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CWA # 241, 11 March 2020

Conflict Weekly 08
Triumphant Women's march across Pakistan, Anti-CAA Protests in Dhaka, Two Presidents in Afghanistan, and Turkey-Russia Ceasefire in Syria

  IPRI Team

IPRI Conflict Weekly, 11 March 2020, Vol.1, No. 9

Lakshmi V Menon, Sourina Bej, Sukanya Bali and  Sneha Tadkal

 

'Aurat March': A New beginning across Pakistan 

In the news
On 8 March 2020, Aurat (Women's) March was held nationwide in Pakistan to celebrate the International Women's Day. Marches commenced from the Frere Hall in Karachi, National Press Club in Islamabad and the respective Press Clubs of Multan, Quetta and Lahore. Equal rights, access to education, economic justice, inclusion, responsibility, justice for violence against women, ending of forced conversions and funding for missing persons' families were the demands raised. Marchers highlighted human rights' violation in disputed Kashmir and condemned socio-tribal practices such as Swara Wani and Karo-Kari. 

Aurat March 2020's manifesto revolved around 'khudmukhtari' (independence) of women. Women, children, transgenders and men attended the march. PPP leader Shaheed Bhutto and Ghinwa Bhutto also took part in the march. 

The contending 'Haya march' also took place in Islamabad, following which its participants pelted the Aurat march attendees with stones. Meanwhile, in the Punjab Assembly, PML-N MPA Kanwal Liaquat submitted a resolution condemning underage marriages, seeking social, economic and legal protection for women and demanding an end to gender discrimination.

Issues at large
Aurat 1 March began in 2018 in Karachi to coincide with World Women's Day on 8 March. Organized by a feminist collective standing for nonbinary persons, transgender people along with sexual and gender minorities – Hum Aurtain (Us Women), it had a manifesto demanding women's basic rights. In 2019, it extended to cities of Multan, Lahore, Larkana, Faisalabad and Hyderabad. 

Aurat March 2020 took place amid various issues. First, divisive arguments regarding gender inequality and women's role in society. Second, slogans such as "Meri Jism Meri Marzi" (My body My choice) triggered backlash from across all political parties. Third, appeals for restrictions on Aurat March were filed in Islamabad High Court. Chief Justice Athar Minallah rejected the petitions expressing hope that the marchers will exercise their rights in accordance with the law. Fourth, strong opposition from far-right factions in Pakistan's polity. Fifth, a warning by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority's (Pemra) to all satellite TV channels against airing of 'indecent content' while covering the Women's Day celebrations. The spiteful live debate between play writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar and activist Marvi Sirmed, aired by Neo News on 4 March worsened the state of affairs.

In perspective
The Aurat March has become the new face of Pakistan's women movement. In a conservative society, it is no small feat. It has become a noteworthy resistance movement against misogyny and patriarchy prevalent in the country's societal structures resulting in sexual and structural exploitation of women; thus, triggering strong backlash. Organizers have faced online harassment and threats as they were accused of being western agents trying to sabotage Pakistan's culture and were labelled "bad women".

While polarising the population at large, the march has made organizers and participants vulnerable to austere criticism from political parties and religious persons. Nevertheless, it has created awareness among women of Pakistan regarding their rights, provided a platform to demand the same and garnered international attention for their struggle.

This is a new beginning in Pakistan.

 

Anti-CAA Protests in Dhaka; Likely Echoes in West Bengal Elections

In the news
In the wake of the proposed visit by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to join the celebrations marking Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's birth centenary in Bangladesh, thousands gathered in protests on the streets of Dhaka on 6 March. The protests in Dhaka had broken out criticizing India's Prime Minister's nonchalant handling of the Delhi riots. One of the protesting outfits gave a call to form a nationwide human chain on 12 March and urged protesters to take to the streets carrying black flags, shoes, brooms and wearing shrouds. As per the New Age Bangladesh (reported in the Indian Express), the protests were organized by Samamana Islami Dalgulo and Islami Andolan Bangladesh at the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque premises. 

Modi's Dhaka visit on 17 March has presently been deferred as announced by the Indian External Affairs Ministry on 9 March. Raveesh Kumar, the spokesperson for the ministry, has said that a formal notification from the Government of Bangladesh noted that public events have been deferred on account of the detection of cases of coronavirus in Bangladesh.  

Issues at large 
Although the Hasina government has called these protests as stray protests and chose to be silent on the thousands who marched in Dhaka demanding the cancellation of Modi's visit, the decision to defer the visit due to coronavirus outbreak seems like an attempt to scale down the anti-CAA rhetoric in Bangladesh. The opposition leader Mirza Fakrul Islam Alamgir, who is also the secretary-general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had questioned the timing of Modi's planned visit. Although BNP has time and again sought to flare anti-India sentiment, this is not in isolation. In December, Bangladesh had cancelled scheduled visits to India by Momen and home minister Asaduzzaman Khan amid speculations that the ruling party Awami League was unhappy at the Indian leadership's repeated references to the Bangladeshi migrant/infiltrators in Parliament debates on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The decision to defer the visit of the Indian PM came after Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dhaka in the midst of the protests in all likelihood to take stock of the situation and also prepare the groundwork of possible treaty signing between the two countries that had been pending since the last visit of Hasina to New Delhi in 2019. Unequivocally, Momen said the Bangladesh government had been looking forward to Modi's visit eagerly as several key treaties on sharing the waters of six rivers, excluding the Teesta, which remains a thorn in bilateral relations were likely to be signed. 

