Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out every two weeks. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get episode links for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about the G20 summit in Delhi and allegations in a recent documentary by the UK’s Channel 4 News about government involvement in Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter Sunday bombings.
In “Around Southasia in 5 minutes” we talk about ransomware attacks impacting Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan government data, the rollout of Bhutan’s digital identification system, outbreaks of dengue in Bangladesh and of the Nipah virus in Kerala, new remittance rules impacting migrant workers in Myanmar, the Editors Guild of India’s fact-finding report on Manipur and FIRs against the guild filed by the Manipur police, and former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s imminent return to the country ahead of elections.
For “Bookmarked”, we talk about Hindi action-thriller Jawan, starring Shah Rukh Khan and directed by Atlee.
This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
This episode was recorded on 20 September 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our fortnightly roundup of news events and regional affairs. I’m Raisa and I’m joined by my colleague and fact-checker and researcher, Ritika Chauhan.
Ritika Chauhan: Hi Raisa!
RW: Hi Ritika!
So for this episode, we’re going to be talking about the G20 Summit in Delhi and recent revelations about Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in a documentary by the UK’s Channel 4. In “Around Southasia in 5 minutes” we’ll be talking about ransomware attacks in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, the rollout of Bhutan’s digital ID, rising dengue cases in Bangladesh and an outbreak of the Nipah virus in Kerala, a new remittance rule impacting migrant workers in Myanmar, the Indian Editors Guild statement on Manipur, and Pakistan’s ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s imminent return from exile.
Let’s start by talking about the G20 Summit.
RC: The 2023 G20 Summit was held on the 9th and 10th of September in Delhi. India was quick to claim a diplomatic win, particularly as they were able to press the members to agree to a joint declaration despite the broader backdrop of the war in Ukraine which raised fears that consensus might not be reached for the first time. Russian president Vladimir Putin faces arrest when he travels due to a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court accusing him of war crimes in Ukraine, and did not attend the summit, sending his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in his stead. The final joint declaration, which is supposedly the result of over 200 hours of negotiations, condemned the use of force for territorial gain in the context of the Ukraine-Russia war, but avoided direct criticism of Russia, to some criticism including from Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko.
Modi also conveyed “strong concerns” about anti-India protests held in Canada in a sharply worded statement. Delhi has long been sensitive to the issue of pro-Khalistan Sikh protesters in Canada, accusing the protesters of promoting secessionism and inciting violence against diplomats. Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau has maintained that they will always protect peaceful protest while working to combat violence and hatred. Tensions came to a head after the summit, with Trudeau saying that Canada had credible information linking India to the murder of a pro-Khalistan Sikh leader in Canada, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in June, and expelled a senior Indian intelligence official as a result, worsening bilateral ties between the two countries. The two countries have frozen talks on a trade deal by the end of 2023 in part due to these tensions.
While on the other hand, during the summit, the African Union joined G20 as a permanent member, becoming the second regional bloc to join after the European Union and raising hopes that more attention would be drawn to the needs of developing economies at the summit. Also announced during the summit was an ambitious economic corridor linking India, the Middle East and Europe through rail and sea. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that the rail link would make trade between India and Europe 40 percent faster. Unfortunately, the G20 members were unable to come to a consensus on climate change outcomes, committing only to triple renewable energy sources by 2030 but without an action plan on how to actually achieve this target.
And while India claimed the joint declaration and the summit itself as a diplomatic success, the poor in Delhi paid the heaviest price. The government put up green curtains to cover low-income neighbourhoods from visitors and launched a beautification drive that led to the demolition of shops and homes while installing flowers, murals, lights and billboards featuring prime minister Modi’s face. This was reported to cost 41 billion Indian rupees (just under 500 million US dollars to be exact). There were reports that some 4000 homeless were shifted to shelters outside Delhi and roadside vendors and shops in Delhi were forced to bear three days of losses as they were ordered to shut for the duration of the summit. Schools, offices and colleges were also ordered to remain shut.
RW: In Sri Lanka, a documentary released by the British Channel 4’s investigative and current affairs programme, Dispatches, claimed that the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which led to 269 deaths, had been partly orchestrated by military intelligence in order to bring Gotabaya Rajapaksa into power as president.
