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NIAS Global Politics News Database
South Asia This Week (26 Feb-02 Mar 2024)

  NIAS South Asia Team

By Akriti Sharma, Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sneha Surendran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, Narmatha S, Shamini Velayutham, and Dhriti Mukherjee

A major regional development from South Asia was Dosti 16, a naval exercise conducted between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka along with Bangladesh as the observer. The exercise aims at maritime regional cooperation on search and rescue, medical evacuations, countering piracy, pollution, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Additionally, a technical team from India reached the Maldives to begin troop withdrawal which was demanded by the President of Maldives as he came to power and had become a controversial issue between the two. PML-N chairman Shehbaz Sharif was appointed as the Prime Minister of Pakistan after the elections took place.

In India, the major development in India was the farmer's protest that included tractor marches to demonstrate against the use of violence on farmers and a “Quit WTO Day” was observed to exclude farmer policies from WTO guidelines. India also conducted the MILAN 2024 exercise. The Mizoram Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Centre’s move to terminate the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and to fence the borders with Myanmar. Additionally, the Ministry of External Affairs asserted that many Indians were freed from the Russian Army as they were hired as security helpers for the Russian Army. The Prime Minister also announced that India will have its space station by 2035. Some domestic developments include the Assam state cabinet decision to repeal the Muslim’s Marriage Act, which aims at curbing child marriages. Additionally, the violence in Manipur continues with a police officer being abducted radical group Arambai Tengol. Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealed India's plans to establish its space station by 2035.

In Pakistan, a major development was PML-N chairman Shehbaz Sharif was appointed as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Additionally, China lent two billion to Pakistan, the US stressed Pakistan's work with the IMF to improve the economic situation and newly elected MPAs took their oaths.

The major development from Sri Lanka was the backlash witnessed by the Speaker of the Parliament who was being accused of violating the constitution. The accusations came after his push to cast a vote to promote the appointment of a controversial police officer as the chief of the country. Additionally, the speaker was also accused of not following legal procedure while passing the Online Safety Bill. Additionally, Sri Lanka's debt restructuring and the upcoming second IMF review will be smooth and successful according to  Sri Lanka's Finance Minister Semasinghe. The country is expected to receive another USD 03 billion bailout package from the IMF. Some minor developments include backlash faced by the White Party for being “racist” while inviting people to an event and having to apologise for the same.

From Nepal, minor development was that import-driven Nepal may face the impact of the Red Sea crisis in two ways one, rising shipping costs, and the second, shared rising cost burden from India. Another domestic issue was landlessness in Gandaki province, where a group of Muslim community people in Baglung, a hill district suffered from not having their burial grounds.

In Bangladesh, the major news was the reopening of the schools after the security situation deteriorated with Myanmar security personnel entering bordering districts. Additionally, 46 people were killed during a building fire. Additionally, Dhaka was ranked the second most air-polluted city in the world with deteriorating AQI from the past few months. Some other South Asian cities including Kathmandu, Colombo, and New Delhi have also recorded poor air quality raising health concerns.

South Asia: Dosti 16 Exercise kicks off in the Indian Ocean
On 25 February, the Hindu reported that Maldivian Defence Minister Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon formally inaugurated the 16th iteration of ‘Dosti,” the biennial exercise, which took place from 22 to 25 February. He highlighted the importance of the “collaboration and interoperability” between the coast guard personnel of Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. In Dosti 16, Bangladesh is set to be an observer while Indian Coast Guard ship Samarth and ICGS Abhinav along with Sri Lanka Naval Ship Samudura participated. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) in a statement said: “Scheduled from February 22nd to 25, the exercise provides participating forces with opportunities to engage in various maritime activities, including interdiction operations, search and rescue missions, surveillance, and communication drills." In 1992, the only participating nations in the 'Dosti' series of naval drills were India and the Maldives. In 2012, Sri Lanka became a part of the program, and this year, for the 16th edition, the Bangladesh Coast Guard has also become an observer.

Maldives: India commences replacement of troops
On 29 February, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced that the technical team of India reached Maldives to replace military troops. This is the first replacement of troops. The number of replacement counts is still unclear. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal stated; “The first team of technical personnel to operate the advanced light helicopter at Gan has reached Maldives. It will replace the existing personnel that were until now operating this platform. So that is where we are.” This move will be widely taken as a major backtrack towards the Maldives after the escalated “India out” campaign. The situation between India and Maldives is at stake after the recently elected Muizzu government asked for troop withdrawal.

Pakistan: Shehbaz Sharif takes oath as the Prime Minister
On 03 March, Shehbaz Sharif was elected by Pakistan's Parliament as its 24th Prime Minister. He secured 201 votes, against his PTI-backed opponent, who got 92. Though the PML-N, the party that Sharif belongs to does not have the majority, he was supported by the PPP, MQM-P, PML-Q, IPP and a few others. After the election, Shehbaz said: "It is difficult and a long and thorny journey full of hurdles, but countries that surmounted these challenges became one of the most prosperous nations around the world...But if we decide to do a deep surgery and bring changes in the system, basic reforms, I do not doubt that Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and others will agree that we can either get rid of a life of debt or we move forward in shame."

