News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region with a quarter of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.
June 3, 2021, 6:06 pm
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights of this week: Pakistan is tightening the screws Anti-establishment journalists, India’s economy suffers the worst contraction since independence and Security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates.
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In Pakistan, freedom of the press is becoming more and more valuable
It’s been a turbulent week for the Pakistani press. Journalist Asad Ali Toor was attacked at his home last Tuesday. Toor, known for his criticism of the military, said his attackers identified themselves as members of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – a charge that the ISI immediately dismissed. During a protest a few days later, TV presenter Hamid Mir blamed the Pakistani armed forces for cracking down on journalists. On Monday, Mir learned that he had been taken out of the air.
Pakistan has a vibrant press with dozens of media outlets producing content that often shoots at elected officials. But criticism of the military and secret services is a red line. Government intimidation tactics, from withholding advertising revenue to hate campaigns on social media, have driven many journalists and their employers to self-censorship. Outlets that ignored these warnings have mysteriously gone up in the air or their distribution has been interrupted.
In Pakistan, journalism can sometimes be a death sentence. Freedom Network, a media watchdog, found that 33 journalists were killed for their work in Pakistan between 2013 and 2019. Although lethal violence against journalists has decreased in recent years, attacks continue even in relatively safe locations such as Islamabad, where Toor and another journalist were attacked in recent weeks.
Pakistan does poorly in global press freedom rankings and has fallen six places (to 145) on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index since Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan took office in 2018. It’s not alone: in other parts of the region, India ranks 142nd and Bangladesh ranks 152nd. In these countries, like Pakistan, declining press freedom has countered a worsening crackdown on dissent, which also attacks activists, academics and NGOs.
Attacks against journalists and other government critics are seldom fully investigated, but many observers – including human rights researchers, lawyers, US officials, and some Pakistani journalists themselves – have long suspected that many of them were behind many of Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence agencies. State-run campaigns to crush dissenting opinions are a regional phenomenon: Indian journalists have been accused of sedition for reporting anti-government protests, and Bangladesh has arrested social media users for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic.
Pakistan’s political polarization exacerbates the tense media environment. Liberals and oppositionists revere anti-establishment journalists like Toor and Mir, but they are berated by government supporters. (Some Toor critics have noted that its supporters remained silent about his derogatory comments to Shiffa Yousafzai, a prominent journalist, earlier this year.) Pro-government voices, especially right-wing nationalists, accuse these journalists of faking attacks to get attention , or asylum abroad. They also criticize the fact that journalists who are attacked for critical reporting on the opposition receive less attention.
The Pakistani government used a 2016 cyber crime law as an excuse to attack anti-government online content. But a new law could worsen the environment for journalists by centralizing state oversight of the media under a single agency and making the media more dependent on the state. As media analyst Huma Yusuf wrote in a column this week, “What better way to make the media the mouthpiece of the state than to make it completely dependent on the government to stay in business?”
During a meeting with then US President Donald Trump in 2019, Khan said that Pakistan boasts “one of the freest printing houses in the world.” The media oversight law could become an important data point for those who ridiculed it. Indeed, Pakistan’s freedom of the press seems to be getting worse under Khan.
8th June: The US Institute of Peace is holding a discussion on the resurgence of the Pakistani Taliban.
11-13 June: London is hosting a G7 summit with India attending as a virtual guest.
Mixed news for India’s economy. According to government figures, India’s GDP shrank by 7.3 percent in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. (In India, the fiscal years run from April to March.) The decline is the largest since independence and the first decline since the 1979-1980 fiscal year. The sharp decline is in large part due to the nationwide pandemic lockdown imposed last spring.
The good news is that India saw 1.4 percent growth in the final quarter of the fiscal year, but the rebound came in the weeks leading up to India’s devastating second wave. Macro performance in April and May is likely to be weak, although New Delhi’s decision not to impose another lockdown may mitigate some economic shocks.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will prioritize economic recovery for the remainder of its second term, raising difficult political issues. One of them is the approach to economic relations with China, which has invested heavily in India in recent years. New Delhi cut trade ties with Beijing after the deadly border conflict last year brought bilateral relations to their lowest level in decades.
Security update for Afghanistan. Afghanistan has seen a number of worrying developments regarding its security situation in the past week. According to the New York Times, besieged Afghan troops turned over dozen of rural outposts and bases to the Taliban. And another report revealed new evidence of continued cooperation between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Afghan officials have admitted that “thousands of families” in four provinces have fled their homes amid escalating violence.
All of this against the background of the ongoing US troop withdrawal. On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense announced that up to 44 percent of the US withdrawal has now been completed. With the peace talks making little progress, further destabilization is all but inevitable. A top US partner has already read the writing on the wall. Citing an “increasingly unsafe security environment”, Australia closed its embassy in Kabul last Friday.
Pakistan deserves debt relief. This week negotiators reached an agreement on a “debt-for-nature” deal between Pakistan and four major donors: Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK. Under the deal, due to close on June 5, donors will reduce Pakistan’s loan commitments in exchange for investing its debt in climate-related activities. The move will have political advantages for Islamabad: the Khan government has identified debt relief and environmental protection as top political priorities.
There is trouble in India’s paradise. In Lakshadweep, a picturesque union territory of sun-drenched islands 120 miles off the mainland in the Arabian Sea, a new administrator is trying to enforce a series of new laws that are opposed by the majority Muslim residents. Praful Khoda Patel, an ally of Modi, has proposed measures including banning beef products, detaining people without trial for up to a year, and confiscating land from locals for infrastructure expansion.
The laws were forwarded to the Indian Ministry of the Interior for approval earlier this week. Patel appears to be exporting the controversial policies of Modi and his mainland allies to a more remote location beyond control. In an anonymous conversation with Al Jazeera, local residents said that Patel’s government had also laid off local workers and tried to replace them with people from the mainland.
The political opposition and even some members of the ruling party, however, railed against Patel’s actions. Growing local anger increases the risk of protests and riots – a scenario New Delhi cannot afford as it is focused on economic recovery.
“I’ve been in negotiations for six or seven months. Your attitude towards me was that we are only there for decoration. “
—Fawzia Koofi, one of four women members of the Afghan peace negotiation team, in conversation with OZY about how she is perceived by the Taliban.
Writing for the Dhaka Tribune, political analyst Farid Erkizia Bakht scoffs at the attention drawn to Bangladesh by the Chinese Ambassador’s recent warning not to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue known as the Quad. Bakht argued that the envoy’s point of view was perfectly understandable. “Beijing cannot simply tip over if Dhaka decides to give in to American pressure and join the quad,” he wrote.
A Nepalese times Editorials argued that Nepal should be careful not to be drawn into escalating political rivalries within India. “Nepal seems to be in a proxy war for India’s soul between the [ruling] BJP and the left-liberal secularists, ”he argued. “We have to learn to proceed cautiously and not get drawn into India’s bitter internal ideological confrontation.”
Mitali Nikore, Shruti Jha, and Priyal Mundhra, all affiliated with Indian think tank Nikore Associates, argued in Indian Express that rural Indian women “carried the burden” of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve million women lost their jobs during India’s first wave, and in April this year alone nearly six million women lost their jobs. “Governments must lead the way for sustainable, gender-equitable economic recovery by first focusing on unemployed rural women,” they wrote.