Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter. Today: Why India's farmers protest, Bhutan decriminalizes homosexuality and Twitter is causing controversy in India.
Before we get to the news, a personal note: Reader, this is my last letter on South Asia. Just before Thanksgiving, I was named the new editor-in-chief of FP. In my new role, I plan to write more broadly for FP and have decided to pass this newsletter on to another writer who is preferably based in the region.
If you know someone who would be a good match for you, you can find the job posting here or you can email me at email@example.com. Although I now live in New York, writing this newsletter was a great way to keep in touch with news and trends from all over South Asia, my old turf. Thank you for your time and feedback. I hope you will read on as this 2021 newsletter develops with a new author.
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Why India's peasants protest
Tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been camping in New Delhi for more than two weeks to protest against a series of farm laws passed by the country's parliament in September. Thousands more from the neighboring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh will join in the coming days, even as police try to prevent them from entering the city.
The protests are not an isolated movement. On November 26, an estimated 250 million citizens took part in a 24-hour general strike to challenge the new laws. The scale of the protests should come as no surprise: agriculture employs around half of India's workforce, even though it accounts for only a sixth of India's GDP.
What is at stake? So far, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government stand firm against the protesters, arguing that the new laws will give farmers more autonomy, allow better marketing and remove regulatory barriers. To some extent, the government has a point. Economists have long suggested India needs to reform its archaic agricultural sector, with middlemen raising prices, slowing supply chains and adding to food waste. Most Indian farmers work with just a few hectares of land and cannot afford the mechanization and efficiency of scaling that is common in industrialized countries.
But India's millions of farmers are clearly angry. They believe the new rules will open them to exploitation by giant corporations. And as Barkha Dutt writes in the Washington Post, there is broad national sympathy for the protests. "The moral strength of the Indian farmer is not to be underestimated," she argues, describing scenes of elderly demonstrators spreading blankets under the wheels of their trucks to sleep in the cold of winter. "There is underlying collective guilt in looking at the farmers."
What it means for modes. Whether or not the agrarian reforms were substantial, or economic, seems to be a different question. (Follow the foreign policy this weekend to learn more about it from Sumit Ganguly and Surupa Gupta.) For now, it is clear that New Delhi may have made a political miscalculation.
Not only were the reforms swiftly passed in September without referral to a parliamentary panel, but they were also amid India's botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, which left most of the people preoccupied with other issues. At least part of the protest movement's anger is likely due to this lack of consultation or debate.
Modi got away with other big, bold decisions without paying attention to democratic decisions. In 2016, he announced the sudden Indian rupee demonstration that devastated the country's markets. Last year, when New Delhi abolished Kashmir's special status, the country came as a surprise. And in February, Modi announced a sudden lockdown – one of the strictest in the world – that left millions of migrant workers with no choice but to travel on foot from the cities to their homes in distant villages.
However, none of these shocks to the Indian system affected Modi's reputation. If anything, the public mood seems to support a crucial, strong leader. Will the sheer strength of the ongoing peasant protests pose a serious challenge to Modi? It's difficult to say. Controversies – and even mistakes – don't seem to harm the Indian Prime Minister. Until the day they do.
ISIS claims to have killed a television presenter. The Islamic State assumed responsibility for the targeted murder of Malalai Maiwand, a presenter on Enika's radio and television in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, on Thursday. Maiwand's death underscores a worrying trend of increasing terrorist activity in the area, often directed against journalists. According to a Reuters count, 10 media workers were killed in Afghanistan that year. Maiwand was only 25 years old.
Bhutan decriminalizes homosexuality. In a joint session of the two parliament buildings of Bhutan, a bill to legalize gay sex was passed today. All 63 MPs present voted for the law. The changes have yet to be approved by the king of the country, but this is considered a formality. Bhutan's move comes just two years after India made a similar decision to lift a colonial-era gay sex ban.
Rights groups express concern about Rohingya resettlement. The United Nations was denied access to Bhasan Char, a remote and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to which Bangladesh brought 1,600 Rohingya refugees last week. The United States request for a safety assessment of the island is based on United States concerns about whether the relocations were voluntary or forced.
Twitter controversy. It's been a mixed week for Twitter in South Asia. Last Sunday, several famous writers, including Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh, voiced concern over Twitter's suspension of writer and activist Salil Tripathi. A far-right Hindu team called Deshi Army called for victory for the suspension, but it was unclear exactly why the decision was made.
Tripathi, who wrote an essay for FP last month entitled "Why India Has Become Another Country," told me Twitter later asked him to remove a personal list of the muted users he maintained. Tripathi is now back on Twitter. The surprising aspect of the temporary suspension was that it was aimed at a well-known human rights and free speech advocate, even when abusive trolls frequently flood the social media platform.
In the meantime, Twitter has flagged a post by politician Amit Malviya as "manipulated content". This was the first time a prominent member of the Bharatiya Janata party had been targeted by Modi.
Gitanjali Rao, a 15-year-old Indian-American inventor, landed on the cover of Time magazine last week as the first child of the year. Rao invented a device that identifies contamination in drinking water and an app that detects cyberbullying. Imagine you are currently a South Asian teenager. On the one hand there is the obvious pride and sense of representation to see a young brown girl on the most famous cover in the world. On the other hand, imagine if all parents said, “You see? You could do this in place of these video games! "
I'm curious what Rao will do next.
That's it for this week.
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