. I thought the ending was in a way, like Raisa you said, a bit too neat, especially in contrast to what Indian society and politics have become, it was almost like a celebration of maybe an imperfect and idealised idea of the secular India, and where they made a decision on the optimism that India would be the place for Muslims as well, and that to leave for Pakistan would be to betray that dream. So yeah, I found it even more powerful precisely because it tells how far India has come in this Hindu nationalist direction, but also that the very ideal is also something that drives a lot of people and politics even today in terms of resistance and to fight Hindutva. I thought that was relevant on so many layers.
RW: Yeah, it definitely does. It’s food for thought, for sure.
But my recommendation is going to be much less scholarly. Or perhaps it’s scholarly, I don’t know. I was recently watching the new season of Indian Matchmaking – I don’t know if anybody here had a chance to watch it.
SA: Oh no!
SA: So far, I’ve stopped myself from watching it. There are a lot of articles on it – I’m like, no Sana, you’re not going to watch it. But please tell me more.
RW: Yeah, so I thought I should make a scholarly contribution to the current discourse. For me, I think maybe because everything that’s happening here is somewhat stressful, a lot of what I watch is also to try to escape from stress. And it might sound strange because, in some ways, this kind of genre can make you feel angry, but I personally think Indian Matchmaking hits that, what we call ‘cringe content’, where you watch it and you cringe at how unaware the protagonists are. Because it’s set squarely in upper-class Bombay, and it explores the Indian arranged marriage industry, I think it’s safe to say that it really brings out that aspect of it.
[Audio from India matchmaking season 2 trailer]
RW: So yeah, I definitely watched the second season with that in mind and we saw the return of some season one favourites including Aparna, who gained a lot of polarised reactions. I personally like her because she’s like a living meme, and she has just a tiny bit of self-awareness.
For me, I think the opening shot of Indian Matchmaking just sums up what’s appealing about the series, where Aparna is going into this long monologue about meditating and needing yoga, and how she’s going through this spiritual transformation.
MA: Is this season two or season one?
RW: This is season two. She’s going on this deep monologue and then it zooms out and she’s making a smoothie bowl for herself!
MA: That could be considered spiritual!
RW: I just find her so perfect because she just fits into that whole ‘girl boss’, almost like a caricature, but then she looks right into the screen, like she breaks the fourth wall, and says something with a glint in her eye, and you’re like, hmm… maybe she knows what she’s doing.
MA: Oh, she has some really nice lines, I think.
Because I was curious, since you guys were talking about it, I just watched a couple of episodes. So yeah, Aparna has very absurd things to say at very odd times, and it just takes anyone who’s talking with her off guard, so I liked that whole theatricality of that. In general, there’s so much wrong with this show, like colourism for example, all these criteria that they come up with is just…
RW: Exactly. I like that because it brings that aspect to the forefront and it definitely reminded me of the matrimonial ads in Sri Lankan newspapers as well. Everybody is fair, everyone is looking for a fair bride.
SA: Yes. Same in India.
RW: It really brought that to the fore and all the really unrealistic expectations that they had of their prospective spouses and the heavy weight of expectation behind these dates.
SA: Okay, I want to know – I haven’t watched any of the episodes of Indian Matchmaking – but towards the end, do they find partners? How does it end?
SP: Do they find love?
SS: None of the matches from season one worked out.
MA: Oh, really. I should stop watching!
SS: Actually, I have a question for Raisa. I didn’t finish the second season; I just watched the first episode. So, in season one, I guess, Seema aunty, she kind of has this bias towards men, right? She calls them “good boys”, and the women, she says they’re difficult and stubborn. Does she still do that or has there been some kind of character arc? Because there was a lot of backlash.
RW: Yeah, I definitely think that she’s certainly received some of that backlash and heard it, because it is true – the word that she used was “compromise”. She’s like ‘girls have to compromise; they can’t be so demanding’. And that is also why I liked Aparna, because she was a little complicated in that – despite her obliviousness, she kind of pushed back on that and she’s like: you know what, I am not going to apologise for wanting what I want. I have my work and I also want this; this is what I’m looking for. So that is also why I liked Aparna.
But in terms of Seema, she had changed her words, she no longer used “compromise”, I think that was her reaction to the criticism. She was saying ‘patience is key, in relationships there needs to be patience’, so she was pushing the same kind of thing. The only other discernible change that I would see is that she had learned at least to get a little bit less frustrated when girls said that they didn’t want a match, there would still be this pushback. Again, there’s definitely an imbalance, like when boys said that they didn’t feel a spark, I feel like she was less hard on them than she was with the girls. That was still there, but I think she had somewhat learned a bit from the backlash and she was trying to kind of moderate but not entirely successfully, in my opinion.
There were also things that she glossed over too or she was a little bit blunt on. I think the thing that struck out to me the most was, there was a Sikh family who was looking for a match, and then she asked the father, when did you migrate to the US, and he just paused and said, I moved in 1983, and you could see that he was thinking, should I say it, should I talk about the reason why I migrated? And then he decides not to because clearly, he’s like maybe this isn’t the kind of show where we talk about these things. That scene, I thought was so interesting because there was this clash there between Seema and this family, which was never acknowledged and just over in a second. And it kind of just talks about how the show just glosses over a lot of realities but also brings some things to the fore.
Also, I have to give a shout-out to the guy who’s a chicken farmer. Everybody who knows me knows that I love fried chicken, and there was a particular line where he says something like “nothing can beat my love for chicken,” or something like that, and I most definitely screenshotted that and sent it to everybody I knew.
MA: This is one of the guys in the show?
RW: Yeah, he’s a chicken farmer. He basically goes on for about 20 minutes about his love for chickens, and he does it on dates as well.
SA: The show gave him that much space!
RW: Again, I personally loved it because I love fried chicken, so I was like this is just great meme content.
Anyway, that was my recommendation for this month, if you want to watch cringe content that is!
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!