The Year That Was
By Rahul Kumar
South Asia is not known as a highly stable region but this year some of its main protagonists, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, became united—over their treatment of women. As news related to withdrawal of American troops and bombings in Afghanistan; suicide attacks and blasphemy laws in Pakistan; protests over various aspects of governance in India; became a staple, there was a barrage of incidents related to violence against women from these countries.
If the Taliban were poisoning the water tanks of girls’ schools in Afghanistan to keep them away from ‘western’ education’; radicals shot and seriously injured the 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan for promoting education for girls; and women in India were fighting for stronger laws for rapists as rapes increased alarmingly across the country.
Even as the Afghan government investigated the poisonings in almost half-a-dozen schools, Pakistani girl Malala survived miraculously and has now become an international mascot for the girls’ right to education. In India, the government found itself out of sync with the public as many politicians made derogatory remarks against women for protesting a bestial attack by six young men on a 23-year-old woman. Anger over the government’s insensitive response made campaigners vent sarcasm, abuse and ridicule over Twitter and Facebook.
It was in 2012 that young Indians learnt to vent their feelings; ask for justice; and grab the attention of the government through the social media. The government responded both online and offline. On the positive side, the Prime Minister’s Office went live on Twitter; Sam Pitroda held a Twitter press conference and various ministries opened up Facebook pages.
On the negative, a touchy government sought to block the accounts of prominent social media activists, including journalists, on twitter. It went to the extent of writing to Twitter and Facebook to block and remove pages and content that was ‘offensive’. In other words, comments critical of the government and its style of functioning were asked to be removed which only strengthened people’s perception about the government being overly sensitive to public scrutiny.
Offline, the government sought to curb and restrict popular mobilisation by shutting down public transport services many a times. Parts of central Delhi, the seat of governance that also has symbols of India, were made inaccessible to protestors. Still, angry and defiant people made their way to the protest sites to not only vent their anger but also prod the government to take notice of its own people.
The government found itself on the back foot once again when ethnic riots between the Bodo tribe and Muslims erupted in Assam and went on for weeks, ultimately leading to a mass exodus not only in Assam but also the entire country. The riot-affected people had to take shelter in camps for months together. But the ethnic clashes took a turn for the worse when certain Muslim groups retaliated in many states in south India by threatening and attacking people from the North-East and forcing them to return back to their native states. The government blamed the attacks on inflammatory materials and hate speeches posted over the internet by Pakistan but India was in flames.
The polio virus came in sharp focus in the South Asian region with India reporting a polio-free year and the World Health Organisation removing the nation from the list of the polio-endemic countries. On the other hand, 2012 ended with more polio news when the Taliban shot dead five women anti-polio workers on the pretext that they were spying for the US. The virus remains in just three countries worldwide, of which two, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are in South Asia. These remain endemic because of strong resistance to polio-eradication campaigns by the Taliban.
Overall, despite a turbulent year, the region is witnessing changes that will go a long way in ushering in democracy, freedom of speech as well as more accountability from the governments (hopefully). The internet demonstrated its power with people successfully standing up to the government and trying to make their voices heard. But with the disdain that politicos treated people across the continent, the point is whether the political class is willing to identify itself with the governance that people want and the issues that the masses think are important.
As 2012 comes to a close, people hope that memories will not be shortlived and the sacrifices made by the numerous polio workers, Malala Yousafzai and the victim of the Delhi gangrape will usher in reforms in governance and a positive change in mindsets.
Need to watch and wait.
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2013 to be year of elections in South Asia
By Bijoy Patro
2013 will be a year of reckoning throughout the region with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, going to elections or preparing for them. Simultaneously, Pakistan and Afghanistan will reach a decisive moment in the war on terror.
For the first time ever, elections in South Asia promise to bring forth a people-centred development agenda - as electoral battles promise to be marked with a debate on the quality of the lives of citizens. 2013 could mark the beginning of a political process that transcends sectarian and caste politics that has been the hallmark of the region’s politics.
As Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, scion of the Pakistan's leading political family brushes up his Urdu language skills to face the elections, he would be well-prepared to tune into the pulse of his country's people and their prayers for a country free from violence and a life of dignity. For instance, Pakistanis have not forgotten the inadequate distribution of humanitarian aid following devastating floods affecting over half of the country for three successive years. The state of the girl child in Pakistan also promises to echo in the aftermath of the attack on Malala Yousafzai for her espousal of the cause of education of the girl child as will the issue of drone attacks in the north western regions of the country which continue to arouse passions across the political, religious and military spectrum.
Bhutto-Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition is focusing on setting a democratic record: the first elected government to survive a full term in office. The next government will also be seized with an increasingly active role in the peace process in Afghanistan this year amid fears that a withdrawal of NATO troops a year later could lead to chaos throughout the region.
