The South Asia Collective Online Bulletin #2

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Marginalised | Other Major Stories

In this section, our researchers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka review major news developments since January 2020 that have impacted or have the potential to impact the lives of South Asia's minorities.

 

Afghanistan

Afghanistan suffered two major attacks against religious minorities, in the period under review, both by ISIS associates.

On 6 March 2020, a gathering of Shia Hazaras in Kabul was attacked by armed gunmen, who killed at least 32 persons and injured 82 more. The congregation was observing the 1995 slaying of Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of the Hazara community. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

Later in the month, on March 25, 2020, gunmen associated with ISIS stormed a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul, firing and lobbing grenades at worshippers and killing 25 persons, including women and children. The next day, at the funeral ceremony of the deceased, a bomb blast injured several other community members. For more on Afghanistan’s beleaguered Sikh community, click here.

Political tensions arising out of the contested results of the 2019 Presidential elections; security deterioration on account of the ongoing US withdrawal talks and the uncertainty surrounding a possible peace deal with the Taliban; and the COVID-19 disruption have together raised risks for the country’s minorities. The spate of killings, and authorities' inability to respond, to bring the perpetrators to account and prevent further attacks have made things worse for Afghanistan's persecuted minorities.

Bangladesh

Impact of Anti-Muslim Violence in India

Large-scale communal violence against Muslims in India is usually followed by violent attacks against Bangladesh’s Hindu minorities. This was not the case following the targeted violence against Delhi’s Muslims in February. Instances of incitement against Hindus was observed on social media, but monitoring by law-enforcement agencies ensured that there were no reported incidents of violence. Protest rallies against the Delhi violence were observed after jumma prayers in Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong, on 25 December and 6 March. But these were mostly incident-free. In Dhaka, the leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam, an advocacy group, urged Muslims to maintain communal peace and harmony and protect the country’s non-Muslims. Protestors in Bangladesh also demanded the cancellation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s planned visit to the country to attend the centenary celebration of the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Modi’s visit was eventually called off after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

Planned Attack on ISKCON Foiled

Bangladesh Police foiled a possible attack on an ISKCON temple in Dhaka. The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit arrested five youths of extremist group Ansar al-Islam for plotting the attack. The arrested persons admitted during primary investigations that they came from different parts of the country to Dhaka in order to receive training to carry out subversive activities. Three of them were tasked with carrying out the attack.

Widespread Protests Result in Postponement of Local Polls that Clashed with Hindu Festival

The Bangladesh Election Commission’s decision to conduct mayoral elections to Dhaka South and North City constituencies on 30 January resulted in widespread agitations, as the date clashed with Saraswati Puja, a major Hindu festival. With the EC refusing to budge, Hindu activists approached the High Court, which refused to entertain its plea for postponement of polls. With the student-led protests intensifying, however, the EC eventually relented and deferred the polling date.

India

2020 has come bringing increased anxieties for India’s 300 million religious minorities, especially its Muslims. Hate crime and targeted violence of past years have continued. Targeting of those protesting against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) and government’s plans to carry on with steps to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC) all over the country, compounded the despondency, especially in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states. The onset of COVID-19, and measures to contain the virus’s spread came as a shock. For a time it seemed, the nation, badly polarised over the past years and especially since CAA 2019, would now move on to fighting the catastrophe by coming together. But soon, COVID-19 itself became a reason to further vilify and target minorities, reinforcing and further deepening divides and exacerbating matters – many Muslims suffering the double burden of state repression and violence, and COVID-related disruption to livelihoods.

