Welcome to the second issue of Notes from South Asia. You can find the previous one here.
Notes from South Asia is a weekly series that will post every Friday with news, opinions, stories and histories from South Asian countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives (when possible), Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.
Today we will cover India, Nepal and Myanmar.
A Civil war in Manipur
Manipur a state in the North East of India has been seeing something akin to civil war between its Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities since May. Meitei are majority and mostly live in and around the Imphal valley where as, Kuki-Zo make the hill districts home. Meitei are majority Hindu (after one of their rulers converted to Hinduism in the 1700s) whereas Kuki-Zo are majority Christians. The violence started after the Manipur High Court asked the state government to give Tribal status to the dominant Meitei community. This would have allowed the Meitei to buy land in the hill districts, which is forbidden to non-Tribals. Kuki-Zo groups protested, Meiteis staged a counter protest and violence broke out.
The Nagas, the other ethnic Tribal group in the region, have largely remained neutral in the conflict. As have a few other religious and ethnic groups.
The state government has been majoritarian and have largely favoured Meitei over Kuki-Zo during the past few years of their rule. That has contributed to the discontent among the Kuki-Zo community and probably led to protests over the High Court’s directive. Neither the state or the Union government—both run by the Hindu Supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—has done much to contain the violence.
More on this in this Wire long piece from activist Harsh Mander: Manipur: A Land of Settled Grief.
Manipur, literally the ‘jewelled land’, today is the theatre of a full-blown civil war of the kind that free India has not seen. Civilian populations on both sides flaunt sophisticated modern weapons including assault rifles, light machine guns and mortars. Even five months after the conflagration began, the combat shows no sign of an end.
It is rare for even a day to pass without the rattle of gunfire and bombs and news of fresh deaths and injuries. The state of Manipur is effectively partitioned, the valley emptied out of the last of its Kuki residents, as the Kuki dominated southern hills are of their Meitei inhabitants. The border between the valley and the Kuki dominated part of the hills – guarded and patrolled by military and paramilitary personnel of diverse stripes and uniforms – is mutually impenetrable for people of the two respective warring communities.
Women’s groups successfully blockade for weeks the passage of army trucks carrying food supplies for soldiers in the hills. No rations have been supplied by the state government for patients and students in the medical college in the hills. Teachers, doctors, nurses and even police persons have been reallocated (or have fled) on ethnic lines to the two sides of this border: it is unsafe for Kuki public servants to work in the valley, as it is for Meitei public servants to work in the Kuki dominated part of the hills.
Please read the article since it contains both history and details about the current tensions (not mentioned in other articles I have shared elsewhere).
As historian Ramachandra Guha said in another article, the condition in Manipur has been a failure of the Chief Minister (of the state, Mr. Biren Singh whose majoritarian policies in support of Meitei fanned discontent among the minority Kuki-Zo), the Prime Minister (of the country, Mr. Modi) and the Home Minister (of the Union cabinet, Mr, Amit Shah, who is responsible for law and order).
Legalised opacity in election financing that helps the ruling party
The case challenging the electoral bonds that allows people to donate to parties without transparency has come up before the Indian Supreme Court. Hence, the current interest of a law that came into effect a few years back: Electoral bonds.
In 2017, the Modi government hastily pushed through amendments to four laws in order to introduce a new form of political contribution in India. Through this was born the electoral bond: “a bond issued in the nature of promissory note which shall be a bearer banking instrument and shall not carry the name of the buyer or payee”.
In effect, one could now go to specific branches of the State Bank of India, buy an electoral bond of a particular value and then donate that bond to any political party. This donation would be hidden from Indian voters. Critically, however, it would not be hidden from the Union government: it could access these records, given that it controls the State Bank of India.
The BJP claimed and still claims that the electoral bonds will bring transparency. But this is not true and they have not.
As it so happens, this was a classic case of Orwellian speak. Far from making political donations more transparent, the new scheme of electoral bonds made them more opaque. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, for example, the Election Commission strongly attacked the new scheme. “This is a retrogade step as far as transparency of donations is concerned,” it said. “The ECI [Election Commission of India] has no way to ascertain whether the donations were received illegally by the political party from government companies or foreign sources.”
