Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out every two weeks. If you are a member of Himal Southasian, you will automatically receive links to new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get these updates for free by signing up for our newsletters here.
In this episode, we talk about delayed local government elections in Sri Lanka. We discuss the tax raid on BBC offices in Mumbai and Delhi. We also discuss the shutdown of embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In “Around Southasia in Five Minutes”, we discuss the release of PTM leader Ali Wazir after almost two years behind bars in Pakistan, a new political party law and a directive from the junta on civilians carrying firearms in Myanmar, the controversial appointment of Victoria Gowri as an additional judge of the Madras High Court in India, rumours of a growing rift in the Taliban in Afghanistan after critical comments made by interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Bangladesh’s selection of a new president. For “Bookmarked”, we discuss the documentary Dreaming of Words, which tells the story of Njattyela Sreedharan, a fourth-standard drop-out who went on to compile a comparative dictionary of Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu.
Sri Lanka’s local elections are a major threat to the ruling class
Protests in Gwadar, a BBC documentary on Modi, Tamil fiction in translation and more
Pashtuns will not be pawns in Pakistan’s dangerous game with the TTP and Taliban
Taliban regime under siege, within and without
The podcast episode is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube
This episode was recorded on 20 February, 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, our round-up of news, events and analysis of regional affairs, now out twice a month. I’m Raisa and I’m joined by my colleague Saheli. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: So this week our big stories are on delayed local government elections in Sri Lanka, the raiding of BBC offices by tax officials, and the shutdown of embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. For Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we’re talking about the release of PTM leader Ali Wazir, the military directive to allow Myanmar citizens to carry guns as well as a new law on political parties, the controversial appointment of an additional high court judge in Madras, a growing rift in the Taliban, and Bangladesh’s new president. For Bookmarked, we’ll be talking about the documentary ‘Dreaming of Words.’ Let’s begin with the delayed local government elections in Sri Lanka.
[Sound clips of news from Sri Lanka]
SW: In Sri Lanka, the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government has been making several attempts to postpone the local government elections, initially scheduled for the 9th of March. The government says that it doesn’t have enough money to hold an election now. In the Supreme Court a petition was filed by a retired army colonel seeking to halt preparations for the election in light of the ongoing economic crisis. In an event in Colombo on 18th February, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the country can decide its future in elections next year once economic stability is restored. The Elections Commission affirmed its intention to have the local government elections in March, but the government is refusing to provide the funds needed despite a sum being allocated in the budget for elections. Postal voting which was scheduled for February 22 to the 24th has been postponed indefinitely because the government printer didn’t hand over the ballot papers. It’s interesting to note that this is happening a few weeks after expensive Independence Day celebrations which the government really didn’t have an issue spending on. So why is the government so reluctant to allow elections to be held? Well, the prevailing theory is that the government is aware of how unpopular they are. Especially recently with the newly implemented tax laws, the increase in electricity tariffs and the rising cost of living. Ranil Wickremesinghe himself wasn’t elected directly by the people. He was appointed by parliament after the former president Gotabhaya Rajapakse resigned. Now while a loss at the local government elections won’t mean a change in parliament or the president, it could act as a signal of just how unpopular the current government is, and possibly highlight the growing popularity of the current opposition parties. This is something we’ve discussed in Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda’s piece which you can find in the episode notes.
[Sound clips of news from India]
RW: In India, the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai were raided by Indian income tax officials. Now this comes almost a month after India banned the BBC documentary called ‘India: the Modi Question,’ which raised very critical questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The tax raid went on for three days and some BBC staffers had to stay overnight, and they also faced lengthy questioning. This is almost certainly in response to the amount of attention that the documentary has received, and the raid itself has already gotten wide media attention which will likely only drive more people to want to see it. Now tax raids have been used as a method of intimidation before by the Indian state and they’ve targeted both media outlets and non-profit organisations using this. So this is already being covered as just the latest in crackdowns on Indian press freedom. We did talk about the BBC documentary in an earlier episode of Southasiasphere as well, so do check that out in the episode notes.
[Sound clips of news from Pakistan]
SW: Our final big story is about the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan which we’ve discussed in previous episodes of Southasiasphere. On February 17th the Karachi police office building came under attack by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. At least five deaths have been reported. Meanwhile the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan closed due to so-called technical issues on February 13th, but some sources reported that the closure was after threats to the Embassy from TTP and Baloch Militants. This also came after the Chinese government issued an advisory to its citizens about the rise in security threats in Pakistan. Similarly, over in Afghanistan Reuters reported that the Saudi Arabian Embassy would be moving out of Kabul and into Pakistan because of rising security concerns. A recent UN report said that Afghanistan remains the primary source of terrorist threat for Central and South Asia with groups such as Islamic State-Khorasan, Al-Qaeda and TTP enjoying greater freedom of movement in the country. This is because the Taliban government lacks an effective security strategy. And Pakistan is really facing the consequences of this rise in militancy. We recently published a piece by Hurmat Ali Shah discussing the protests in Swat and Waziristan over the security threats, the TTP and the Taliban, so do check that out. It’s linked in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in Five Minutes.
