The South Asia Collective Online Bulletin #3

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Minorities | COVID-19 Support Grants

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

Fear around COVID-19 continued to grip Afghanistan, which has been largely unprepared to tackle the pandemic. Already a poor country with more than half of its population living on less than $1 a day, the pandemic has further bumped up the unemployment rate, deepened the poverty line, and driven up the price of food. Like many other parts of the world, Afghan cities were also put under lockdown, with the pandemic looming over all aspects of life. As of 19 July, the total number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases had reached 35,526. It is widely believed that the real extent of the COVID-19 outbreak is much higher.  
 
Following outbreaks in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, more than 300,000 Afghan refugees and migrant workers are said to have returned or deported from the two countries since February 2020. They are reported to have settled with their communities or begun living in the outskirts of different cities, in unhygienic conditions and without access to healthcare. They remain without sustainable employment opportunities. Most of these low-paid, daily-wage workers belong to different minority groups that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
 
While the country’s minorities historically suffered the most, the humanitarian assistance and health facilities provided both by the Afghan government and the international aid agencies to the country’s minority segments have largely been squandered by influential and people in power. For example, to ease the pandemic for low-income communities, the government initiated a free bread distribution program in Kabul. However, media reports revealed widespread corruption by Kabul’s municipality and local representatives. 8am Newspaper (Roznama-e-hast-e-subh) reported that millions of aid dollars have been embezzled by the Kabul municipality. 

Bangladesh

During the period under review, Bangladesh’s official coronavirus caseload shot up from 1,231 confirmed infections to 193,590. By 30 July 2020, 3,083 deaths had been reported in the country. A nationwide lockdown was imposed from 26 March to 30 May, and more localised lockdowns still remain in effect. 

Impact on indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples in the Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have been hit hard by the pandemic. Due to the lockdown, the primarily agricultural community were unable to sell their produce or forced to sell for very low prices. Along with COVID-19, an outbreak of measles was also reported from the CHT, claiming the lives of 10 children. At least 200 more reported infections. CHT’s indigenous peoples have alleged that these children were kept out of the government’s vaccination drives.
 
Indigenous peoples in the plainlands, who are mainly daily-wage labourers, have also continued to suffer. Driven out of work due to the lockdown, hundreds of labourers from the Shaotal community in Dinajpur Sadar blocked roads in protest demanding government assistance. 

Impact on the Urdu-speaking Bihari community

Bangladesh’s Urdu-speaking people continued to be in a dire situation. Job losses were recorded across the board. Some civil society organisations have alleged that the stigma attached to the Biharis due to their role in Bangladesh’s Liberation War resulted in denial of governmental and even non-governmental aid during the pandemic. There was also at least one instance of a hospital refusing to test Biharis for COVID-19. 

Impact on Dalits

Many of Bangladesh’s urban Dalits are part of the sanitation workforce, employed with the City Corporation, municipalities, and other government and autonomous offices. There were numerous reports suggesting that these workers were not provided adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the wake of COVID, leaving them at serious risk of infection even as they continued doing their jobs during the lockdown. Many Dalit sanitation workers in Dhaka and Narayanganj have been reported to have contracted the infection, and at least 4 of them have died already.
 
Dalits in rural areas, who are mostly daily wage labourers or small traders, have also been struggling to manage their livelihood. Some of them have alleged denial of government emergency relief measures due to their caste. Rural Dalits living in the coastal belt areas are perhaps among the worst-hit communities, with cyclone Ampan causing massive damage to their houses, crops and other belongings.

India

During the period under review, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India shot up from just under 12,000 to over 1 million, making India the third-worst affected country in the world. This exponential rise in cases was despite a strict lockdown being in place till early June, one that has ravaged livelihoods across the country. The death rate is still relatively low—even considering widespread reports of undercounting—but over 35,000 lives have already officially been lost. And while over 64% of total confirmed cases are now classified as ‘cured’ or ‘discharged’, the easing of restrictions has resulted in a further surge in active cases. On 30 July 2020, India recorded 48,513 new cases, 32,553 recoveries and 768 deaths. With only around 18 million cumulative tests—the second highest in the world, but covering just over 1% of the total population—the true scale of the outbreak is believed to be significantly higher. And reports of the virus slowly receding from many urban hotspots and making its way to India’s smaller towns and rural hinterlands suggest that the country is now staring at a bleak future. 
 