The proposed visit of Modi and the following protests in Dhaka comes at another crucial juncture in the neighbourhood- the domestic state elections in West Bengal. The issue of CAA and the influx of Bangladeshis has built the election rhetoric to the extent that the state now stands polarised between the ruling Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee and the BJP under the current home minister Amit Shah. The polarisation has created the ground where the current election campaigns in West Bengal have made frequent references to shared identity with Dhaka to an extent that in April 2019, two Bangladeshi actors -- Ferdous Ahmed and Ghazi Abdul Noor -- were asked to leave India for campaigning in the TMC rally violating their visa conditions. Bangladesh has called the incident "unfortunate", but also criticized India's reaction as "harsh." As the domestic issues in India impact the neighbourhood, the issues in the neighbourhood have had an equal impact within India.    

In perspective
First, time and again questions of illegal crossing of Bangladeshis have been used in the state elections of West Bengal to appease Hindu and Muslim vote banks for the two parties.

On 2 January, the Director-General of the Border Guards Bangladesh, Major General Shafeenul Islam, said that 445 Bangladeshis have returned from India in November and December thereby giving fuel to the BJP's narrative that the CAA is working in West Bengal.  In addition, on 8 March when Amit Shah launched the party campaign in Kolkata, leading up to the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021, he harped solely on the CAA and how it would help Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. At the launch, the state BJP president gifted Shah a picture of Goddess Kali from the Ramna Kali Mandir in Dhaka, thereby sending home a strong message on how important the Bangladeshi migrant politics is for the BJP to win the election in West Bengal. The protests in Dhaka by the Islamist organization will give another fuel to drive home this note. 

Second, the ruling party leader Mamata Banerjee is confused about her stance on CAA and NRC. If the NRC gave her an edge initially, now, Shah by avoiding the NRC issue has made it an overused tool. The CAA has made it difficult to prove her secular credentials to her Hindu voters since she has set a dangerous precedent of appeasing the Muslim vote bank for years. The Delhi riots and the anti-Modi rhetoric in the neighbourhood do give her a case in point. However, It remains to be seen how she moulds the election point over it.  

Third, the protest in Dhaka has seen a merging of two important sentiments. While on one hand, the anti-Modi protests became a tool to express the anti-India sentiment, the anti-CAA protests also see a merging of the Bangla-Muslim identity swinging from secular to a linear and non-secular spectrum. This became clear when the resentment against India spread beyond the strong Islamist groups and organizations like the Alliance for Resistance of Terrorism and Communalism, a rights-based body that had fought against fundamentalism, joined the demonstrations in Dhaka.

 

Two Presidents in Afghanistan

In the news
On 9 March Afghanistan's President, Ashraf Ghani took oath for his second term. Simultaneously, Abdullah Abdullah former chief executive also took an oath, to form a parallel government. The US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad made several efforts over the week to negotiate between the two political leaders. 

The UN special representative said, "Terribly sad and dangerous. Two parallel ceremonies. This simply cannot continue. Strong unity is required, not destructive rivalries". The swearing ceremony of Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani was attended by international representatives including foreign diplomats including Zalmay Khalilzad, the US and NATO force commander. 

During the ceremony, a blast was reported, which was later claimed by the Islamic State. 

Issues at large
The Afghan election took place on 28 September, and the results were announced in February. In the final vote count, Ashraf Ghani attained 50.62 per cent of votes whereas Abdullah Abdullah secured 39.52 per cent. Abdullah Abdullah has disregarded the result and declared himself the winner saying that he would 'form his government'.

The election result is similar to that of 2014 when both the leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah was brought to negotiate over a power-sharing agreement by the US and the creation of a new position of 'Chief Executive' for Abdullah Abdullah. However, this time the US has failed to bring both together, which is likely to further delay the Intra-Afghan peace process. 

The election results were announced just before the signing of the US-Taliban peace deal. Ashraf Ghani was declared a winner and Abdullah Abdullah announced for setting a parallel government in Afghanistan. The US rebuked the formation of the parallel government and the US secretary of state-issued asserting Washington's stand. 

The US-Taliban deal went through several rounds of negotiations since 2018. Finally, the deal was signed between the US, Taliban, and Afghan government after a weeklong reduction in violence on 29 February in Doha. 

