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In this section, our researchers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka review major news developments between 1st October, 2020, and 31st January, 2021, that have impacted or have the potential to impact the lives of South Asia's minorities. We also provide a brief overview of South Asia’s performance in recently released international reports and indices tracking civil and political rights.

South Asia in recent international reports and indices:

The latest editions of several international reports and indices released over the past month confirmed that democratic development and the space for minority rights and broader civil and political rights remain strained in every country.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index 2020 (Charts 1 and 2) — which monitors trends in pluralism, civil liberties and political culture — classified all but two countries in South Asia as ‘hybrid regimes’ (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan) or ‘authoritarian regimes’ (Afghanistan). India and Sri Lanka were classified as ‘flawed democracies’. There are no ‘full democracies’ in the region.


Charts 1 and 2

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020


While Bhutan and Nepal – after the adoption of their new Constitutions in 2008 and 2017, respectively – have made substantial gains in the index, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have seen declines in their democracy scores. India remains the strongest democracy in the region but has seen a 14.6% fall in its score since 2015, the year after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power. (Chart 2)

India’s democratic backsliding was also reflected in the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2020, which analyses worldwide trends on the electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative and egalitarian aspects of democracy, and now places India at 90th in the world, behind Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Bangladesh, where the Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh Awami League has been in power since 2014, after elections boycotted by almost all major opposition parties, was the worst performer in the region. (Table 1)


Table 1

Country Liberal Democracy Index Rank Liberal Democracy Index Score
Bhutan 66 0.493
Sri Lanka 70 0.469
Nepal 72 0.464
India 90 0.364
Afghanistan 125 0.212
Pakistan 126 0.211
Bangladesh 154 0.1

Source: V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Index 2020


Another index, Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2020 – which monitors media pluralism, independence and anti-media abuses, among other factors — also highlighted the dire state of affairs in the region with regards to basic freedoms, with only Bhutan finding a place among the top 50% of the 180 countries surveyed. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the worst performers in the world. (Table 2)


Table 2

Country Press Freedom Index Rank
Bhutan 67
Nepal 112
Afghanistan 122
Sri Lanka 127
India 142
Pakistan 145
Bangladesh 151

Source: Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index


Note: The 2020 edition of our annual South Asia State of Minorities Report (‘Minorities and Shrinking Civic Space’) also analysed in detail the declining space for the enjoyment of basic freedoms – assembly, association and expression – in the region, and its implications for South Asia’s various minority groups. Click the image below to access the full report.


The South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020:
Minorities and Shrinking Civic Space (full report)

Recent minority-related developments in South Asia:

During the period under review (1st October, 2020, to 31st January, 2021), the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to slow down across most parts of South Asia, with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal recording substantial declines in the reported number of active cases. However, even as each country began vaccinating its frontline health workers, tens of thousands of COVID-19-attributed deaths were reported from across the region, with India being the worst affected.


Table 3

Country Officially attributed COVID-19 deaths during the period under review Total officially attributed COVID-19 deaths*
Afghanistan 946 2,404
Bangladesh 2,855 8,111
India 54,624 1,54,428
Nepal 1,520 2,029
Pakistan 4,924 11,657
Sri Lanka 303 316

Source: Worldometer
*as of 31st January, 2021

Simultaneously, vulnerable minority groups in each country – such as Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, Christians in India and Pakistan, Dalits in India and Nepal, Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Muslims in India and Sri Lanka, Sikhs in India, and Shia-Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan – continued to face discrimination and violent targeting during the period under review, from non-state actors and, in some notable instances, from state actors.

Click the links below for more detailed reporting of major minority-related developments in each country.

During the period under review, Afghanistan’s reported active COVID-19 caseload fell from 4,985 to 4,976, with a peak in between. 946 COVID-19-attributed deaths were recorded.

Corruption continued to be a challenge in the distribution of the Afghan government’s COVID-19 aid package, with reports indicate that huge amounts of the aid money were misused, especially in the Wakhan district of Badakhshan - an area home to the marginalized Kyrgyz minorities. Moreover, with the ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar, the negotiations between Taliban and the Afghan government have not yielded any substantive results, due to disagreements on the code of conduct of the negotiations. Simultaneously, violence against civilians including but not limited to ethno-religious minorities and targeted killings of civil society activists have escalated across the country.

Major Developments:

  1. On 24th October, 2020, a suicide bomber attacked the Kawsar-e-Danish educational center in West Kabul, an area predominantly inhabited by the Shia-Hazara community. The attack claimed 30 lives and injured 70 more, including children who were attending classes in the center. The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for the attack. The group also claimed responsibility for other such targeted attacks on Afghanistan’s Shia-Hazara community.
  2. Speaking at a videoconference, Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), warned the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) about the escalation of violence in Afghanistan as a serious challenge to the future progress of the Afghan peace process. Lyons also emphasised the need for inclusivity of the peace process, and said that achieving peace will be possible only when different classes of the society including women, minorities, religious leaders and victims of conflicts, take part in the peace process.At the same conference, the representative of the United Kingdom also stressed on the inclusion of Afghan minorities alongside other groups such as women and youth, in the peace settlement.