[Audio from Channel 4 Dispatches: Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings]
The documentary featured testimony from Hanzeer Azad Maulana, who is a former aide of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, who is a leader of the political party TMVP. In the documentary, Maulana said he had arranged a meeting between the head of military intelligence, Suresh Sallay, and a group from National Thowheed Jamath, the group was later identified as responsible for planning and executing the Easter Sunday bombings, in Puttalam in February 2018. While Maulana did not attend the meeting, he claimed that Sallay told him afterwards that creating a situation of instability was the only way that Gotabaya Rajapaksa could become president. Maulana said he later recognised the faces of the bombers as people who had been among this group during this meeting in Puttalam in 2018, adding that this plan had been years in the making.
Now In response to these allegations, former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the documentary was a “tissue of lies” and that it was an “anti-Rajapaksa tirade” aimed at blackening the Rajapaksa legacy. He also said he had no contact with Suresh Sallay from 2015 onwards. Meanwhile, Suresh Sallay himself said he was in Malaysia at the time as a minister counsellor for the government of Sri Lanka, and he denied meeting with the bombers. The government has said it would appoint a parliamentary committee to investigate these allegations. There has been some attempts to provide reparations for the victims of the bombings. In January this year, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ordered President Maithripala Sirisena to pay 100 million Sri Lankan rupees as compensation to victims of the attacks, while the former heads of the security sector including the IGP, secretary to the ministry of defence, and the heads of state intelligence, national intelligence and the state were collectively ordered to pay compensation totalling over 200 million rupees. But families of the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings say justice has proved more elusive. Charges were not pressed against former president Sirisena despite a presidential commission report finding that there were grounds to initiate criminal proceedings against him and some of the intelligence chiefs. The current president Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was prime minister at the time, did not face sanction as his lawyers claimed presidential immunity (at the time of the bombings, Wickremesinghe claimed to have been “left out of the loop” of intelligence briefings, in the aftermath of a rift with then president Maithripala Sirisena that led to a political crisis in 2018).
On April 21 this year, thousands of Sri Lankans lined up along the main road connecting Colombo with the international airport – this was to mark four years since the bombings. Their slogans and key message was that the government had not done enough to deliver justice for the victims of the bombing and punish those responsible. During the recently held UN Human Rights Council session, the deputy high commissioner Nada al-Nashif stressed the urgent need to establish an independent and transparent investigation into the Easter Sunday bombing with international assistance and called for “the full participation of victims and their representatives.”
We published a piece in the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict in January this year by Rathindra Kuruwita, do check that out in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
RC: On 9 September, the Tamil Nadu police website was hacked, with cybercriminals demanding USD 20,000 to restore the website. The hackers gained access thanks to two weak passwords on the site. While the website was subsequently restored, it appears that the hackers gained access to the Face Recognition System database during the breach. This database contains images and details about individuals with criminal records including repeat offenders. Police officials informed The Hindu that the incident also potentially affected a variety of e-services offered by the Tamil Nadu police, such as filing online complaints, access to first information reports and checking the status of investigations. As it happens, the Tamil Nadu police’s use of facial recognition technology is being challenged in the Madras High Court due to privacy concerns, and this breach hopefully and will definitely heighten conversation around privacy issues.
On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, the Sunday Times reported that the cabinet office and other government institutions using a gov. lk domain lost a huge amount of data due to a ransomware attack. According to the Information and Communication Technology Agency, around 5000 email addresses were affected and lost data between 17 May to 26 August as the ransomware’s encryption impacted online backups. The ICTA CEO Mahesh Perera said offline backups had not been maintained due to “administrative problems.” Critics raised concerns over the future of e-government in Sri Lanka, and key as Sri Lanka is in the process of rolling out a digital ID system which has drawn criticism from privacy advocates all across the board.
RW: In July this year, Bhutan adopted the National Digital Identity Bill and is in the process of rolling out Bhutan’s own digital identification system. The seven-year-old crown prince of Bhutan, Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, was the first to enroll in the system and it is expected to be rolled out to the rest of the population within 2023. Bhutan’s digital ID system is built on blockchain technology, which the country claims allows for citizens to have a “self-sovereign” ID which can be controlled only by a citizen and not any other entity. This is probably in response to the recommendations made during the debate on the Digital Identity Bill with privacy being one of the major concerns raised. However, Bhutan maintains that it will remain in the hands of citizens to decide what data should be shared with which government entities.