India: Protesting farmer group observe “Quit WTO Day”
On 26 February, amid the ongoing stand-off between the Central government and protesting farmers, numerous farmers conducted tractor marches on State and National Highways and staged demonstrations in Punjab and Haryana. This coincided with a call for support from various farmer organizations. On 26 February, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) held the ‘Quit WTO Day,’ claiming that the Centre was repressing Punjab’s farmers to gain mileage for the upcoming elections by sidelining the state. The SKM (Non-Political) and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha also called for the removal of the agricultural sector from the WTO agreement. Since 13 February, the Shambhu-Ambala and Khanauri-Jind regions at the Haryana-Punjab border have been occupied by protesting farmers barred from entering Haryana. According to the SKM, tractors have been stationed along the roads to demonstrate against the use of violence on the farmers.

India: MILAN- 2024 kicks off at Vishakhapatnam
On 25 February, the sea portion of the biennial naval exercise MILAN-2024 began off at the coast of Vishakhapatnam between the Indian Navy and ships and planes from across the world. The intense maritime phase, which includes the air, surface, and underwater domains, began on the first day with a powerful naval demonstration. The second day was followed by the participants engaged in a series of advanced exercises covering all three dimensions of maritime warfare. Activities including weapon firing against surface and high-speed aerial targets, anti-submarine warfare, cross-deck landings, carrier operations, and seamanship evolutions such as replenishment at sea were performed. The official statement by the Indian Navy said: "The MILAN-2024 sea phase serves as a testament to the commitment of the participating nations towards promoting peace, stability, and interoperability in the maritime domain. As the exercise progresses, the world witnesses a united front of naval forces actively building bridges and strengthening global maritime security."

India: Many Indians freed from Russian Army, says MEA
On 26 February, the Ministry of External Affairs asserted that many Indians were freed from the Russian Army. Many Indians who worked as security helpers for the Russian army were trying to seek help from the Indian government for their release. The MEA said: “Each and every such case brought to the attention of the Indian Embassy in Moscow has been strongly taken up with the Russian authorities and those brought to the attention of the Ministry have been taken up with the Russian Embassy in New Delhi. Several Indians have already been discharged as a result. We remain committed, as a matter of top priority, to actively pursuing with the Russian authorities all the relevant cases of Indian nationals for an early discharge from the Russian Army.”

India: Space Station by 2035
On 01 March, The Hindu reported that after announcing the astronauts for the Gaganyaan mission in Thiruvananthapuram on February 27,  Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealed India's plans to establish its space station by 2035. During his address at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Modi emphasized India's upcoming lunar mission to bring back samples from the lunar surface. Additionally, he highlighted India's space ambitions, including venturing to Venus. The four astronaut-designates were commended as representatives of India's aspirations in space exploration. The PM expressed pride in India's advancements in space technology, emphasizing the nation's increasing self-reliance in this sector. The Gaganyaan mission aims to demonstrate India's human spaceflight capability by sending a crew into orbit for a three-day mission before safely returning them to Earth. This initiative signifies India's significant progress in space exploration and technology, paving the way for future endeavors in space research and travel.

India: Assam state cabinet decides to repeal Muslim’s marriage act
On 25 February, after the Assam state’s cabinet meeting decided to the state’s Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act of 1935. It was taken as a bid to lay down the prohibition of child marriages according to the Chief Minister. He claimed that the act contains provisions allowing marriage registration even if the bride and groom have not reached the legal marriageable age of 18 and 21. The Indian Express reported that last year, the government had a crackdown on child marriage cases in the state and most of the arrested were found to be belonging to the Muslim community.

India: Manipur High Court removes earlier direction to consider inclusion of Meiteis in ST list
On 21 February, the Manipur High Court cancelled paragraph 17(iii), which had instructed the Manipur government to consider the inclusion of Meiteis in the list of scheduled tribals that was directed on March 27, 2023. This has been the main pivotal point in the ongoing ethnic clashes between the Meteis and the Kuki-zo communities. The Kuki ethnic people filed the appeal and is still pending before a bench headed by Chief Justice Siddharth Mridual. The court decided to delete the paragraph altogether after the Meitei petitioners had called for a change in the language. The Manipur ethnic clash witnessed violence and deaths since the conflict broke out few months back.