The effects of the COVID-related lockdown are also beginning to be clearer now:  By mid-July, researchers had tracked a total of 971 deaths that occurred as a result of the stringent lockdown – including 47 due to exhaustion while walking, and 209 due to traffic accidents as workers travelled home. Another 216 people are estimated to have died due to starvation and financial distress. A further 96 persons are reported to have lost their lives in train journeys, many due to lack of food and water.

The overwhelming of India's healthcare system

The outbreak overwhelmed India’s healthcare system in many places, with faulty containment strategies resulting in multiple major urban centres quickly running out of hospital beds. Social media teemed with distress calls from desperate families, and several harrowing reports emerged from across the country of death and devastation. These stories provide a small glimpse of the havoc the virus has already wreaked, and of the lacklustre state response to it. At the time this review was being written, the virus was rapidly gaining in intensity in India’s poorest and unhealthiest states like Uttar PradeshMadhya Pradesh and Bihar­. The three states together host 18 of the 20 districts most vulnerable to COVID, as identified by a recent study published in The Lancet. 
 
In the face of this devastation, India’s frontline healthcare workers and other essential services providers continued to fight an increasingly thankless battle. In the initial days of the pandemic, there were multiple reports of medical workers facing ostracisation and even violence from neighbours wary of infection. And while India’s clothing factories have swiftly and significantly ramped up the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, doctors and nurses even at the country’s top hospitals have complained about shortages. Major pay cuts and delayed payments have also been reported, leading many medical professionals to go on strike, across states. India’s accredited social health activists (ASHA), an all-women legion of 900,000 grassroots-level health workers who have been central to contract tracing efforts, remained perpetually ‘unarmed, unprotected and underpaid’. And India’s mostly-Dalit sanitation workforce continued to handle toxic medical waste, often without adequate protective gear, even as they faced systemic caste discrimination. It is estimated that at least 99 private doctors alone (government doctors tend to a majority of India’s hospitalised cases, but there are no corresponding statistics available) and 20 ASHA workers across the country have already succumbed to the disease. Six unrecorded COVID-related deaths of sanitation workers were recently reported from the city of Chennai alone. 
 
Mumbai’s Dharavi slum provided a rare glimmer of hope. In a cramped one square-mile space hosting a million of the city’s poorest residents, local health workers and government officials raced after an initial outbreak to ‘test, trace, contain and repeat’, and largely managed to stop the spread of the virus. Dharavi was expected to be Mumbai’s, and India’s, worst nightmare.

The economic impact

Major gains made on the economic front over the past few decades are also at risk of being wiped out, with the virus continuing to ravage the already tottering Indian economy. As the government eased lockdown restrictions and ramped up activities related to the MGNREG (a rural public works scheme) unemployment levels settled at 8.87% in the beginning of July, down from a peak of 23.5% in May. However, unemployment numbers, particularly in urban centres, remain significantly higher than pre-lockdown levels. And experts have warned that the virus and the lockdown could have fundamentally altered the structure of India’s workforce – to agriculture.

Attempts to consolidate corporate and political power

Under the garb of enabling a business-friendly environment to attract investors, authorities have also unveiled a slew of measures seen as dangerously prioritising corporate interests. A total of 13 state governments have diluted labour laws, with BJP-ruled states leading the pack. In Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, all but a few labour protections have been suspended for up to 3 years, including those relating to fair wages, overtime and humane working hours. Large-scale privatisation efforts are also afoot, across sectors, which resulted in a nationwide strike by coal workers in early July. At the national level, a new draft notification concerning mandatory environmental impact assessments (EIA) for industrial projects has been roundly criticised for encouraging environmental violations. And the websites of three groups critical of the EIA changes were allegedly blocked
 