Electoral bonds not only restrict information from the public but allow foreign corporations and, given many of those such as Chinese corporations are state-controlled, foreign governments to finance Indian political parties in secret. The new scheme effectively annulled the Election Commission’s guidelines from 2014 requiring political parties to file reports on contributions received, their audited annual accounts and election expenditure statements.
Plus it helps only the ruling party.
The new scheme, as could be expected, completely changed political financing in India. Electoral bonds are now the principal way by which parties raise funds. For example, more than 52% of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s total donations came from electoral bonds. Even more remarkably, most of the funds raised through these bonds went to the BJP. Between 2016-’17 and 2021-’22, the BJP, in fact, collected more money from electoral bonds than all other parties combined. The BJP got nearly six times the money the principal opposition party, the Congress, did.
You can imagine the results. Please give the whole article a read if you have the time to spare.
Hindu Nationalism in the Diaspora
I was asked last week about Hindu Nationalism among the diaspora. In the past few years, especially in the wake of Trump-Modi friendship (or whatever it might be called), there has been some coverage in the US and UK newspapers about the diaspora activism. I found a few articles going back to 2019 (and likely earlier). On how it might affect the country they reside in, here is one that you might take a look at:
Story from the Guardian about Hindu Nationalism and the trouble in Leicester (UK) in 2022. Report by Hannah Ellis-Peterson.
The rise in global support for the BJP has also coincided with a rise in prominence of Hindutva groups and charities in the US. Some of these groups have been accused of trying to undermine academic freedom on university campuses by targeting academics whose work has focused on India’s Islamic history. In September 2021, organisers of an academic conference on Hindutva held in the US were bombarded with thousands of threats of rape, violence and death, allegedly by such groups.
In August, the Indian Business Association (IBA) came under fire for bringing bulldozers, adorned with the faces of Modi and the hardline Hindutva BJP minister Yogi Adityanath, to two India Day parades in the state of New Jersey. Bulldozers have become a symbol of anti-Muslim oppression in India after they were used repeatedly to demolish the homes of Muslim activists and citizens under the guise of the structures being illegal. Hindutva hardliners have celebrated Adiyanath as “bulldozer baba” for the demolitions.
The Hindu nationalist ideology has also recently begun to rear its head in the UK. In November 2019, British Hindus were targeted with WhatsApp messages, which included videos by far-right anti-Muslim activists.
Over the weekend, violence erupted in Leicester between Hindu and Muslim communities, which began after a group of Hindu men marched through the streets of the city shouting “jai shri Ram”, a Hindu greeting that has become a clarion call for Hindutva mobs and perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence in India. The situation quickly escalated, with a Hindu flag burned and another torn down from outside a temple.
There are other pieces such as Sakshi Venkataraman’s article for NBC.
In the U.S., Hindu nationalism can take the form of cultural youth groups, but also online doxxing and harassment campaigns against dissenters. Charity work might operate parallel to lobbies against bills aimed at protecting those born into lower castes in India’s caste system, according to experts.
“There is something that is very distinct about what’s happening now,” said Sangay Mishra, an associate professor at Drew University in New Jersey and author of “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans.” “There’s something very specific about Narendra Modi: He wants to be liked in the Western world.”
Modi’s government and those that surround it — like his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — have focused specifically on Indian Americans as the new frontier of political mobilization, Mishra, who teaches political science and international relations, said. And they’ve invested resources into spreading the word in schools, government offices and on social media.
You can follow Hindus for Human Rights (@Hindus4HR) on twitter for up to date information on them. There are also UK and Australian chapters.
I hope this helps.
As the news clipping above shows, an earthquake shook Nepal on Nov 3rd local time. Here is the latest news on that from the Hindu, reported on 6th Nov. Piece from Press Trust of India (PTI) published in the Hindu. (I am adding this so that you get context before I share the latest article from Kathmandu Post).
Thousands of people rendered homeless after Friday's earthquake in Nepal's mountainous region are facing a shortage of food, clothes and medicines as relief materials and help are yet to reach several places.
The survivors of the catastrophe cremated their deceased relatives on Sunday.
Hasta Bahadur K. C. of Chiuritol of Nalgad Municipality in Jajarkot is mourning the loss of his son, his daughter-in-law, and his four-year-old grandson. His son, Bhimsen B. K., had come home for the Dashain (Vijaya Dashami) festival and had planned to return to India where he worked.
