on the world: a view on human rights
Before there was Donald Trump, there was Narendra Modi, India’s polarising extreme right-wing premier. “Modi was Trump before Trump became who he is”, stated Kashmiri novelist Mirza Waheed at a meeting held in London on 6 February to discuss the implications of the Trump era on the geopolitical situation in South Asia: how the new US government can both aggravate relations and inspire resistance across states in a region mired in conflict, and either in the grip of or with recent experience of militarised rule or authoritarianism.
Activists from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Myanmar and Sri Lanka gave presentations on pressing issues and resistance to repressive and fascistic actions by states. Chaired by Amrit Wilson from the host South Asia Solidarity Group (SASG), she cited Trumps’ threats to go to war with China, and even to use nuclear weapons, as posing a risk to South Asian states, given that India and Pakistan are also regional nuclear powers, and in light of strong China-Pakistan relations on the one hand and India and particularly the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party’s deepening relationship the Trump on the other. Inspired by Trump’s immigration ban, Hindu nationalist youth in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh have set up a Trump Sena militia.
Kavita Krishnan from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI–ML) talked about some of the current challenges in India. Modi, banned from entering the US for over a decade, fostered strong ties with Obama, which he is continuing with Trump. At the same time, he has nurtured hostility with China; Modi and Trump share an antagonistic attitude to China. The two men also share a strong Islamophobic sentiment that goes beyond national borders and which helped to propel them to power. However, while there has been strong resistance in the US against plans to build a dividing wall along the border with Mexico and a travel ban on nationals and persons born in seven Muslim Middle Eastern states, discriminatory and repressive measures introduced by the Modi government have not triggered a similar response.
A current example is a draft bill to amend the Citizenship Act along religious lines, effectively proposing to grant refugee status and Indian nationality to Hindus from neighbouring Muslim-majority states. This is similar to Trump’s more recent immigration ban which would allow non-Muslim refugees and migrants from the seven states affected to enter the US. In the case of India, this is part of the BJP’s stated election manifesto of creating a Hindu state (rashtra) along the lines of Israel and its Law of Return for Jews, abusing the rights of religious minorities within its own state while advocating those of others abroad.
Other religious minorities have been targeted by Hindu nationalists, including Dalits, who have fought back and organised large popular protests to demand their right to justice. With patriarchy a major component of Hindu nationalism, women too have been targeted, and used as an excuse to prevent inter-religious relationships. The latest such campaign by the BJP is to create “Romeo squads” to protect Hindu women. Campaigns have also targeted Muslim women but in both cases women have fought back against such policies. As is being seen in the US now, students, university campuses and tribal peoples (Adivasi) have also been targeted as a part of a crackdown on free speech.
Journalist Mahvish Ahmad from the Awami Workers Party spoke of the challenge resistance struggles at all levels face in Pakistan up against the dominance of the military state. Unlike India, Pakistan is not an ally of Trump and is instead supported by China. The paradox for all political resistance movements is challenging both the externally-imposed post-9/11 discourse and the conservative far-right nature of the state. Resistance is thus offered by both liberal Pakistanis and human rights activists and Islamist movements; however, while the latter have been effective in countering drone attacks, including outing a CIA chief in 2010, they have not raised issued such as minority rights.
Recent threats highlighted by activists include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a major infrastructure and defence project between China and Pakistan that has already caused mass displacement, dispossession and other human rights abuses in the Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan provinces. Nonetheless, the “disappearance” of five activists earlier this year highlights the risk to activists on the ground.
The difficulty for Pakistani activists in speaking out internationally is that the platform offered to them both regionally and further afield is given by far-right groups, including Hindu fundamentalists, to strengthen Islamophobic discourse. An example of this is Modi’s supportive comments on Baloch independence in August 2016 while conducting military attacks on Kashmir and amid the continued militarised occupation of Northeast Indian states. Women and other minorities, such as the Pashtun, are also offered similar platforms by international organisations to affirm military intervention by third states, e.g. US drone strikes. According to Ahmad, the situation in Pakistan is more difficult as a Muslim country in the current international context: “the political terrain is defined for us and we’re forced to use the discourse given to us”.
Novelist Mirza Waheed spoke about the upsurge in violence in the state in the summer of 2016, which saw more than 500 people, particularly children, blinded by pellet guns used against civilians. Waheed called the actions of the Indian state and the lack of international response thereto “unprecedented” in the deliberate blinding and disablement of so many people at one time.
Since the 1990s, and particularly since 9/11 when the “war on terror” gave the Indian government a pretext to label Kashmiris international terrorists, the resistance has been largely peaceful and has looked for other means of challenging Indian rule in Kashmir in spite of the ongoing military presence and crackdown.