    Since the start of the intra-Afghan peace talks in September 2020, one of the major obstacles in the negotiations has been the disagreements over the ‘code of conduct’ or the rule of procedures during and after the peace process in Afghanistan. The Taliban, a Sunni hardline movement, has insisted on the use of the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence as the only medium of legislation in Afghanistan in the post-peace political settlement. The Afghan government has opposed this, calling it discriminatory and against the values of ethno-religious minorities in the country. This issue is of high importance for minorities especially due to the identity and ethnic-based composition of Taliban’s negotiating team members.

    After weeks of peace negotiations, head of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, stated that both sides have agreed to ‘recognize the principal issue of Hanafi's role without any discrimination to Shi'ite communities or minorities’. However, specifics of the deal remain sketchy.

    A study led by South Asia Collective Afghanistan lead Civil Society and Human Rights Network (CSHRN) on the inclusion of non-dominant minorities in the Afghan peace process found that 80% of the respondents wanted to take part in the peace process, while the other 20% said that their views were not represented by the members of the Afghan government’s negotiating team.

  3. On 14th December, the Afghan State Ministry for Peace organised a meeting titled ‘Afghan Non-dominant Minorities and Peace Process’, with civil society organisations and representatives of minorities from nine provinces of Afghanistan in attendance. The State Minister for Peace assured that the rights of all ethnic groups and segments of society would be respected in the peace talks.

  4. On 30th January, 2021, at least nine people were killed in violent clashes between Afghan security forces and protestors in Behsud district, home to the Shia-Hazara community of Maidan Wardak Province. The Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs blamed ‘irresponsible armed men’ loyal to Alipoor, a local commander, who resisted the appointment of new police commanders in the district by holding a protest outside the police headquarters. Residents of Maidan Wardak province blame the security forces for opening fire on the protestors. Video footage seemed to confirm this.

During the period under review, Bangladesh’s reported active COVID-19 caseload dropped from 82,637 to 47,268. A total of 2,855 COVID-19-attributed deaths were recorded. Alongside, Bangladesh’s religious minority communities continued to face targeting and attacks.

  1. On 1st November, 2020, five houses belonging to members of the Hindu community in Comilla, and the office of the local Union Parishad Chairman, were vandalised and set on fire. The attack occurred after a local Hindu man made a Facebook post in support of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent moves that have been termed by many in that country as anti-Islam.
  2. On 3rd January, 2021, miscreants in the Pirganj Upazila of Thakurgaon district destroyed a Hindu idol at the local Shoshanghat Kali temple. Temple authorities alleged that the incident took place following a dispute over the temple land. In a similar incident, eight Hindu idols in the Sri Sri Shitlipat temple in Kurigram were also vandalised, on 14th January.

  3. A Hindu female student at Dhaka’s Jagannath University was arrested under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act for a ‘derogatory’ comment about religion that she had posted on Facebook. The student, who alleged that her Facebook account had been hacked, was missing for over two weeks before the Criminal Investigation Department announced her arrest on 11th November, 2021. The CID accused the student of staging an ‘abduction drama’.

    Several similar but separate instances of minority youth being arrested and charged under the Digital Security Act for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ were reported, including at least two in Dinajpur – a 25-year-old Hindu man in Kaharol Upazila, and a 17-year old girl in Parbatipur Upazila. Tensions in Parbatipur led to clashes between police and agitating locals, resulting in at least five policemen being injured.

During the period under review, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to slow down in India, with the reported active caseload dropping from 943,503 to 170,203. However, a staggering 54,624 deaths were also officially attributed to the virus during the four-month period. India began a vaccination campaign for its frontline workers, and also a campaign of ‘vaccine diplomacy’, supplying Indian-made vaccines to several countries including almost all South Asian countries, with the notable exception of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, India’s minorities continued to face targeting and harassment under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, with several new and discriminatory state-level laws and policies being unveiled, adversely affecting Muslims and Christians. Other laws aimed at increasing private investment in agriculture resulted in India’s farmers, led by the Sikhs from Punjab state, rising up in protest. Prominent civil society organisations and human rights defenders across the country continued to be systematically targeted and intimidated, including under draconian anti-terror laws.

Religious minorities

Muslims:

  • The Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), a documentation centre, recorded 10 reported instances of communal riots in India in 2020, claiming a total of 59 lives. All but two of these took place in states that are governed by the BJP and its allies, and where the BJP-led central government controls police forces. Documentation of the Oppressed (DOTO), an online data repository, recorded 163 instances of anti-minority targeting during the same period. These included 8 instances of murder/lynching and 46 instances of physical assault, and 26 instances of communal tensions/violence/riots.

  • Several new anti-minority laws and policies were enacted during the period under review:

    BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state, passed an ordinance to address the bogey of ‘love jihad’, a debunked conspiracy theory that alleges a plot by Muslim men to seduce and convert Hindu women en masse to Islam. The law, which stipulates state approval before conversions and prescribes a 10-year jail term for offenders, has already been misused by police officials and Hindu nationalist hooligan groups to target consensual inter-faith couples, and to criminalise Muslim men. UP Police have reportedly been recording around one arrest per day under the law. Along with other enabling factors, this has furthered empowered vigilante groups targeting minorities and other groups and individuals seen to be opposing the ruling party.