Bhimsen, his wife and son were among 157 people killed after a 6.4 magnitude quake with the epicentre at Jajarkot’s Ramidanda jolted Nepal on Friday. The tremors were also felt in parts of India, including Delhi and the National Capital Region.
“Only my wife and I remain. The two of us have been living under a tarpaulin tent since Friday midnight. We are yet to come to terms with our loss," The Kathmandu Post newspaper quoted Hasta Bahadur as saying.
According to Suresh B. K., a resident of Chiuritol, 13 people lost their lives in the village while several others were injured in the earthquake.
At least 56 houses in the village were completely destroyed while 110 houses, although still standing, have become inhabitable, said Mr. Suresh.
The villagers have been waiting for help to arrive.
“But so far, we have not received any. All our crops, grains, food, clothes and other valuables lie buried in the debris. We haven’t been able to retrieve anything as there are no security personnel to help us,” he said.
Today’s report from Kathmandu Post (English language Nepali newspaper) says that experts have asked for immunisation drives in earthquake affected areas. Report from Arjun Poudel.
With the threat of infectious as well as vaccine-preventable diseases looming in the quake-affected districts, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee has asked the Ministry of Health and Population launch an additional drive against vaccine-preventable diseases.
Officials said that the expert panel also recommended the ministry to launch a drive against measles and rubella, polio, cholera, pneumonia, and influenza, among others.
“As per the panel’s recommendation, we have already started risk-mapping with the help of provincial and local governments,” said Dr Prakash Budhathoki, spokesman for the Health Ministry.
At least 153 people died, hundreds were injured and thousands were displaced by the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that rocked Nepal and parts of India at midnight on November 3. Nepal’s Jajarkot and West Rukum districts in Karnali Province suffered heavy damage.
“We have been also discussing rescheduling the measles-rubella campaign, which is slated for 2024, to an earlier date in quake-hit areas,” said Budhathoki. “Although regular vaccination campaigns cover the quake-affected areas, we are concerned about the risk of disease outbreaks after the earthquake.”
Public health experts have warned of outbreaks of communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases in the quake-hit areas, as thousands of people have been rendered homeless, and health and hygiene of the displaced people have been compromised. Officials concede that preventing possible outbreaks in the coming days will be challenging, as people are forced to live out in the open amid growing cold.
Officials at the Health Ministry said that an outbreak of communicable diseases—cold-related ailments, waterborne diseases and vaccine-preventable diseases—is likely in the coming days due to falling temperatures and damaged infrastructure. They said that they have held several rounds of discussions at the Health Ministry and agreed on measures to be taken in the coming days.
Basant Pratap Singh for the Post reports that survivors from last month’s earthquake (which was smaller in impact) are still living in tents.
Hansa Nepali, a 70-year-old woman from Kuchgaun in ward 3 of Thalara Rural Municipality, lost her house over a month ago on October 3 when an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude, with its epicentre near Chainpur, the district headquarters of Bajhang, rocked Bajhang and the neighbouring districts.
Around 35 houses were completely destroyed in the Kuchgaun.
An asthma patient, Nepali has since been living in a tarpaulin tent with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. While some families managed to rebuild their homes, 12 poor families still live in tents pitched in the fields.
“The days are getting colder and my health worse. Our family is yet to receive any sort of financial help from the government to reconstruct the house,” said Nepali. “Our tent has started to leak but we have nowhere else to sleep. The prime minister visited the earthquake displaced on the fourth day of the disaster and promised funds to help us build temporary shelters.”
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who reached Bajhang on October 6, announced Rs50,000 per family for those whose homes were destroyed, for the construction of temporary shelters; and Rs25,000 for those whose houses were damaged but not destroyed. Dahal announced a 14-point package for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. He also committed an additional Rs15,000 to Rs20,000, depending on the number of family members affected, as relief.
Dahal said the government would assess the damage and then collect data on the number of buildings requiring maintenance, retrofitting or reconstruction.
“We are still waiting for funds to rebuild our house,” said Nepali. “Until then, we have no choice but to suffer in the cold.”