Major Developments

  1. The year began with Muslims in BJP-ruled states recovering from police high-handedness in dealing with protests against the enactment of CAA 2019 through much of the final days of 2019. The situation was particularly grim in Uttar Pradesh province, where at least 23 persons were killed and more than 83 seriously injured on the 20th and 21st of December, 2019, and hundreds detained in a state-wide crackdown against protesters. They had merely raising their voice – peacefully – to register objections against CAA 2019, which has been described as ‘fundamentally discriminatory’ by the United Nations and other international bodies. Authorities have continued – despite the COVID lockdown - to intimidate citizens in an effort to prevent further protests against CAA 2019, and to cover up police crimes.
  2. February 2020 saw targeted violence against Muslims in the national capital Delhi, resulting in at least 53 deaths (34 of them Muslim), and scores remaining missing. The three-day frenzy, which has been described as a Hindu nationalist rampage, was marked by widespread rioting, arson, looting and property destruction. Over 14 mosques were burned by Hindu mobs, who, news reports have confirmed, were aided by police personnel in various places. Post-violence efforts at relief and restitution have been crippled by the COVID-19 outbreak, even as working-class Muslims, all victims of the violence, continue to be ‘picked up’ by security forces. (click here for full article)
  3. Attempts to challenge the constitutional validity of the CAA 2019 in India’s Supreme Court continue, but are expected to be significantly delayed due to COVID-19 outbreak. The controversial legislation was challenged by a record 140+ petitioners, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Indian government has maintained in court that the CAA does not violate any fundamental rights. India’s Supreme Court has largely toed the government line in recent years on minority-related issues.
  4. Protests against the CAA elsewhere in India continued till late March, when they were interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak and the resultant lockdown. Police forces have used the opportunity to erase all traces of the protests, dismantling art installations from prominent sit-in sites, such as the iconic Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, and arresting several organisers, including students.
  5. As the nation reels from the crippling lockdown, Indian security forces have been relentless in the targeting of critics and dissidents. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, two prominent septuagenarian intellectuals and rights activists facing charges that are largely believed to be frivolous, were ordered to surrender before authorities. Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of a prominent online news portal critical of the government, had criminal proceedings initiated against him. And in the north-eastern state of Manipur, a Muslim PhD scholar was arrested for writing an article critical of the BJP-led state government.
  6. In Indian-administered Kashmir, a move to open up the former state for settlement by outsiders has stoked fears among its Muslim-majority residents that India has embarked upon an attempt to engineer deliberate demographic change in the region. Meanwhile, Kashmir continues to suffer a communications blockade, with internet services remaining limited to 2G speeds. Kashmiri doctors have complained that this has severely hampered their ability to fight COVID-19. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a spate of violent incidents in the region have left several civilians, security personnel and militants dead. (Click here for full article).
  7. Documentation of the Oppressed (DOTO), a Delhi-based hate crime documentation platform, recorded 71 incidents of targeting of India’s Muslims since January 2020. These include murders/lynching, physical assault, cow-related violence, attacks on religious infrastructure, and now COVID-19 related targeting. During the same time period, United Christian Forum (UCF), an advocacy group, recorded 78 incidents of violence against India’s Christians. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), another advocacy group, has documented 56 incidents of targeting of India’s Dalits. The targeting of India’s minorities has intensified following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a targeted disinformation campaign seeking to paint India’s Muslims guilty of spreading the virus leading to several attacks and social boycott campaigns across the country. (click here for full article).

Nepal is generally regarded as one of the more peaceful countries in South Asia, but the situation of refugees, migrants and minorities is far from perfect.

As of January 2020, there were reportedly around 900 Rohingya refugees in Nepal. In April 2020, local ward officials in Kathmandu, where Rohingya who could not work legally were surviving on unofficial aid, stopped the flow of aid to them, claiming that such aid was not sustainable, and was simply distributed for individuals’ publicity. Even though the Rohingya think of Nepal as the only safe country for them, public comments on such reports exhibit anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments. There have also been some recent reports of Nepal's Christians and Muslims being singled out for their religious practices, during the COVID-19 lockdown. (click here for full article). A news report in March 2020, however, highlighted that Kashmiri Muslim immigrants, who have been living and working in Nepal for decades view the country as a ‘blessing’ and describe the people as ‘friendly and generous’.

While the condition of around 6500 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal remains in limbo, there have been reports of the US Embassy in Nepal reportedly ‘pressing’ the Foreign Ministry and Home Ministry to issue travel documents to some Tibetan refugees in February. This could be due to the increasing restrictions of movement and expression of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

Discrimination against Dalits is more deep-seated. The National Human Rights Commission’s Annual Report 2019, released in December 2019, states that caste-based discrimination still exists in Nepal despite its criminalisation as many children from the Dalit community are not able to attend school regularly, with many dropping out eventually. Filing complaints against incidents of caste-based discrimination with the police and local level authorities is not easy and Dalits have been reportedly unable to sell produce such as milk due to the label of 'untouchability' on them. In March, Dal Bahadur Bishwakarma, the Ward Chairperson of Narharinath Rural Municipality-7 in West Nepal, filed a caste discrimination complaint against a resident. Bishwakarma, a Dalit elected leader, accused the resident of using derogatory language and manhandling him while they both were at the Ward office. An identical case occurred with another Dalit elected official, Rajrang Sarki, in Sannitribeni Rural Municipality-6 of the same district, who also accused a resident of verbally assaulting him with ethnic slurs. There has also been a report of a Dalit tenant being locked out of her rented room in the capital in February 2020 due to her caste. At the same time, in Banke of West Nepal, several Dalits were not allowed to offer their prayers to Shiva, a Hindu god, during a major festival of the Hindus.

On a slightly positive note, the Jayaprithvi Municipality in Bajhang district, in West Nepal paid off the debts of 15 Badi families, who are also Dalits, while also planning to run various income-generating programmes to make them financially independent.