    At least four other BJP-ruled states are known to be in the process of finalising and enacting similar laws. A similar law enacted in neighbouring Uttarakhand in 2018 saw its first invocation.
    Uttar Pradesh also enacted other problematic regulations that observers feel will be used to target minorities and dissenters. These include The Uttar Pradesh Special Security Forces Act – creating a special force empowered to conduct arrests without a warrant – and the expansion of the Prantiya Rakshak Dal, an alternate security force comprised of youth. Both regulations were put in place with little clarity on procedures and practice, and with little assurance that these will not be used to target dissenters and minorities.

    Karnataka, another state governed by the BJP, repealed its pre-existing anti-cow slaughter legislation and passed a more stringent one, prescribing a 7-year jail term for offenders. The state’s deputy chief minister remarked that the new law would also protect cow-vigilantes. Cow-vigilantes across the country have targeted minorities in recent years on the pretext of cow protection. The first arrest under the law has already been reported.
    Cow-vigilantes across the country have targeted minorities in recent years on the pretext of cow protection. The first arrest under the law has already been reported.

    And in a move that is expected to affect around 140,000 Muslim students, the government of Assam, also ruled by the BJP, decided to convert all government-run madrasas (Islamic institutions of learning) to regular schools – with a caveat that all theological courses would be dropped from the curriculum next year.

  • There were numerous instances of Muslims across the country facing violence and harassment, including from state authorities: In Bihar, a 32-year-old Muslim man was lynched to death by a mob that accused him of stealing cattle. Also in Bihar, a 20-year-old Muslim woman was allegedly burned to death by a Hindu man and his friends. In Andhra Pradesh, a Muslim family of four died by suicide after reportedly being harassed by local police officers over a crime they did not commit. In another similar incident, a Muslim family in UP’s Shamli district, including four women, alleged that they were illegally detained, tortured and threatened with rape by local police officials.

  • Two major instances of communal mobilisation were reported from Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-governed state. Both were linked to right-wing outfits that are part of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) family, of which the BJP is the political wing. In a Muslim-majority village in Indore, tensions arose after Hindu hooligans—apparently on a fund-rising drive for the construction of a temple upon the site of the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya, sanctioned by the Supreme Court (SC) in 2019—chanted provocative slogans outside a mosque. Visuals of members of the mob climbing atop the mosque and damaging the minaret while the police looked on, went viral. The next day, district authorities demolished parts of around 80 houses in the village, all belonging to Muslims. Tensions over a similar fund-raising drive by the BJP’s youth wing were also reported from Ujjain, another district town. Another provocative fund-raising drive for the construction of the temple is being held by the BJP in Delhi’s North-East district, which is recovering from anti-Muslim violence in February last year. The campaign will continue through the month of February 2021, and will overlap with the one-year anniversary of the violence that had left 53 dead in that part of the national capital.
  • One year after the violent police crackdown in UP against Muslims who protested against discriminatory changes to India’s citizenship law, the families of the 22 men shot dead by police still await justice. A series of interviews published by media platforms revealed several common trends: lack of adequate compensation; threats, harassment and other forms of reprisal by local police officers; and chronic delays in court proceedings. Alongside, authorities in the state are reported to be resorting to extraordinary laws and serious crimes provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) against Muslims, in cases involving accusations of cow slaughter.

  • Families affected by last year’s anti-Muslim riots in Delhi also reported facing harassment and humiliation from police authorities, and from within their immediate neighbourhoods.

    • The office of Mehmood Pracha, a lawyer who represents several persons accused in different cases related to the violence, was raided by police. The raid came against the backdrop of several persons that had been charged with being part of the alleged conspiracy behind the violence, now being granted bail in various cases. Delhi’s police forces have been slammed by courts in recent months for ‘vindictiveness’, ‘non-application of mind’ and for using ‘planted’ witnesses in their bid to prove that Muslim anti-CAA protesters plotted the violence. The invocation of the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), however, has meant that most of the main accused remain in jail, unable to obtain bail.
    • Meanwhile, Kapil Mishra, the BJP leader who is believed to have sparked off the riots and also led violent mobs, and is yet to face any action, began a drive to recruit foot soldiers for a ‘Hindu Ecosystem’, designed ostensibly to protect Hindu interests. Tens of thousands of youth are reported to have joined his crowd-sourced platform.

  • In Muslim-majority Kashmir:

    • The National Campaign Against Torture’s (UNCAT) recently released annual report for 2019 highlighted several instances of state excesses against Kashmiris. The report noted that two Kashmiris were killed in police custody as a result of torture. It also detailed a case of armed forces personnel detaining and torturing five minors, against the backdrop of impunity that persists in Kashmir due to the presence of ‘extraordinary’ laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).