Free Speech and Social Media Regulation
Apparently, entire South Asia is worried about free speech and social media use and is trying to crack down on it. I will share pieces on other countries later, but for now, see this report from Nepal.
Social media platforms operating in Nepal will now be required to set up their offices in the country.
The ‘Directives on the Operation of Social Networking 2023’, passed by the Cabinet on Thursday, makes it mandatory for social media sites such as Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok and YouTube, among others, to open their liaison offices in Nepal.
The government said the measure was introduced in light of an increasing number of people complaining that the absence of the companies’ representatives in Nepal made it difficult for the authorities to address their users’ concerns and even to remove objectionable content from the platforms.
The companies will have to establish either an office or appoint a focal person in Nepal within three months of the enforcement of the directives. Likewise, the companies have to register their social media platforms with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. The ministry can shut down the platforms that are not registered in Nepal.
The directives include a 19-point not-to-do list for the users of platforms like Facebook, X, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.
The directives say no one should create fake IDs on social media, share or make comments through such IDs. Likewise, people should not post any text, audio, video or picture that spreads hatred against any gender, community, caste, religion, profession, or people from any particular group.
The new rule also bars any post promoting wrong activities such as child labour, human trafficking, child marriage or polygamy.
The directives ban the use of words, audio, video or images that spread hate speech and disrespect or defame others. Also banned are actions like distorting a picture, taking photos of private affairs and publishing them without permission.
Similarly, posting vulgar words, pictures, videos, audios, animations, contents promoting paedophilia, sexual exploitation, prostitution, use and trade of narcotic substances, gambling, spreading fake news, distorted information, cyber bullying and terrorism-related contents are prohibited.
Some of it is necessary of course. As is the need for a liaison office in Nepal. But terms like fake news and hate speech can be used against dissenters or minoritised population. As is happening in India and Bangladesh.
Bhutan General Elections
The Election Commission of Bhutan has set 9th January 2024 as the date for next parliamentary elections the Bhutanese reports.
The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) on Friday 3rd November shared the notification announcing the start of the fourth Parliamentary elections.
The five political parties Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (DTT) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) counting from 3rd November will have 27 days until the Primary Round Poll Day on 30th November.
This is compared to 29 days in 2018 and 33 days in 2013 elections. There was no primary round in 2008.
The newer parties like BTP and DTT have been undertaking familiarization tours but their late formation, the COVID-19 Pandemic and slightly shorter primary round will leave them at a slight disadvantage compared to the older parties.
However, it all depends on how much impact they or even the older parties can make in the 27 days till the primary round poll day.
The General Election poll day will be on 9th January 2024.
Here the two final parties will have 39 days until poll day compared to 32 days in 2018 and 43 days in 2013.
The Bhutanese has all the party election manifestos if you want to take a look.
The King of Bhutan was in India this week for a week long visit. Suhasini Haidar reports for the Hindu about the King’s discussions with PM Modi.
India and Bhutan agreed to discuss new routes of regional connectivity, and upgrade border and immigration posts to support Bhutan’s 5th King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s plans for a smart city at Gelephu on the border between Bhutan and Assam, after his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on Monday. While no mention was made of India’s overhanging concerns over Bhutan’s boundary delimitation agreement process with China, the Ministry of External Affairs said the two leaders “held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest”.
Apart from a decision to go ahead with the final survey for the 58 km cross-border rail link between Gelephu and Kokrajhar in Assam to be built by India, the two sides agreed to explore a second rail link for about 18 km between Samtse in Bhutan and Banarhat in West Bengal tea gardens area. India also agreed to allowing Bhutanese trade items to be carried further on from Haldibari in West Bengal to Chilahati in Bangladesh. The rail connectivity could in the future assist air connectivity for Indians in the northeast as well, as Bhutan plans to build an international airport at Gelephu as part of the larger Sarpang district Special Economic Zone, new initiative expected to be announced by the Bhutanese King on December 17.
If you don’t know much about Bhutan, the Britannica page gives a decent overview.
That is all for today. Thank you for reading. I will stay in the comments till 9:30 pm India time.
PS: I have created South Asian Kos Community as promised (and as Ms. Dee recommended). I have added South Asian Kos Community as publish group as well though I am not entirely sure what that does. Let us try it out.