We’ve previously published articles on Nepal and Bangladesh’s biometric identification systems and also the Family ID system rolled out in Jammu and Kashmir in January 2023 – so it’s a good time to re-read those now, and we’ll link to those in the episode notes.
RC: Bangladesh is experiencing its most severe dengue outbreak on record according to the World Health Organisation, recording more than 157,000 cases and 778 deaths according to Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Services, putting a huge strain on Bangladesh’s health system. A WHO situation report found that 12,791 cases and 86 deaths were recorded the week of 4 September alone, an increase compared to the previous week. The spike in cases is being attributed to climate change, with the WHO noting that both climate change and El Nino’s warming weather pattern contributed to dengue outbreaks in Bangladesh and South America among other regions. In January we published a video report on how climate change in Bangladesh was driving a dengue outbreak in winter – check that out in the episode notes.
[Audio from news reports on Bangladesh’s dengue outbreak and Nepah infections in Kerala]
In Kerala, schools and offices are being shut after six cases of the rare Nipah virus were confirmed. Two people have died so far, with four more in hospital receiving treatment. All the cases have been reported in Kozhikode district in northern Kerala. So far, containment zones have been declared throughout Kozhikode district and the state is testing high-risk contacts in a situation reminiscent of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions. Educational institutes in Kozhikode were ordered to shut until further notice, with orders for online classes to resume. India is also in the process of procuring a monoclonal antibody from Australia for the treatment of the Nipah virus. There are currently no established treatments for Nipah infections. The monoclonal antibody is classed as an experimental therapeutic treatment which can be used on compassionate, or potentially life-saving grounds, where there’s no other treatment available. The India Council for Medical Research has also said they plan to begin work on developing a vaccine against the Nipah virus soon. The neighbouring Karnataka state government also issued a travel advisory and announced increased surveillance to avoid its spread beyond Kerala. This is the fourth outbreak of the Nipah virus since 2018.
RW: In Myanmar, the junta is demanding that expatriate workers remit 25 percent of their foreign currency income back to the country using the country’s banking system, with one of the largest private banks, CB Bank, notifying migrant workers. Those who do not comply will be barred from working overseas for 3 years from when their current work permits expire. Now, Migrant workers will be required to open a bank account at the Central Bank of Myanmar and remit their earnings to this account. The junta’s labour ministry is also offering tax incentives, saying that those who invest in Myanmar and who buy property in the country will be able to do so tax-free. Labour rights activists criticised the move as exploitative, particularly as the remittances will be converted at the official exchange rate of 2100 kyats per US dollar compared to the market rate of 3400 kyats. This rule will certainly impact the two million licensed migrant workers in Thailand (with a reported three million more workers who are unlicensed).
The shadow civilian National Unity Government urged workers not to remit funds through the official banking system as it would only go to fund the junta regime. The new rule highlights Myanmar’s increased isolation as several countries have imposed sanctions targeting individuals connected to the junta regime. Adding to this, Southeast Asian leaders also announced that Myanmar would not be taking over the rotating leadership of their regional bloc in 2026 as was scheduled. The announcement was made at an ASEAN leaders summit on September 5, with the Philippines agreeing to take over the chairmanship instead.
RC: On September 2, the Editors Guild of India released a fact-finding report on the reportage of the ethnic violence in Manipur. In the report, the Editors Guild highlighted representations noting that the media was playing a partisan role in the violence, including complaints from the Army Corps. The fact-finding team noted that “it was very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction” with “extreme pressure being exerted on journalists, whether Meitei or tribal, to reflect the dominant view of their ethnic societies.” The Editors Guild also highlighted the impact of the ongoing internet ban on journalists in its report – leading to difficulties in cross-checking information, and highlighted the partisan role of state leadership in responding to the ethnic violence. After the Editors Guild released the report, Manipur police filed two FIRs against office bearers in the Editors Guild, accusing them of promoting enmity between different groups, defamation and criminal conspiracy among other charges under the Indian Penal Code. On September 15, India’s Supreme Court extended interim protection from arrest to the four members of the Editors Guild of India who were named in the FIRs – with the Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud saying that prima facie, no offences could be made out against the journalists.