    • Local police charged three Indian Army soldiers with murder for staging ‘encounter’ killings of three civilians. In another alleged case of extra-judicial killing in Srinagar, a 16-year-old boy was killed and his body allegedly forcibly buried over a hundred kilometres away from his hometown. The Army has decided to try the officers via court martial instead of a criminal court.

    • The offices and residences of several prominent human rights groups and activists were raided by India’s anti-terror agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), as part of an apparent investigation into funding for ‘secessionist and separatist activities’. The office of Greater Kashmir, a leading newspaper, was also raided.

    • Kashmir also continued to be the world’s most digitally starved region, with the Indian government continuing to restrict access to high-speed mobile internet services for the bulk of the population. Despite a ruling by the Supreme Court decreeing that indefinite internet shutdowns were not allowed, authorities continued to impose identical temporary shutdown orders repetitively. Kashmir’s prolonged internet shutdown, the world’s longest at 550 days, came to an end only in early February 2021.

    • The protracted internet and movement lockdown continued to cripple the Kashmiri economy through the period under review, even as the Indian government announced an annual budget of 1 trillion rupees to provide security to businesses coming from outside. In the midst of a particularly harsh winter, the Kashmiri people also continued to face frequent power cuts.

    • Sudden demolition drives conducted in different areas added to the instability and left hundreds of people jobless and homeless. Many shops and more than 13 houses, most of them belonging to members of the minority Gujjar community, were destroyed. The demolition drive began after the Jammu & Kashmir High Court struck down a law that had transferred ownership rights of state land to its occupants in return for a government-determined fee.
  • Despite these developments affecting India’s Muslims (numbering over 200 million), the Indian government dismissed a report by the UN Special Rapporteur (SR) on Freedom of Religion or Belief that had highlighted the targeting of Muslims in the country. It also accused the SR of ‘cherry-picking’ facts relating to ‘only one religious community’, remarking that the same religious community was ‘unleashing horrors against the minorities’ in India’s neighbouring countries.

  • Meanwhile, India’s justice institutions continued to fail to stand up for defence of freedoms. Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim stand-up comedian, was arrested along with four associates for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments, upon the complaint of the son of a BJP lawmaker. Audience members said—and the police later confirmed—that Faruqui had in fact not cracked any contentious jokes at the event. He and his associates were nevertheless sent to judicial custody, where they remain after being denied bail. A High Court judge hearing their bail pleas remarked, ‘Such persons must not be spared’. Faruqui was eventually granted bail by the Supreme Court, after spending a month in jail. In another instance of freedoms being targeted, the cast and producers of ‘Tandav’, an Amazon Prime web series, were accused of hurting Hindu religious sentiments. Despite the producers of the show removing two contentious scenes, Hindu nationalists including BJP leaders have called for violence and offered bounties. The SC refused to give the cast and producers protection from arrest, remarking that the freedom of speech is not absolute.

Christians:

  • During the period under violence, MapViolence.in recorded 110 instances of Christians being targeted in the country. These included 37 instances of physical assault, including mob violence. At least 10 of these were assaults on faith leaders.

  • Anti-conversion laws similar to the one recently passed in Uttar Pradesh, already in place in eight states, have historically provided institutional backing for the targeting of Christians. (See the India section of the International Commitments page) Of the arrests recorded under the new law in UP, at least three are reported to have been of Christians.

  • In one illustrative example of anti-Christian violence—out of dozens that have not received coverage in the media—at least 21 people in Chhattisgarh state, including women and children, were hospitalised after a brutal mob attack on Christian adivasis (tribals) who had gathered to celebrate a child’s Dedication ceremony.

  • Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, the Chief Minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, faced repeated verbal attacks from top opposition leaders over his Christian faith. Political analysts have noted that the opposition’s aggressive posturing is a result of the BJP’s creeping influence in the state, where it has historically had a negligible presence.

Sikhs:

  • Typical of how the BJP and majoritarian groups have sought to delegitimise minority communities by ascribing fabricated motives to them, was the ruling BJP’s response to the ongoing farmers’ protests across India. In November 2020, farmers in several states began a protracted agitation calling for the repeal of three recently enacted laws that seek to increase the role of big business in agriculture. The protests, led by Sikh farmers from Punjab and Haryana but supported by farmers across the country, have involved over three months of sit-ins outside national capital Delhi’s borders during which over 160 protesters are reported to have died, mainly due to severe weather conditions. At least ten instances of suicide have been reported, including that of a Sikh religious preacher who accused the BJP of ‘trying to finish the entire Sikh community and the Sikh race’. Senior BJP leaders and pro-government media outlets, used several common anti-Sikh tropes, seeking to portray the farmers’ movement as being funded and led by Sikh separatist and Pakistani elements. Several Sikh leaders associated with the movement were also issued notices by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), in connection with their alleged connections to a banned separatist organisation. The NIA has recently been increasingly targeting Punjabi Sikhs—Indians and foreign nationals, not connected to the farmers’ movement but accused of secessionist activity—including by invoking the anti-terror UAPA law.

  • The Indian government’s response to the farmers’ protests, marked by several human rights violations – including the use of excessive force, shutdown of internet services, arrests of activists and journalists including many who were charged with sedition – was criticised by many international commentators. India has however dismissed all criticism as ‘propaganda’.