Simultaneously, the BJP has sought to further its political agenda, and block criticism of its handling of the pandemic. Attempts to introduce transparency into the functioning of the PMCARES fund—a COVID-dedicated relief fund set up by Modi, into which almost all major corporate players operating in India have donated—have been repeatedly stymied. And a recent report  revealed between 25 March and 31 May 2020, at least 55 Indian journalists were arrested, booked or threatened for their coverage of the pandemic. Government is also using the heightened emergency to push it majoritarian anti-democratic agenda:  in a bid to ‘reduce the examination stress’ of high school students during the pandemic, chapters on issues such as democratic rights, federalism, citizenship and secularism were dropped from school curricula.

The virus as cover for targeting religious minorities

Anxieties around COVID-19 have also been harnessed by BJP politicians and majoritarian groups to vilify and target religious minorities. The orchestrated campaign in March and April 2020 to paint Muslims as responsible continued to have serious ramifications on the ground. In West Bengal, a Muslim locality was burned down over rumours that some Muslims in the locality had refused to self-isolate or adhere to the lockdown. Other incidents have followed. A Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh (UP) was caught on video calling for the boycott of Muslim vegetable vendors. Another BJP MLA, also in UP, was caught on camera directly threatening one. Several instances of COVID stigma-related physical assaults and social boycotts of Muslims were reported from across the country.
 
Subsequent to the lifting of lockdown restrictions in several places, religious places of worship were reopened. However, guidelines issued by the central and state governments in many places failed to take into account congregational gatherings such as church worship services. This led to instances of Christians being fined or even assaulted by mobs as they gathered for prayer. Violent incidents were reported from Karnataka and Haryana. There were also instances of Christians being denied the right to bury their dead in common village burial sites. 
 
In Muslim-majority Kashmir, restrictions on movement and communication entered its eleventh month in July. Low speed 2G internet services and militarised lockdown on movement impacted the medical and administrative response to COVID-19, which continues to spread at a fast pace. A recent report revealed that by March 29, 337 FIRs had been lodged against those defying the COVID lockdown. 627 arrests were reported. 118 shops and 490 vehicles were also seized, reinforcing fears that the health emergency is also being used as a securitisation tool.
 
Overcrowded prisons across Kashmir are said to be teeming with COVID-infected prisoners, with a prison in Anantnag alone reporting 86 confirmed cases by mid-July. Yet, courts are refusing to release  persons detained in Kashmir under preventive detention. 
 
Reflecting the discrimination writ large in how authorities deal with religious rights, the Supreme Court of India refusedto entertain a plea to prevent the annual Hindu festival of Amarnath Yatra in Kashmir. Petitioners had argued that the festival—which goes on for several days and  attracts devotees from across India—posed COVID-related hazards in Kashmir. It was reported that officials had begun preparations for the festival, and the state administrator,  Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu, had even performed religious rites announcing the Yatra, until the event was called off due to mounting criticism from within Kashmir.

Caste discrimination and atrocities during COVID-19

The persistence of untouchability practices and other forms of caste-based discrimination during the pandemic resulted in widespread reports of Dalits and Adivasis being denied access to basic services, besides crimes against them. Instances of men in quarantine centres refusing to eat food cooked by Dalits were reported from Uttar PradeshUttarakhand and Jharkhand. A Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district alleged that she and around 400 others were denied rations that were supposed to be distributed among all residents in the locality. Dalit organisations in Tamil Nadu claimed in June 2020 that caste atrocities had increased nearly fivefold during the COVID lockdown in that state alone, with reports of 80 cases of caste based atrocities and  hate crimes, including 22 murders and eight mob attacks on Dalit neighbourhoods. In Bengaluru, two Dalit men were assaulted by an upper caste man allegedly for distributing relief material. In Rajasthan, a Dalit man was beaten up by upper caste men allegedly for keeping his essential goods store open during the lockdown, and for keeping a picture of Ambedkar—a Dalit icon and the lead author of the Indian Constitution. There have also been several reported cases of violence against Dalit women. These included several gruesome incidents from BiharUttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Nepal

As of 30 July 2020, Nepal had recorded confirmed 19,273 cases and 49 deaths due to COVID-19. The entirety of the population has been impacted, but marginalised groups have felt the impact disproportionately. Religious minorities, sexual minorities, migrant workers and women have been reeling under the threat of the pandemic as well as the ensuing economic crisis. There have been massive protests throughout the country against the government’s slow and inept response to the pandemic, and an absence of economic relief programs. The police resorted to dispersing the protesters with tear gas and water cannons.