Around Southasia in Five Minutes
RW: In Pakistan, PTM leader and member of the National Assembly from South Waziristan, Ali Wazir was finally granted bail and released from Karachi Central jail after more than two years behind bars. Wazir was first incarcerated after a series of cases for sedition were filed against him following a speech that he made at a rally. He has, it’s important to note, not been acquitted from the cases that have been filed against him. Commenting on his prolonged detention, media outlets noted that bail applications were repeatedly denied in his case and that the people of South Waziristan were left without a voice in the National Assembly. But still, this latest development was welcomed by many, although media outlets also condemned the repressive tactic of filing sedition cases to silence dissent in Pakistan.
SW: In Myanmar, the military junta introduced a new political party registration law, which would essentially crush all opposition in the upcoming elections. The law prevents anyone who has been convicted of a crime or who is serving a prison sentence from joining a political party. This would mean that many members of the National League for Democracy or NLD are disqualified, including the party leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The new law also imposes tough registration requirements both in terms of the numbers and the money that a party needs to register. The NLD, along with several smaller parties, said that they refuse to register, and the People’s Defence Force, which is the armed wing of the National Unity Government, has said that it will disrupt preparations for the elections. Attacks have already been carried out on junta officials conducting a population survey that could be used to assemble voter rolls for the elections. Meanwhile, the junta announced that it would allow people who are, “loyal to the nation,” including government employees and retired military personnel to carry licensed firearms, but they must comply with orders from local authorities to participate in security and law enforcement actions. This is part of its effort against anti-military groups.
RW: In India, on 7 February, Victoria Gowri was appointed an additional judge of the Madras High Court. Now this was despite petitions being filed in the Supreme Court against her appointment. Gowri’s appointment drew criticism both for her controversial remarks against religious minorities and for her previous links with the BJP. Senior advocate Raju Ramachandran said the appointment was made in ugly haste, and added that the material available against Gowri showed a mindset not in tune with Article 21 of India’s Constitution, which deals with equal justice. However, Justices Sanjiv Khanna and BR Gavai dismissed the petitions. Following Gowri’s appointment, a citizen group from Bangalore called Reclaim Constitution sent the additional judge postcards featuring art from the Constitution and excerpts from constitutional assembly debates as a reminder to uphold constitutional values.
SW: In Afghanistan, rumours of an internal rift within the Taliban gained momentum after Sirajudeen Haqqani, the interior minister in the Taliban government, seemingly criticised other top officials for “monopolising power” and adopting policies that would drive a wedge between the ruling system and the people. The alleged point of contention is the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s rights, the impact that these policies have had on their popularity domestically, and the isolation of the Taliban internationally. These policies were reportedly pushed by the Taliban Supreme Leader, who has recently taken a more prominent role in directing Taliban policy. Now, the internal dynamics of the Taliban are very complicated, and the recent criticism by Haqqani demonstrates that. In November 2022, we published a piece by Salman Rafi Sheikh discussing the Taliban and the threats it faces from other militant groups. In it, Salman discusses the possible links between the Haqqani Network and Islamic State-Khorasan, which may be limiting the Taliban’s approach in controlling IS-K. So do check that out too.
RW: In Bangladesh, 74-year-old Mohammad Shahabuddin Chuppu has been declared president-elect by the country’s Election Commission. Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal said that the ruling Awami League party’s nominee was elected unopposed. The Awami League has the majority in the 350-seat national parliament, and no other party had the numbers to nominate a presidential candidate, making the result more or less a foregone conclusion. Shahabuddin will replace the incumbent Abdul Hamid, who has served two terms as president and therefore cannot run a third time according to Bangladesh’s constitution.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Saheli, do you have any recommendations?
SW: Yep, I do. So this week I’m recommending ‘Dreaming of Words,’ which is a documentary film released in 2021. It was directed by Nandan, a filmmaker from Bangalore. The documentary follows Sreedharan, who is described as a fourth-standard dropout, who spent 25 years compiling a dictionary that offers a comparative study of Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. In the documentary, Sreehdaran describes why he undertook the project in the first place, how he went about it, and the issues he faced in trying to get it published. It also shows some insights into his life, starting from when he dropped out of school and started working in a beedi factory, which I found really interesting actually, because this is where he became interested in reading and learning in the first place, after listening to discussions on books and newspapers while working in the factory. So the process of making the dictionary and undertaking the project in the first place, which Sreedharan discusses, shows how intelligent he is. But the fact that the lack of formal education really added to the difficulty of getting this dictionary published was quite sad, really.
RW: Yeah, I really enjoyed watching this documentary, and I think the part that really stuck out the most to me was a line where somebody was talking about how language is also very much about culture. The process that he actually undertook, where he actually travelled by himself and on his own expense across different states and stayed with people and asked them to teach him the language, and how he would take as much as five or six years to source the translation of a word in different languages, it really shows how much effort he took to understand not just the technical part, but also the cultural kind of aspects that feed into language. I thought that was really fascinating, and after all of the effort that he took, which was so many years in the making, the fact that he doesn’t have social standing because he’s a high school dropout and because there’s a class difference meant that they didn’t really take his effort seriously, and there were these excuses like, oh, you know, the subsequent book will be too huge to be printed. And the attempt to kind of restrict it given that what he was trying to do was really translate it across the languages and to show the common kind of Dravidian roots in the language. And the fact he was able to kind of make that connection without any formal schooling and just out of his own interest and passion, I thought was really admirable.
SW: I’m glad that the documentary is highlighting his work because I think it’s important that he does get the recognition. And the documentary was recently uploaded on YouTube with English subtitles. It’s a really fascinating watch, and I fully recommend it, so do check it out. It’s linked in the episode notes.
RW: And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Bye!