Caste minorities:

  • The National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) recorded 70 instances of anti-Dalit targeting during the period under review. This included 13 murders and 8 instances of rape. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu together accounted for almost half of the total recorded crimes. Crimes against Dalits, who face discrimination across the country, are grossly under-reported and under-recorded. The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) estimates that 189 anti-Dalit atrocities occur every week, including 13 murders, 21 rapes and 6 abductions.

Targeting of human rights defenders:

  • The BJP government continued its hounding of public intellectuals in the Bhima Koregaon case, over events surrounding a celebratory gathering of Dalits in 2018. Although the gathering had come under attack by Hindu nationalists, the government has sought to pin the blame on activists and intellectuals. Among those arrested in the case during the period under review was Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest. Swamy, who suffers from several health conditions including Parkinson’s disease, requested a sipper and a straw to be able to consume liquids, but was denied by jail authorities for over four weeks. Swamy is the 16th public intellectual to be arrested in the case and charged under the UAPA. The NIA has filed the third charge sheet in the case. Reports have emerged that digital forensics investigation into the case have revealed that the laptop of the principal accused in the case was infected by malware, resulting in the planting of fake evidence, and surveillance, which were then used by prosecutors to charge the accused and several other HRDs, all languishing in prison for over two years.

  • Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights conveyed her dismay at the Indian government’s use of ‘vaguely defined laws’ to stifle the voices of civil society actors. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders too remarked that India has become “a state that doesn’t properly protect human rights”. And the V-Dem Insitute’s annual Democracy Report noted that India’s democratic processes continue to be ‘on a path of steep decline, to the extent that it has almost lost its status as a democracy’.

The countrywide lockdown that began in March 2020 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in Nepal has been eased to a large extent in the country despite the fact that the virus is far from being controlled. During the period under review, Nepal’s total COVID-19 caseload rose from 79,728 to 270,959. The number of reported deaths increased from 509 to 2029 in the same period. However, the number of active cases have significantly decreased from 21,830 to 2,594. The easing of the lockdown came from the inability of the government to provide any relief to the general public, especially those from the lower economic strata. In October, 21 political organisations led a protest against the government for the decision to make citizens pay for COVID treatment despite the constitutional provision of citizens’ right to health.

The country began a COVID-19 vaccine rollout on January 27, 2021 with health care workers and front-line essential workers prioritised. Even though vaccination has begun, challenges remain and the vaccine is yet to be available to all. In the meantime, the pandemic has led to widespread poverty with the country’s religious and sexual minorities having suffered more than most. The government’s limited inclusion of minorities in disaster management plans has further exacerbated the sufferings.

During this critical public health crisis, Prime Minister K.P. Oli dissolved the House of Representatives on 20th December, 2020. This led to protests against him with many calling the move an attack on democracy. In January 2021, Prime Minister KP Oli offered prayers at the Hindu temple Pashupatinath. The incident increased speculation of a connection between the visit and the on-going sporadic demonstrations for the reinstatement of Hindu Kingdom. He is reported to be the first communist prime minister to visit the temple for blessings.

Dalits:

  1. Discrimination against Dalits is rampant in the country with stigma of untouchability and social segregation. Lack of social protection for Dalits is a reality as a two-year-old Dalit boy’s corpse was held for three days at a private hospital in Biratnagar because his mother could not pay the hospital fee. In October, two Dalit men were violently assaulted in Bhangaha on charges of theft. In the same month in Saptari in southern Nepal, the members of Dalit community protested against the rising number of cases of murders, violence and discrimination towards their community.

  2. On a positive note, on 22nd December, 2020, The Government of Nepal issued the 18th amendment to the Land Rules, opening the way for land to be given by the government to landless Dalit families and squatters. The Landless Squatters’ Problem Resolution Commission is said to provide land to Dalits for residential or agricultural purposes.

  3. A nationwide study on the impacts of COVID-19 on the Dalit community in Nepal showed that Dalit communities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Amnesty International, WaterAid and the International Dalit Solidarity Network urged the Nepal government to protect sanitation workers who have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanitation workers do not have access to hand washing facilities, personal protective equipment (PPE) or relevant training to understand the risks of the disease while engaging in high-risk tasks such as cleaning streets and sewers. Amnesty International called for governments in South Asia to protect the rights of such workers, decrying the action of people being forced into such professions merely because of their caste at birth.
  4. Religious minorities:

  5. A Christian pastor had been arrested in Kathmandu in 2016 on charges of attempted religious conversion and trafficking of children. Reportedly, he had been asked for help by an orphanage on the verge of shutting down to keep the children from being homeless. He was arrested on the tenth day of housing the children in his church compound with the police eventually dropping the trafficking charges, but it was reported in January 2021 that he is still facing the charges on conversion, resulting in huge legal fees and hassles for him.

