Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India’s democratic backsliding poses challenges for the United States’ democracy agenda, global leaders meet to discuss Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, and Pakistan loses a figure revered at home and reviled abroad.
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India’s Democratic Backslide
Last Sunday, members of the far-right Hindu-nationalist organization Bajrang Dal confronted four Muslim men at a social event in the central Indian city of Indore. Clashes broke out, and the Bajrang Dal members turned the Muslim men over to the police, who arrested them to “restore peace.” (They were later released on bail.) The Hindu nationalists had accused the men of so-called love jihad, a conspiracy theory that alleges Muslim men seek to marry Hindu women and forcibly convert them to Islam.
Such bigotry is an unfortunately frequent occurrence in today’s India—and it plays out against a backdrop of democratic backsliding. Religious intolerance risks further undermining the pluralistic and secular traditions that underpin Indian democracy. Despite its ethnic and religious diversity, India has long grappled with communal tensions. But what appears different now is the increased frequency of acts of bigotry—and the state’s role in fomenting it, particularly as some leaders within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) resort to hate speech and dog whistles.
Events in just the last few weeks underscore this trend. On Oct. 3, vandals attacked a Christian church in Uttarakhand state. On Oct. 5, mobs armed with iron rods assaulted a Muslim neighborhood in Chhattisgarh state. And earlier, on Sept. 24, police evicted Muslim migrants from their homes in Assam state. Meanwhile, a BJP minister warned farmers protesting against agriculture laws that he would “discipline” them if they didn’t stop, and days later, his son was accused of plowing his car into a crowd of demonstrators in Uttar Pradesh state.
India’s democracy is under strain. The state has detained nearly 9,000 people under a colonial-era anti-terrorism law in the last five years, many of them government critics. New Delhi also seeks to increase its access to private information and its control over social media, prompting disputes with WhatsApp and Twitter. Since taking power, the BJP has implemented a Hindu-nationalist agenda accompanied by demonizing rhetoric.
By 2019, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected by a large margin, the rhetoric had grown worse. BJP leader Amit Shah described immigrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh as “termites.” Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said Muslims did India “no favors” by remaining after the 1947 Partition. Meanwhile, a new law fast-tracked Indian citizenship for members of religious minorities—but not Muslims—fleeing persecution in neighboring countries.
Democracy promotion was not a major concern for former U.S. President Donald Trump, although administration officials at the time privately expressed concern about India’s trajectory. By contrast, the Biden administration has made democracy promotion a pillar of its foreign policy, but it has not decried rights violations in India, aside from gentle calls for both countries to defend democratic principles.
If the Biden administration makes an issue out of India’s democratic backsliding, it could increase tensions at a significant moment for the U.S.-India partnership. Competition with Beijing has taken center stage, and Washington sees New Delhi as an essential actor to counter China’s power. President Joe Biden can’t risk angering an Indian government that is deeply sensitive to outside criticism about domestic matters.
The approach may not sit well with all administration officials. “We are repeating the Obama and Trump mistake of cozying up to India and Modi without demanding Modi end his tilt toward authoritarianism,” an unnamed official told Politico on the eve of Modi’s White House visit last month.
Given the imperative of the U.S.-India partnership, such a demand seems neither realistic nor desirable. But the Biden administration’s selective approach to democracy promotion—dial it up with rivals, dial it down with partners—could strengthen a long-standing criticism that U.S. foreign policy is inconsistent and hypocritical.
Oct. 12-15: Indian Army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane visits Sri Lanka.
The death of A.Q. Khan. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist who helped develop Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, died last Sunday. For many Pakistanis, he was a great hero—up there with founding leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and revered philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi. Islamabad gave him the honor of a state funeral—despite the fact that he also shared nuclear secrets with North Korea, Iran, and Libya.
Khan’s death highlights the issue of who gets to be a hero in Pakistan and who doesn’t. Malala Yousafzai, who survived an attack by the Pakistani Taliban to become a global advocate for girl’s education and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is despised by ultra-nationalist Pakistanis. Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was disowned by his own country because he was a member of the Ahmadi religious minority.
Afghanistan’s alarming humanitarian crisis. In Afghanistan, 18 million people urgently need humanitarian aid, and 90 percent of health care facilities have closed, according to United Nations data. The G-20 held a virtual meeting this week to discuss the situation, and the European Union pledged a 1 billion euro aid package—a major increase. The stakes are high for EU states, given that a worsening crisis will likely trigger mass migrations. Washington hasn’t announced any new aid on top of its previously pledged $330 million.
But mobilizing humanitarian assistance is easier than delivering and distributing it. Getting aid to those who need it under the Taliban regime will be a complex challenge. With no country having recognized the new government, the United States and its allies intend to work with the U.N. and private charities—something G-20 leaders admit will require negotiations with Taliban officials.
U.N. agrees to help Rohingya refugees. This week, the United Nations announced a new deal with Bangladesh to support Rohingya refugees on the island of Bhasan Char. This marks a turnaround for the U.N., which had previously echoed the views of human rights groups that the island was unfit for habitation due to insufficient infrastructure and vulnerability to flooding.
The U.N. changed its position after Bangladesh made major improvements to the island, including new schools, hospitals, and sea walls. The deal is a boon for Dhaka, which is keen to counteract international criticism of its democratic backsliding and human rights record. However, some Rohingya refugees have said conditions on the island remain insufficient.
India-China border tensions. Negotiations between Indian and Chinese army commanders last weekend failed to resolve ongoing tensions along the countries’ disputed border, where a deadly clash took place last year. Although recent months have seen some troop disengagements, many soldiers remain deployed—and given the outcome of the Sunday talks, Indian and Chinese troops will likely hunker down along the frontier as brutal winter weather sets in.
The two sides continue to engage in dialogue, reducing—though not eliminating—the risk of a new provocation. Any future conflict could escalate rapidly, given the bad blood between the two sides after experiencing their deadliest clash in several decades.
Sri Lanka’s attorney general announced this week that the government would drop charges against a former navy chief for his alleged involvement in the deaths of at least 11 teenagers in 2008 and 2009, the last few years of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Adm. Wasantha Karannagoda had been accused of participating in a kidnapping scheme that resulted in children being held illegally in navy custody and killed even after their families sent ransom money. Police say the number of children killed may exceed 30.
Accountability for military abuses in past wars is a major theme in South Asia—in Sri Lanka but also in Nepal and Pakistan. But investigators say Karannaogda’s alleged crimes had nothing to do with the civil war and the teenagers were abducted to extort money from their families. Colombo hasn’t said why the charges were dropped.
“If we do not act to help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price.”
—U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres commenting on Afghanistan’s worsening humanitarian crisis
Bhagya Senaratne, a Sri Lankan academic, discusses the impact of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu on India-Sri Lanka relations for South Asian Voices. She writes that the state’s advocacy for Tamils in Sri Lanka “has placed India at odds with Sri Lanka, revealing that shared cultural and ethnic ties between the two countries have driven them further apart.”
Writing in Kuensel, lawyer Sonam Tshering decries the Bhutanese government’s response to rising food prices in the country. He singles out regulators for particularly strong criticism, arguing that they “remain deaf to public outcries on uncontrollable prices and ignore the consumer’s right to safe food products.”
An editorial in the Daily Star praises the rapid construction of South Asia’s first underwater tunnel, in Chattogram, Bangladesh. China financed the project. “We also hope that other big infrastructure development projects in the country are worked on with the same sincerity and efficiency and are completed on time,” the editorial says.