Targeting of Religious Minorities

Following the news of Nepali Muslims being in quarantine in Nepal after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi earlier in the year, there has been a spike in suspicion and paranoia regarding Muslims in the country. Some Muslim labourers working at a lentil mill in Rupandehi, southern Nepal, were laid off simply for being Muslim. Similarly, two Muslim women in Janakpur, also in southern Nepal, were accused of trying to spread coronavirus with infected currency notes. An investigation revealed all the allegations to be false, but the allegations spread quickly through social media.

To mitigate such rumour-mongering, the National Muslim Commission organised a meeting and decided to monitor mosques and madrassas throughout the country in order to be able to collect accurate information on the spread of coronavirus among Muslims and counter misinformation. Nepal’s Muslims have already been worried about a perceptible rise in Islamophobia due to the impact of nationalist Indian media that is also available in Nepal, which has now been compounded by the fear of the pandemic.

'Lower caste' communities are impacted significantly

The protracted lockdown that started at the onset of coronavirus has hit hundreds of families from impoverished communities in several districts of Province 2 (southern plains) the hardest. These marginalised families are most likely to be daily wage workers, who, having lost their source of income during the lockdown, are finding it difficult to survive. Even among these marginalised communities, the most impoverished continue to be Madhesi Dalits. Reports of deaths of several individuals of these communities led to protests against the government in Janakpur, the capital of Province 2.
Dalits have also faced caste-based discrimination in quarantine facilities set up to control Covid-19. In one case in Gulmi district in Province 5, the management asked Dalit members to prepare their food separately from members of other castes. In a separate case in neighbouring Arghakhanchi district, some people of the ‘upper caste’ refused to eat food cooked by a Dalit youth in the local quarantine centre.

Unsafe situation for sexual minorities

For members of the LGBTIQ+ community, who are already vulnerable to severe physical and mental issues, the lockdown has exacerbated existing problems and given rise to new ones. One critical impact has been their inability to access hormonal medication, as the only medical services that are generally available is emergency care. This has resulted in many individuals suffering from withdrawal symptoms due to lack of access to hormonal medications.

At least four LGBTIQ+ individuals have reportedly committed suicide during the lockdown, and many have reported feelings of anxiety and depression. Some LGBTIQ+ individuals have reportedly experienced deteriorating mental health after being forced to isolate alongside family members who do not accept their sexual orientation and gender identity, or to move back to unsafe domestic spaces.

Sexual minorities, who mostly have to resort to work at bars and nightclubs, or as sex workers, have also been deprived of work. Reportedly, there are around 500 transgender individuals in Kathmandu who depend fully on commercial sex work. With the number of Covid-19 cases rising rapidly in Nepal, sex work is unlikely to resume anytime soon, and even if it does, people are very likely to remain cautious for the foreseeable future. While this means an uncertain future for many, some have reportedly already gone back to work disregarding safety precautions as they lack alternatives for survival.
Civil society organisations working on sexual and reproductive rights have urged the governments at federal, provincial and local levels to ensure that quarantine sites established are friendly to gender and sexual minority groups although no action has been taken in this regard yet.

Migrant workers face woes everywhere

Nepali migrant workers abroad have faced the brunt of the mismanaged coronavirus response by the Nepali government. Weeks and months after losing their jobs and having no income, Nepali workers remained stranded in their destination countries due to the high price of evacuation flights. That the workers were asked to pay for the rescue flights was contradictory to Section 75(2) of the Foreign Employment Act, 2004 on ‘rescue and repatriation of migrant workers in a situation of disaster and distress’, and Section 33(1) on ‘utilising the foreign employment welfare fund for the purpose of rescue and repatriation’, and disregarded the fact that as per Section 32 (2)(a) of the Act, the fund is set up by collecting money from migrants during the process of migration. After a public outcry over the situation, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered the government to use the foreign employment welfare fund to rescue stranded Nepali migrant workers.