Even though Nepal boasts progressive laws protecting the LGBTIQ community, transgender individuals in particular, are often excluded and ostracised. With few livelihood options, many of them have had to engage in sex work at great risk to themselves. Furthermore, in patriarchal communities such as Nepal, lesbians, bisexual women, and trans-men among the LGBTI reportedly face greater adversities, resulting in an alarming increase in mental health issues.

Pakistan

The situation of Pakistan's ethnic and religious minorities continues to remain challenging. Though the current Ministry for Human Rights and Minorities Affairs has been open to working actively with NGOs on the persecution of religious minorities, implementation for safeguards and the rule of law still remains very weak.

Major Incidents

A Christian transgender boy was gang raped and murdered in Daud Nagar in Faisalabad. Being both a transgender as well as a religious minority added to the discrimination faced by the 15 year old boy. Urgent appeals were made to the Human Rights Ministers and the culprit was later arrested.

In February, a Christian labourer, Saleem Masih, 22 years old was tortured and beaten in Kasur, a city just outside Lahore. According to a local newspaper, he was accused of ‘polluting’ a tube well where he was bathing. He was dragged by local Muslims who began beating him with an iron rod. The local police stood by watching while he was beaten, abused and called ‘filthy’ for ‘polluting the well’. He died at a hospital soon after.

On December 12, a senior police officer (Zeenat Hussain, Assistant Commissioner), was forced to apologize for exhorting a group of students on the International Day of Tolerance, to respect equal right of the religious minorities, including Ahmadiyyas, as equal citizens. Protesters, mainly from Jamat-e-Islami, marched to her office and asked to explain her position on the Ahmadiyya community. Hussain not only apologized for her comments, but was also forced to say that Ahmadis were kafirs (infidels).

Ahmadiyya places of worships have also came under attack this year. On February 6, 2020, a mob stormed and forcibly occupied a 100-year-old Ahmadiyya mosque in Kasur, Punjab. Succumbing to pressure, local authorities divested Ahmadis of their posession and handed the mosque over to hardliners. In May 2018, another 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque was attacked and damaged in Sialkot.

Human rights defenders in Pakistan too have come under rising attacks, in online and offline spaces. Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) workers have been arbitrarily detained by authorities. The leader of the movement, Manzoor Pastheen was released on bail in February 2020 only after concerted social media and international pressure.

MMDA reform

Women activists who have been working to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act for decades expressed concerns at a Bill to repeal it, brought forward by MP Athuraliye Rathana Thero on January 8th. While the monk claims that the purpose of the Bill is to address the grievances of Muslim women and children, it does not represent their interests. This bill serves the ‘One Country, One Law’ discourse, a divisive notion that selectively attacks minority identities and practices, asking for them to be brought into a blanket Sri Lankan identity, culture or law. The proposed Bill reflects a growing intolerance of diversity of religious and cultural practices in Sri Lanka, and signals a majoritarian intent to assimilate minorities.

Death certificates for the disappeared

It was reported on 21 January 2020 that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a decision to issue death certificates to the thousands of people still declared missing or forcefully disappeared during the country’s civil war. He claimed that the certificate would be issued and the families would be assisted with their needs, claiming this is what families wanted. Human rights activists highlighted that truth was an important element of the families’ demands, as they ask for information on what happened to their loved ones after their abductions, or after they were handed over to the forces. They urged the government to provide the families with this as well, and not simply a death certificate and monetary compensation.

National Anthem

At the 72nd annual Independence Day celebrations that took place on February 4th, the national anthem of Sri Lanka was only sung in Sinhala. This is despite the fact that the Tamil language is one of Sri Lanka’s official languages, and the national anthem has historically been sung in both. The decision to do this and the action of carrying it out was critiqued by many to be exclusionary of the Tamil communities who live in Sri Lanka – Sri Lankan Tamils, Malaiyaha Tamils and Muslims. The singing of the anthem in Tamil would have remained a symbolic gesture given the lack of state commitment to ensure true equality and protections for these communities, and the removal of this small symbol was indicative of this lack of commitment.

Withdrawal from UNHRC resolution

On February 26th, Sri Lanka formally notified the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) that it was withdrawing from the UN resolution on post-war accountability and reconciliation, known as Resolution 40/1. The Rajapaksa government representative said commitments made in the resolution bound the country to carry out an “impractical, unconstitutional and undeliverable" solutions. The government and its supporters also countered calls for accountability, such as included in the resolution, by claiming they are an unjust ‘witch hunt’ for security forces officials. Human rights activists say that this decision indicates a lack of commitment towards addressing violations of human rights, especially those suffered by the Tamil community, that took place during the war.

UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB presents report

United Nations Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief presented his report in March that addressed the tense situation in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday attacks, and the lingering impact of the lack of accountability and resolution of issues arising from the civil war. The report also addressed the increasing polarisation along ethno-religious lines, and the extremist behaviour as a result.

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Marginalised | Other Major Stories

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