  6. On 18th December, 2020, Muslims in Kathmandu reopened mosques and gathered to pray together after nine months of closing of religious places due to the pandemic. Pashupatinath Temple, an important place of worship for Hindus also opened to the public on 16th December, 2020. While churches remain closed, some churches held virtual service on 25th December to mark Christmas.
  7. Women and sexual minorities:

  8. The National Women Commission remains non-functional even as cases of violence against women make headlines. From October 2020 to January 2021, five separate incidents were reported from the districts of Kavre, Baglung, Siraha, Dang, and another in Dang again of women being physically assaulted and beaten after being accused of practising witchcraft. The police have arrested the alleged perpetrators and the victims were taken to the hospital for treatment. Child marriages are on the rise as the effects of the pandemic hits the country.

  9. Dalit women continue to be harassed and victimised. In October, a Dalit woman from Mahottari filed a complaint against the ward secretary of Bhangaha Municipality-9 for attempt to rape. She was offered money to withdraw the case and she and her family were repeatedly threatened. In the same month, a 24-year-old Dalit woman of Rupandehi was physically assaulted by six men over a land related dispute which led to several injuries. A 15-year-old Dalit girl was raped by an ‘upper caste’ man in Jhapa. He also allegedly held her hostage for eight days. Investigations are reportedly on-going.

  10. In December, a journalist posted on her Facebook page that a government-prescribed textbook for lower secondary students defined a woman as a helpless person resulting in massive outrage in the online community.

  11. On a positive note, All Nepal Football Association has decided to end pay disparity between men and women football players. Women team members will be paid the same amount of money as their male counterparts. Furthermore, with rising number of acid attacks mainly on women, the government enacted stricter laws for offenders.

  12. Nepal is seen as a progressive country with laws that protect the LGBTIQ community. But in reality, stories of harassment and violence show a darker side. On 20th November, 2020, a transgender artist was harassed on the street by three people with derogatory and abusive language, a video of which the perpetrators then uploaded on social media. The video led to an uproar and outpouring of support leading to the arrests of the three people involved.

  13. In January, there was another case in Kathmandu of police severely beating several transgendered women, using abusive language and then taking several of them in police custody for ‘indecent behaviour’ and on the charge of harassing people on the street. Rights activists who have spoken to the women in custody and collected eyewitness accounts, as well as the transgender women dispute the claim, with video and photos surfacing that support the women’s accounts.
  14. Civil rights and journalists:

  15. There have been several instances of mistreatment and violence against journalists in the period under review. On December 1, a journalist was attacked at the Land Revenue office in Jhapa for filming a video of a government official accepting bribe. Several journalists have reported assaults, mistreatment, group attacks and receiving death threats.

  16. On October 15, 2020, relatives of a murdered journalist held a protest in Sukkhad, a town in Far-West Nepal, to fight against the court for releasing the accused on bail. In Kathmandu, journalists with the support of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) staged a five-day hunger strike asking the government to support the journalists who remain unpaid or have been forced to quit their job during the months-long lockdown.

  17. On January 25, peaceful protestors against the Prime Minister’s dissolution of the parliament were met with violence from the authorities for participating in the protest.

During the period under review, Pakistan’s reported active COVID-19 caseload rose from 8,576 to 33,182. A total of 4,924 COVID-19-attributed deaths were recorded. Pakistan also began vaccinating its healthcare workers, with the help of a donation of vaccines from China.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s minorities continued to face targeting and harassment from religious extremists, with major attacks reported against Shias and Ahmadiyyas. Underage girls from the Christian and Hindu communities continued to face abductions, rape, forced conversions and marriages. Prominent human rights defenders too faced targeting from state and non-state actors.

Religious minorities:

  1. Speakers at the National Conference on the Situation of Human Rights in Pakistan, organised by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), noted an ‘unusual rise in cases of forced conversions of underage girls from religious minorities, hate speech and sectarianism’ in 2020. Speaking at the event, the parliamentary secretary for human rights in Punjab province acknowledged that the Pakistan government’s progress in tackling minority rights issues has been ‘weak’.

    In a separate campaign, several members from Pakistan’s various religious communities jointly called on the Pakistani government to enforce new legislation to curb increasing incidents of abduction, conversion and forced marriage of Hindu and Christian girls, and to more strictly enforce existing laws.

  2. A bill calling for the protection of religious minorities and their rights was rejected by a Senate committee, halting the possibility of debate and deliberations over the contents of the bill in the wider Senate. The bill had prescribed a series of measures, including, among other things, the removal of anti-minority hate speech and offensive material from school textbooks, the state provision of protection and assistance to victims of forced conversions, and the prescription of a seven-year prison for those convicted of abducting and forcibly converting minority girls, a phenomenon that continues to plague Pakistan.

  3. A new study by Freedom Network highlighted the harassment of Pakistan’s minorities in online spaces. According to the study, online articles and discussions on religious minorities, security agencies, human rights, gender, politics and development were found to have elicited the most hostile reactions from online. The study also accused Prime Minister Imran Khan and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party of encouraging political polarisation, and noted an increased reliance on Pakistan’s restrictive cybercrime law to curb free expression and social media activism.
  4. Christians:

  5. Several members of the Christian community, along with civil society activists, protested against the alleged abduction and forced conversion of a 13-year-old girl Christian girl in Karachi. The girl was allegedly forcibly married to a 44-year-old man. The Sindh High Court ordered the separation of the girl from her alleged abductor, and the abductor’s arrest, but he was later released on bail.