RW: On September 12, Pakistan’s former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif announced that his brother, exiled former prime minister and leader of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif would be returning to the country on October 21, ending four years of exile. Nawaz Sharif was serving a 7-year prison sentence in Lahore before he was allowed to travel to London in 2019 on “medical grounds”. In the wake of this recent news of his return, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled to restore corruption cases against public office holders that were withdrawn after amendments were made to Pakistan’s accountability laws. This verdict from the Supreme Court came in response to a petition filed by the ousted prime minister Imran Khan who claimed that the amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance legitimised corruption and benefited influential people. In an interview, Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar said that law enforcement agencies would decide on whether to arrest Sharif should he arrive in the country next month. Meanwhile, Shehbaz Sharif told the media that his brother would arrive in Pakistan on October 21 as scheduled, adding that there was “no merit” in the cases filed against Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistan has remained impacted by continued political instability ever since Khan was ousted from his post in a No-Confidence Motion. Recently in a surprise move, the president Arif Alvi recommended an election date of November 6, a move which is seen as unconstitutional as it is up to the Elections Commission to decide a date for elections. Now the Elections Commission is in the process of declaring new boundaries, a process which must be completed before elections can be held, and it is likely that the election date is going to be postponed. This is raising concerns of military creep affecting political affairs. We’ve been covering various aspects of Pakistan’s political and economic crisis in past episodes of Southasiasphere, which we’ll link to in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked.
RW: Ritika, what have you been watching and what are we talking about in this episode?
RC: Thanks, Raisa. I think this is going to excite some of our Bollywood-esque listeners since the movie we’ll be talking about has been generating quite a buzz, and of course, no brownie points for guessing it right. So today we have on our list Jawan, a Hindi language action thriller film that’s directed by Arun Kumar, better known as Atlee. While Arun Kumar is best known for his work in Tamil films, this is his first Hindi film. The movie star, Shah Rukh Khan plays a dual role as a jailer of a women’s prison and the jailer’s father. As a jailer, Khan embarks on a spree of vigilante justice aimed at “righting social wrongs” and highlighting government failings – taking on pollution and industrialism, the inadequacies of the health sector, corruption in defence deals and farmer debt among other issues as well. Of course, this movie also has a wider political context in the backdrop, which is being very widely discussed as well, that Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan, was arrested in Mumbai in 2021 on drug charges which the authorities failed to prove. The arrest was seen by some as targeting Shah Rukh Khan for his public image as a liberal and a Muslim. This is the backdrop that was alluded to even in promoting the film which heightened attention around its release.
RW: That’s right Ritika and I think given this context, people were really interested to watch this movie and to see what kind of messages were going to be given. But critics have also been saying that the film doesn’t really go far enough. We published a review by Anna Vetticad which makes this point, noting that the movie treads with caution and tackles contentious issues but often with non-specific, “safe” writing that makes the movie palatable to a mass audience. We’ll link to the review in our episode notes – so do check that out as well.
[Audio from Jawan trailer]
Some of my friends who watched Jawan in the cinema agreed that the movie was overly cautious, especially when it came to addressing the persecution against religious minorities, which Khan was perhaps uniquely positioned to do. But they noted that it did make reference to the case of Dr Kafeel Khan in the film. Dr Khan is a a doctor who fought a prolonged legal battle to clear his name after the death of dozens of children in Uttar Pradesh when the state ran out of oxygen in 2017. It’s quite a well-known case and there’s a clear allusion to that in the film. There has also been criticism that the women characters are only given the illusion of importance while remaining underdeveloped and remaining on the margins. But still, it’s interesting that so many women actors came forward to support Khan in this movie, especially given the backdrop of political persecution surrounding the arrest of his son. At the end of the day though, Jawan appears to be a mass movie that is focused on celebrating Shah Rukh Khan’s return to the screen. My friend who watched the movie in the cinema said that the loudest cheer of the night was for the line “Before you touch the son, deal with his father,” which was seen as Khan responding to his son’s arrest.
And on that note, that’s it for this episode of Southasiasphere. Stay tuned for more from us in the coming weeks. Bye!
RC: Thanks for tuning in. Bye!