The 2016 crackdown and protests in the region demonstrated a vengeful tendency on the part of the state: the attack was non-discriminatory and intended to maim and kill. There was no question of arresting protesters. Something had changed: this was the reaction of Modi’s extremist government. Kashmiris were no longer seen as simply resisting Indian rule but as Muslims resisting Hindu rule. The discourse in the Indian media spoke of Kashmiris not as humans but as cattle.
An aspect of the violence that was underreported was sexual violence and violence against women. Kashmiri newspaper Kashmir Reader was closed down for three months, with its premises searched and newspapers physically confiscated, after it reported on the rape of women and girls and sexual harassment by Indian soldiers. Deemed a “disturbed area”, martial law and the Armed Force Special Powers Act (AFSPA) are in force, which give the military a license to kill in states where it is imposed.
Waheed concluded that the likes of Trump and Modi have been in the making for decades; rather than looking at where we are now we need to consider the machinery that creates such people and the decades of hate that fuel their rise to power. Effective resistance will require organisation along similar lines to the far more cohesive right wing.
Former Buddhist political prisoner and pro-democracy 88 Generation Students movement leader Ko Aung spoke of the plight of persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar. He spoke of the slow burning genocide of the Rohingya in Rakhine state led by Buddhist extremists through policies applied exclusively to them. The most persecuted people in the world, they are targeted for their religion and race. Occupying the artificial border between Bangladesh and Myanmar created by British colonialism, the Myanmar state considers the Rohingya who have lived there for centuries to be migrants from Bangladesh, whereas Bangladesh does not recognise them. In 1982, they were denied citizenship, making them the largest stateless group in the world. Mass displacements have taken place but those fleeing to Bangladesh have in large part not been recognised as refugees. Within Myanmar there is no resistance at all.
The most recent episode of violence started on 9 October 2016, after an alleged insurgent attack killed 9 policemen. The military response had been villages burned to the ground, mass rapes and murder. Many have fled to Bangladesh, which hosts between 200 and 400 thousand refugees, of whom only 30,000 have been registered with the UN. The others have no rights or protection against human rights abuses by either state.
Aung called on Bangladesh to recognise the refugees and then ask the international community for help. Instead, Bangladesh is pushing ahead with plans to relocate the Rohingya to a 6000-acre island in the Bay of Bengal prone to flooding and uninhabitable. A new UN report, published on 3 February, based on interviews with people fleeing to Bangladesh, lists the frightening human rights abuses the Rohingya are currently at risk of.
Critical of the Bangladeshi government’s stance, he also criticised Aung San Suu Kyi, who he had worked closely with in the past. He called her “complicit” and said that he longer respected her due to her silence in this matter.
Sri Lankan Tamil writer Nirmala Rajasingam looked at the conflictual relationship between Sri Lanka and India. Following Sri Lankan independence in 1948, newly independent India worked with its government. However, in the recent civil war, it funded and armed the Tamil Tigers for its own purposes. Nonetheless, during that same period, India was viewed with suspicion by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslim minority.
In spite of the antipathy to India, the debt-ridden government is currently poised to enter an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India which is likely to swamp the north and east (Tamil areas) with Indian goods, services, infrastructure and even personnel. On the other hand, the government hands over the main part of its GDP in debt servicing to the Chinese for infrastructure projects in the south (Sinhala Buddhist areas). Many state-owned assets have also been sold off to pay debts.
An area where trade relations between India and Sri Lanka are particularly strained is fishing. A long-standing dispute between Tamil fishermen in the north and larger more industrial fishing methods used by Indian fishermen off the Sri Lankan coast has garnered little support from Tamil nationalist leaders who are intent on cooperating with India, whom they use for leverage for their own demands from the state, than the fishermen, other minorities such as Muslims or left-wing groups. India insists on maintaining its use of the area.
In addition to Tamil nationalism being more focused towards Indian support, what was previously a linguistic affiliation has now become religious. As Tamil nationalism is increasingly supported by and looks to Hindu nationalism in India, Muslim and Christian Tamil speakers are being side-lined. The launch of a Siva Senai group in Sri Lanka in 2016 is a clear reflection of this. In addition to which, Tamil Hindu fundamentalists are also inspired by the model of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Buddhist nationalist paramilitary group.
Having faced various issues, such as religious extremism, the US is now facing clearly under Trump, South Asian activists and civil society have not responded at nearly a similar scale to that which is required. States have been left to discriminate and repress certain communities with impunity. With the ever-closer solidarity between extremist right-wing outfits worldwide, it is necessary that communities of resistance worldwide join together and step up to the challenge at the same level and pace. In view of repression and restrictions on travel and visas, that solidarity and resistance could perhaps start more easily outside of the South Asia region, with activists outside facilitating platforms for resistance and creating links with the region.