Nepali migrant workers stuck at the border with India resorted to swimming across the Mahakali river, which forms a natural border between the two countries, to enter Nepal during the lockdown on both sides of the border. Internal migrants to urban areas also faced a crisis as their savings depleted during the lockdown. Trapped by the discontinuation of public transportation, and an absence of adequate relief mechanisms by the government, many such migrants resorted to walking for days to reach their hometown, choosing potential infection and local quarantine over being unable to survive away from home.  

Among the migrant workers, the situation of women has worsened further, especially of those employed in domestic work and subjected to various forms of exploitation by sub-agents at home and their employers. A Kuwait-based Nepali journalist reported that at least three women migrant workers in Kuwait committed suicide after being infected with the coronavirus. The International Labour Organisation pointed out that the pandemic has had a severe impact on women workers due to their over-representation in some of the economic sectors worst affected by the crisis, such as hospitality, food, sales and manufacturing.

The pandemic also disproportionately impacts women

The pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has increased economic uncertainties and anxiety for Nepalis generally, but women continue to be affected disproportionately as the economic disparity is likely to grow, since women are more likely to take the role of caretakers in the family, and most women working in the informal sector, primarily as domestic workers or as care workers, have already lost their jobs

There has also been a rise in mental, physical and sexual violence against women during this pandemic. The Women’s Rehabilitation Centre in Nepal reported 231 cases of violence against women and girls during the period from 24 March to 9 May 2020. Instances of sexual violence against women in quarantines have also been reported, as seen by the report of a woman being gang-raped in a quarantine facility.

Pakistan

There were several reports of faith-based discrimination against the backdrop of the pandemic in Pakistan, where, as of 30 July 2020, 277,402 confirmed cases and 5,924 deaths were reported.

Allegations of Christians being denied rations

In a video that went viral on social media, a Christian woman alleged that an organisation, which she didn’t name, refused to give food to Christians until they recited the kalima, the Islamic declaration of faith. 

A similar report emerged from Sandha village in Kasur district of Punjab, where around 100 Christian families were allegedly denied food due to their religious identity, apparently upon instructions by Sheikh Abdul Haleem Hamid, a cleric, to limit the distribution to Muslims. Naumana Sulema‚Äčn, the Pakistan lead for Minority Rights Group International, confirmed the story: “The food was organized by the local mosque through announcements to help poor people in need, but later the ration was distributed to the Muslims only.” Later, however, a Muslim man arranged to distribute food among the community

There thus seems to be a pattern in which some religious figures are enforcing their prejudiced views on welfare organizations. There have also apparently been incidents that haven’t been reported in the mainstream media.

Discrimination against Shia Hazaras

These incidents are from the previous reporting period, but were not covered in our previous bulletin: On 12 March, the inspector general (IG) of police in Balochistan issued a notification in which he put people belonging to the Hazara community “on leave to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19”. On March 13, the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA), a public department, issued a similar notification in which Hazaras living in Marriabad and Hazara Town, two majority areas for the Shia-majority ethinc group, were categorically asked to stay in their areas. On March 25, the chief secretary of Balochistan announced that Hazara areas would be secluded from the rest of Quetta city, the province’s capital. The reasoning was that Shia-majority Iran was a hotspot for COVID-19 at the time, and therefore Shia-majority Hazaras must be quarantined.

Sri Lanka

During the reporting period, Sri Lanka eased its COVID-related travel restrictions, lifting the last curfew on May 25th island wide. By 30 July 2020, Sri Lanka had registered 2,810 confirmed cases and 11 deaths.

Denial of burials to Muslims

As reported in the previous COVID situation update on Sri Lanka, the Government issued a Gazette stating all COVID deaths should be cremated, which violated the religious beliefs of Muslim families who had lost loved ones.
 