    Around 1,000 Pakistani girls are estimated to be forcibly converted to Islam every year.
  6. Ahmadiyyas:

  7. On 5th October, 2020, observed as International Teachers’ Day across the world, Naeemuddin Khattak, a senior academician belonging to the Ahmadiyya community, was shot dead in a targeted attack in Peshawar. Khattak had reportedly had an argument with his alleged killer over his religious beliefs – seen as heretic by many orthodox Muslims – and also faced ‘threats and boycott’ in the past.

  8. Several other similar attacks on Ahmadiyyas were reported in subsequent weeks: On 9th November, an 82-year-old Ahmadiyya man was shot dead on the outskirts of Peshawar, which Al Jazeera noted was the fourth such targeted killing of an Ahmadiyya in recent months. On 20th November, a group of Ahmadiyyas who had congregated for worship in Multan were shot at by a 16-year-old Muslim youth. One man, a 31-year-old doctor, lost his life and three others were wounded in the attack.
  9. Shias:

  10. 11 coal mine workers from the Shia-Hazara community were abducted and executed in Quetta, in the province of Balochistan. Dozens of others were seriously wounded. The Pakistan branch of the Islamic State (IS), which has targeted Shia Muslims and their places of worship across the world, accepted responsibility for the attack. The attack led to widespread protests by Shia-Hazaras, who blocked a major highway along with the bodies of the slain miners and demanded a meeting with PM Khan. Khan initially refused to meet with them, accusing them of ‘blackmail’, relenting only after receiving widespread criticism.
  11. Several human rights activists voiced their concern over the recent spike in blasphemy accusations against members of the Shia minority community. Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission (HRCP) there were more than 40 instances of blasphemy cases being filed in the month of August 2020 alone. Most of these cases are reported to have been registered against Shias. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country in August alone registered more than 40 blasphemy cases, with most of the charges targeting the Shia community.
  12. Targeting of human rights defenders:

  13. Karima Baloch, a prominent Baloch rights activist and a vocal critic of several of Pakistan's state institutions, was found dead in Toronto, Canada. Baloch had been living in exile in Canada for five years, after terrorism charges were levelled against her in Pakistan.

  14. Mohammad Ismail, the father of Gulalai Ismail – a prominent Pashtun human rights activist who has been living in exile in the United States since 2019 – was arrested and remanded to police custody in a sedition and terror financing case. Gulalai Ismail, who had earlier highlighted alleged human rights abuses during the crackdown against the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), accused Pakistani authorities of fabricating charges against her family.

During the period under review, Sri Lanka saw the emergence of its second wave of COVID-19 infections, with the reported active COVID-19 caseload increasing from 136 to 6,682. A total of 303 COVID-19-attributed deaths were also recorded. The new wave of cases were primarily attributed to clusters that began at an apparel factory, a fish market, and within Sri Lanka’s prisons. Due to a lack of adequate distribution of government relief, several poor and working-class families placed in isolation continued to experience hardships. The pandemic has also been cited as a reason to exert more pressure on minority communities, dictating their death and memorialisation rights. The country’s militarised response to the pandemic was also intensified.

Religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities:

Muslims:

  1. Sri Lanka’s practice of mandatory cremations for all COVID-19-attributed deaths continued, despite cremations being against Islamic beliefs and there being no scientific backing for the government claim that burials increase the risk of transmission of the virus. There were also several instances of Muslims who died of other causes being cremated, despite post-mortem PCR tests confirming that they did not carry the virus. Families were reportedly threatened to sign the necessary papers.

    In December 2020, news broke of the cremation of a 20-day-old Muslim baby who only tested positive via a rapid antigen test, with no PCR test being carried out. Following the cremation of the baby, there were widespread peaceful protests from the Muslim community and their allies. Protesters tied white cloths to the gates of the cemetery where the baby was cremated, and in locations across the Northern, Eastern, Central and North-Western provinces. Police and military in civilian clothing were reported to have removed the cloths tied at the cemetery, and interrogated those who tied them.

    Most Muslims who died of COVID-19 were daily-wage earners whose families could not afford the 60,000 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) that authorities were asking for a coffin – a practice that they do not follow to begin with. Many resisted by refusing to accept their loved one’s bodies for cremation, and the state resorted to cremating unclaimed bodies on its own, on orders to the Colombo Municipal Council. The Council was later ordered to halt the cremations pending advice from the Prime Minister.

    Maldivian authorities offered to assist Sri Lanka with the burial of Sri Lankan Muslim COVID-19 victims under Islamic funeral rites. While the feasibility of this is being assessed, experts have noted that this move could further marginalise the Sri Lankan Muslims, in not allowing them to be buried in their own country.