In the meanwhile, India enters 2013 in campaign mode with the development agenda taking centre-stage what with the issue of corruption in high places dominating the public space for most of 2012. The Congress-led government enters the year having managed votes in Parliament to accelerate its reform programme, mainly by attracting foreign investors and unveiling new schemes to help the poor open bank accounts to transfer government benefits as an alternative to passing money through an officialdom viewed as corrupt. Besides promising to provide the poor with low cost homes, it will also hope to unveil its first foreign supermarkets, possibly Tesco or Walmart, to show voters they can bring down food prices and stop 40 per cent of all food produce rotting on the roads or in storage.
David Cameron will visit to India to explore avenues for British trade and industry even as India's economic growth rate slows down to a projected seven per cent. India's proposed space expeditions, including a mission to Mars will vie for attention with Bollywood's centenary. It would be interesting to see how government spin-doctors generate a feel-good factor for the voters by connecting with Cameron's visit or the centenary of Bollywood.
In neighbouring Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s final term in office means the war and the talks will be conducted in the backdrop of a presidential campaign with candidatures to be announced in October 2013.
As the chill Afghan winter offers its people an opportunity to sit indoors and speak of their lives ahead and dream for an end to violence, the political debate in Kabul will be dominated by issues concerning its womenfolk, food security, health and education. These issues will be discussed (with able guidance and expertise of the various humanitarian and development actors present in the country) through the year to set the agenda for the presidential election.
Sri Lanka's northern provinces go to elections after decades of civil war and in the backdrop of a news on how the UN System failed to protect the interests of its Tamil majority. The re-building of the economy and the rehabilitation of the Tamil population promise to figure prominently in the manifestoes of the parties contesting the polls. The treatment humanitarian and aid agencies have been meted out by the government can also become an issue in the test of the ballots.
While the conduct of Sri Lanka's army and political leadership will come into focus, the elections in Sri Lanka will also be influenced by a Tamil diaspora in the West and their ability to influence western governments to raise the development bar for the various actors in the peninsula.
Nepal too faces a constituent assembly election in May. Its politicians’ inability to agree on the issue of autonomy for its different regions will weigh heavily as voters come out to exercise their franchise. The role of its powerful Maoists in shaping the outcome of the yet-to-be-drafted constitution will also come into question.
Nepal has seen some of the best developments in the past few years. Its campaign against HIV/AIDS, for example, is cited for emulation in other parts of the region. However, the political uncertainty of the past years has discouraged donors. The global fund, for example, did not approve a single project related to Nepal - an instance that aid workers point to, to illustrate the impact of the political unrest on development.
Bangladesh's election campaign by the end of 2013 promises to bring forth the issue of the civil unrest and culture general strikes and provoked riots. Its civil society looks forward to an end to prosecutions of Islamic party leaders accused of crimes during its war for independence.
The coming election could also bring into focus the treatment metted out to the leadership of Bangladesh's civil society, Mohammed Yunus, after the government intervened in the working of the Grameen Bank and the many self-help groups it spurred. Bangladesh's civil society will also take this as an opportunity to drive home its contribution to the enhanced development indicators that have been made possible despite an unstable political leadership.
In the Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives, political turmoil has affected the mainstay of its economy—the archipelago’s tourism industry that draws people to remotely-located resorts for several thousand dollars a day. It also sits on the route busy shipping lanes and has increasingly become a target for Somali pirates. As the country is poised for elections in July 2013, its future is inviting an element of restlessness from its population, mainly its youth who are getting increasingly influenced by radical Islam.
Bhutan will also experience its second round of parliamentary elections during the first half of the year. An exploratory phase of experimenting and internalising democratic norms has formalised well-rooted democratic structures in a country that got “democracy as a gift” (kidu) from its monarchy. The process of democratization has indeed given rise to various stakeholders in the internal politics of Bhutan.
More importantly, the election will pit the country's concept of Gross National Happiness against the conventional Gross Domestic Product (at 8.5 per cent, Bhutan's GDP growth rate is one of the highest in South Asia) as development indicators present a confusing picture: just three doctors, most often Indians, for every 10,000 people or 70 per cent access to safe drinking water or growing unemployment.
Most interestingly, the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa, a new political party will voice the aspirations of the country's women and marginalized are stated to be the main focus of the party. Another party, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa will bring forth issues of freedom, justice and solidarity to the political debate in the nascent democracy.
For a parting shot, India and Pakistan have begun the year with the best peace on offer as India hosts Pakistan’s cricketers after a gap of four years since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan's cricketers will be accompanied by 3,000 fans. Even a small gesture of harmony between the two sparring neighbours can bring winds of peace to the region.
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