In May, former Member of Parliament (MP) Ali Zahir Moulana posted on Twitter that a 54 year old Muslim woman from Weligama had passed away due to natural causes and her burial according to Islamic rites was prevented by the Weligama Police. Despite the Public Health Inspector stating unequivocally that he had no objection to release the body to the family for final rites, as she had died from natural causes and had a detailed history of medical complications to prove it, armed police and private media personnel entered the woman’s home, demanding the body not be released to the family.
 
Moulana reached out to Weligama Rehan Jayawickreme who intervened and ensured that the body would be handed over to the family for burial according to her religious beliefs.
 
Some Muslims have stated  that they sign papers giving permission for cremation – even when they do not know if their loved ones died of COVID – as they fear backlash against their family and community. 
 
Fundamental Rights petitions have been filed by Muslim politicians as well as one by Muslim and Christian activists, protesting these actions. 

Restriction of May 18 commemorations by Tamils

The Tamil community across the North and East commemorate the loss of civilian life at the end of the war on May 18th. This year, 17 incidents were reported in relation to end of war memorials in North and East by Tamils. Members of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) who organized Mullivaikkal commemoration events, and others who organized similar events and the participants who attended such events faced surveillance, threats and other reprisals. 
 
Organizers and participants of commemoration events organized in Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Batticaloa and Trincomalee faced various restrictions and threats, with Police attempting to arrest the participants of a memorial event. A female party member alleged that Police pulled her out of her house and threatened that military will shoot at her if she lights lamps to commemorate the Mullivaikkal. Jaffna university students who organized remembrance events were also subjected to surveillance, intimidation and threats. 
 
On 17th May, two court orders were issued against TNPF, one ordering to send 11 leaders into self-quarantine for two weeks and another banning them from organizing public events, with concern being shown that COVID health guidelines would not be followed. The self-quarantine order was lifted after they challenged it in the magistrate court. The lawyers involved in this incident have since faced reprisals. 
 
Photos of several events held across the North and East, in addition to the one organised by targeted parties, show that participants maintained adequate distancing, wore masks, and used hand sanitiser that the organisers had provided.  

Repression of dissent and protestors

The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) planned to protest the killing of George Floyd and stand in solidarity with global ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests against police brutality. A court order was obtained to prevent the protest from happening in the vicinity of the United States Embassy, as planned. 
 
Organisers therefore moved the protests to two more locations, and a cumulative amount of about 30 people were arrested at both locations. The initial order and police action were claimed to be because protestors were not following COVID-19 health guidelines. However, media coverage has since shown how while protestors were following guidelines, the number of police that assaulted the protestors, and the way the said protestors were packed into police vehicles do more to violate these guidelines. Minorities have been at the forefront protesting police brutality in Sri Lanka.

Discrimination in access to public institutions

Sampath Bank Dehiwala requested a Muslim customer to remove her hijab, which she had draped as a face-mask. This happened in a climate where police are sending people to quarantine if they aren’t wearing some form of face-cover, in line with COVID-guidelines. After this, the bank security requested that the customer remove her head scarf too, which she refused. The bank has since issued regret, due the outcry on social media with regard to the discrimination and harassment apparent in the treatment of the customer. 

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Minorities | COVID-19 Support Grants


The South Asia Collective would like to thank the following for reviewing this edition of the Bulletin: Afghanistan: Khodadad Bisharat (Founder, Development Alternative Experts, and Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Education, Government of Afghanistan); Bangladesh: Khalid Hussain (Founder & Chief Executive, Council of Minorities); India: Tehmina Arora (Alliance Defending Freedom), Meena Varma and Ritwajit Das (International Dalit Solidarity Network); Nepal: Khem Shreesh (Social Science Baha); Pakistan: Naumana Suleman (Minority Rights Group International); Sri Lanka: Ruki Fernando (INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre)
Subscribe to our mailing list

The South Asia Collective
thesouthasiacollective.org | sac@thesouthasiacollective.org