The deal seeks to address four major aspects. First, withdrawal of all the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in a timeline of 14 months. Second, a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Third, an intra-Afghan dialogue on 10 March. Fourth, guarantees from the Taliban of not letting anyone use Afghan soil as the launchpad of attacks against the US. 

A large number of women have come forward showing 'discontent' with the deal and called the deal, 'biased' in nature. In Afghanistan, women gained equal rights in the 2004 constitution. 

In perspective
First, the two ceremonies and the parallel governments will adversely affect the peace process which the world is looking for in Afghanistan. The dispute between the two leaders will bring in new internal crisis, which will further lead to instability in the country. 

Second, the Taliban, which considered the Afghan government as 'puppet' government is not likely to hold negotiations with the disputed government. They already condemn the government, and hence bringing an inclusive team to the negotiating table will be a significant challenge in the coming week for Afghanistan. This will delay the start of intra-Afghan talks. 

Third, the political crisis in the country will further have economic repercussions which may increase poverty, unemployment and an uncertain future.
Fourth, women of Afghanistan believe that the deal would affect the long-lost freedom they had once achieved. In the name of bringing peace to Afghanistan, the nation may lose its integrity and security of its women.

 

Turkey-Russia Ceasefire Deal in Syria: Idlib's Agony is Far From Over

In the news
On the midnight of 5 March, Russia and Turkey struck a ceasefire deal on northwestern Syria's Idlib region. After six hours of negotiations in the Kremlin, the ceasefire agreement was concluded to put a halt to the ongoing conflict between Russian-backed Syrian forces and the Turkish-backed rebels. Both sides have agreed to patrol a seven-mile (12km) "safety corridor" along the strategic M4 highway that dissects Idlib province. The deal hopes to bring stability and address the humanitarian crisis in the region and facilitate the return of refugees to their homes. More than a million people are said to have been displaced since Syria launched its offensive in Idlib province in December. Both leaders of Russia and Turkey are also committed to further talks in the days ahead to discuss critical details.

There was no role of Syria in the process of the proposal of the ceasefire agreement. Syria sees this deal as not a permanent solution but temporary freezing of the conflict. The fact that the Syrian leaders would respect this deal is questionable as it had previously resisted to come to a ceasefire and not stop the offensive in Idlib. Its efforts to retain Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian rebels remain a priority.

Issues at large
The conflict in Idlib has long been a pressing issue for both Russia backed Syrian forces and the Syrian rebels. The recent developments of intensifying the attacks on each other and the displacement of thousands of migrants were predictable. When in 2011, civil war broke out in Syria, the government forces and their allies fought hard against the rebels and retook Syria's major urban and strategic areas. The opposition fighters and civilians were forced to move to Idlib against the offensive of Assad's regime. Since then the province's population has more than doubled, to about three million. Devastated by violence, this displaced population is mostly impoverished and rely on some form of humanitarian aid.

Assad and his allies, especially Russia, are now pushing to retake Idlib. Their interests lie in retaining their control over the strategic location of Idlib and not pay heed to the population of Idlib. Russian backed Syrian forces consider the Syrian rebels as terrorists and they have launched attacks under the guise of fighting terrorism, leaving civilians as the worst affected. From the Syrian government perspective, the new deal is not going to stop but continue the offensive against rebels.

Russia and Turkey have backed opposite forces in the Idlib region, and the fighting has been ferocious in the last few weeks pushing both sides to the brink of war. The agreed ceasefire deal will see the Russian side protecting its military bases in Syria and holding on to the territorial gains made by the Syrian army, without spoiling its relations with Turkey. Turkey has demanded the European Union's support for its actions in Syria and last week opened its border with EU member Greece to let the migrants reach Europe. Russia has been offering help to Turkey since its western allies were hesitant to offer a strong partnership. 

In perspective
First, there is a rapid deterioration in the conditions of the civilians and displaced people over the past few months. The air and ground attacks in Idlib have resulted in people pushing to cross borders despite the harsh weather conditions. The recent ceasefire deal is far from addressing the woes of the migrants, civilians and does not talk about the migrant crisis. The previous ceasefire deals have not yielded much and were never permanent. In all probability, people are going to migrate in large numbers for their survival and look for the support of other governments. Hence the ceasefire may stop the fighting, but not the migration. The impact of the conflict on the Syrians in Idlib will continue with no sustainable peace in sight. 

Second, the ceasefire deal remains mostly in favour of Russia. Turkey's position on openly blaming the US for supporting a coup against their government and their falling apart with Europe after allowing migrants to cross EU borders is helping Russia establish itself as a trusted ally in the region. Russia would court Turkey to contain western influence in Syria. While the geopolitics continue to oscillate between Russia, Turkey, and Syria, the region could be looking at another migrant crisis and a backlash from Europe. Taking lessons from its past, Europe is equipped enough to draw its boundaries on the entry of refugees. 

 

Conflict Weekly is an academic initiative to follow conflicts and peace processes around the world. The Weekly is a part of research at the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS

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