    Despite a committee of virologists and other medical experts publicly declaring that burials could be carried out safely, the Sri Lankan government has chosen to follow the recommendations of an earlier committee that did not have any virologists within it and recommended cremation as the only option.
    United Nations human rights experts in a statement called on the Sri Lankan government to end its policy of forced cremations.
  2. Tamils:

  3. There were several instances of the Tamil community’s commemoration events being obstructed by the state.

    November 27th is marked by some in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces as ‘Maaveerar Naal’ or Great Heroes day, a commemoration of cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were killed in battle during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

    Appeals demanding an injunction against court bans for commemorations in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya were rejected by the Jaffna High Court.

    In the lead up to the event, there were incidents of police intimidation of individuals who had hoisted red and yellow flags in preparation for the commemoration. Media reports showed an increased military presence around the province on the day, with soldiers stationed in public areas. Despite there not being a ban on private memorials, military were recorded surrounding a home in Mullaitivu where a family was mourning the death of a loved one.

    These actions follow the intimidation and disruption of Tamil memorial events throughout the year – in May around the end of the war, in July in Navaly and in September commemorating Thileepan.

  4. On 8th January, 2020, authorities destroyed the Mullivaikkal Tamil memorial at Jaffna University. Heavy machinery inside the university premises tore it down as students gathered at the gate to protest. Armed forces personnel were brought in to control the crowds. Two students were arrested and later released on bail. The protests had to be eventually abandoned, with the police citing COVID-19 health regulations. Several students later began a hunger strike till the issue was resolved.

    Tamil civil society groups, political parties and student unions called for a hartal (public protest) to be observed on January 11th across the Northern and Eastern provinces to condemn the demolition. The hartal continued even as the foundation stone for a memorial to replace the demolished memorial at the university was laid by the Vice Chancellor.
  5. LGBTIQA+ persons:

  6. Registering as a permanent resident of a municipality is a requirement to access local government food aid. With the police routinely being reported to be hostile to sexual and gender non-conforming people, many in the Sri Lankan LGBTQ+ community have reportedly refused the aid rather than interact with authorities and processes that could possibly subject them to discrimination and violence.
  7. Increased militarisation:

  8. In November 2020, Sri Lanka Police announced that drone cameras would be utilised to monitor the movement of people in isolated areas. A total of 15 people were taken into custody on the first run of this technology. Residents in various areas under isolation also recalled the presence of helicopters flying over residential areas. Concerns were raised as to the necessity of allowing the military to carry out surveillance to this degree. The areas most under surveillance were also low-income areas populated by underserved communities of the urban poor, who rely on daily wage work outside the house in order to support families.
  9. Mahara prison massacre:

  10. At the end of November 2020, prisoners at the Mahara Prison began a demonstration demanding that PCR tests be carried out on them, after a few prisoners had already tested positive for the virus. After the demonstration grew violent and close to 600 armed forces personnel were deployed, 11 prisoners were killed. Post-mortem PCR tests found that 8 of them were positive for COVID-19. Courts have since rejected appeals for the bodies of the killed to be buried and have ordered for them to be cremated.
  11. Disruption of protests:

  12. Police in Mullaitivu and Batticaloa disrupted two protests taking place on Human Rights Day citing COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Villagers in Venavil whose land has not been released from the capture of various state institutions had begun a continuous protest in order to get their land back. On 10th December, Police arriving at the protest site told them that people cannot protest or gather due to health guidelines and that legal action would be taken against them. Families of the disappeared in Batticaloa, who were marching asking for justice for their loved ones, were threatened by Sri Lankan police that they would be sent to quarantine if they continued their gathering.
  13. Criticism at international fora:

  14. The Sri Lankan government was seen to be making pronouncements and actions that signal that it is trying to placate the response towards it at the March sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

    President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate, inquire into findings of preceding Commissions or Committees appointed to investigate human rights violations, serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and other such offenses. Among others, the International Commission of Jurists stated that this move is unlikely to bring justice for any victims of these violations. Local voices have raised concerns that this Commission would make a mockery of victims, previous commissioners, those who were witnesses to previous commissions as well as investigators and prosecutors who have followed these cases, as some of these ‘violations’ are the subject of ongoing trials too.

  15. The government has also informed the European Union of its intent to revisit contentious provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), in line with international standards that Sri Lanka must meet as part of its commitments to the criteria for the effective implementation of the GSP+ scheme. Local legal experts have stated that it is essential that provisions that enable torture under the PTA are also repealed, if the amendment is to have any meaningful impact.

  16. A copy of the report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights leaked prior to the HRC sessions bore heavy criticism of the state of human rights in Sri Lanka. These include the militarization of civilian government functions, the reversal of Constitutional safeguards with the passage of the 20th Amendment, political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric that has become mainstreamed, the surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space as well as new and exacerbated human rights concerns. The report also critiqued the failure of successive governments to address the articles set out in UNHRC Resolution 30/1, such as the setting up of transitional justice mechanisms and addressing the impunity in certain emblematic cases.

Cover image credits: Amalini/Twitter (Colombo) | Indian Express (New Delhi) | Naseer Ahmed/Reuters (Quetta)

The contents of this Online Bulletin are the sole responsibility of The South Asia Collective and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or Norad.
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