India: Mizoram adopts resolution against government’s  border fencing
On 28 February, the Mizoram Assembly unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Centre’s move to terminate the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and fence the borders with Myanmar. The resolution called upon the central government to review its decision and take measures to help the Zo ethnic community which inhabits their ancestral land. According to The Hindu, Mizoram’s Home Minister, stated: “The British geographically divided the Zo ethnic people who have inhabited [present-day] Mizoram and the Chin Hills of Myanmar for centuries together, once under their own administration. We have been dreaming of reunification and cannot accept the India-Myanmar border imposed upon us,” Mizoram shares a 510 km border with Myanmar. The FMR allows people on the India-Myanmar border to travel into each other’s territory for a limited period without a visa. On 6 February, Amit Shah, Union Home Minister, declared the government's decision to fence the India-Myanmar border and end the FMR to maintain the country's internal security and preserve the demography of the Northeastern states. While Mizoram and Nagaland are against the fencing of their borders with Myanmar, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh have responded favourably. India: Assam Rifles called upon to restore stability in six Manipur districts

India: Manipur Police personnel abducted by  radical group
On 29 February, the Manipur Police officially confirmed that the Meitei radical outfit, Arambai Tenggol, is involved in several “anti-social activities,” including business extortions, attacking civilians, and snatching vehicles from the public and government workers. The police warned that the group was gaining public support under the pretext of providing protection, whereas they are engaged in criminal activities. Furthermore, the statement informed that the Indian Army and central security forces will intensify their presence in the region while combing operations will persist for the foreseeable future. The police called upon the public to cooperate with them as they carried out their duties.

India: Scrutiny of pro-Khalistan groups in the US
On 28 February, The Hindu reported that the India-U.S. Senior Officials’ Homeland Security Dialogue (HSD) took place in New Delhi. India raised its demand to investigate the pro-Khalistan groups that are instigating violence against India. During the HSD talks, India raised its demand that the United States need to put an end to separatist groups operating within its borders, especially those who have been behind recent attacks on Indian missions. The U.S., Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the nations that "do not investigate and take action" against individuals targeting Indian embassies. Both sides reviewed the ongoing cooperation in counter-terrorism and security domains which has been a key of the India-U.S. strategic partnership and also spoke about the need to curb illegal immigration and human trafficking, money laundering, cybercrimes, and misuse of the cyber domain for illegal activities, including terror financing.

India: People retaliate in Sandeshkhali against TMC leaders
On 25 February, a Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader faced the ire of a mob in Sandeshkhali village of West Bengal. He sought refuge in a villager's house after he was chased by a group of women who accused him of land grab and torture. Meanwhile, another TMC leader has absconded. On 5 January, the leader's supporters had attacked officials of the Enforcement Directorate. A stay order was placed by the Calcutta High Court on a Special Investigation Team probe against him in connection to this case. Meanwhile, TMC’s General Secretary defended the party, stating they were not protecting the accused. He added that arrest was being delayed due to the High Court’s stay order in the investigations. Sandeshkhali has seen multiple targeting of  TMC since early February with several leaders being accused of land grabs and sexual harassment of women by the villagers. Two other local TMC leaders have already been arrested on charges of sexual assault.

Pakistan: China accepts request to rollover USD two billion loan for a year
On 29 February, the Ministry of Finance confirmed that in light of Pakistan’s economic situation, China accepted Pakistan’s request to roll over its USD two billion loan which was due in March, for a year. The central bank usually provides dollars for debt servicing and is currently unable to repay foreign loans. Despite having secured USD 1.8 billion dollars under the Stand-By-Arrangement with the IMF, the caretaker government has been unable to improve foreign exchange reserves. Earlier in June 2023, China had given a USD one billion loan to Pakistan, which had been repaid but then given back to Pakistan. The current rollover would help Pakistan maintain a reasonable level of foreign exchange reserves, though data from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) on 29 February showed that reserves fell below USD eight billion. As per the SBP, debt repayments caused reserves to fall by USD 63 million. This could have implications for the exchange rate, but the government is planning to hold talks with the IMF to secure USD six billion in loans.

Pakistan: US advises Pakistan to “continue working with the IMF”
On 29 February, the US State Department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said that the US supports “Pakistan’s efforts to break free from the vicious cycle of debt and international financing.” He urged the incoming government to continue working with the IMF and other institutions to enable macroeconomic reforms to be made to the economy. This would help maintain the “long-term health” of the economy, which is “crucial to its stability.” Miller advised the new government to “immediately prioritize the economic situation.”

Pakistan: Newly elected MPAs sworn in amid commotion for KP and Balochistan assemblies
On 28 February, in the inaugural sessions of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan assemblies, the newly elected members took their oaths of office in chaotic settings. In KP, all of the 116 provincial assembly members (MPA) brought along dozens of their own guests, leading to a commotion and broken windowpanes and the session commencing two hours late. During the session, a PML-N legislator, Sobia Shahid, had a water pot, empty bottles, and shoes thrown at her by PTI supporters after he made jest of the PTI MPAs and the conviction of Imran Khan. Meanwhile in Quetta, Balochistan, around 57 newly-elected took their oaths of office in a session that was conducted under tight security. The visitors’ gallery was filled with guests and supporters. Meanwhile, the four-party alliance encompassing, NP, Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), and the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) carried out a protest against the alleged election rigging. Ghulam Nabi Marri of the BNP said that they “reject these engineered elections,” and PkMAP’s provincial chief, Qahar Wadan, stated that the “people of the province would not accept these elections.”

Sri Lanka: Opposition accused the Speaker of violating the Constitution
On 27 February, the opposition party of Sri Lanka accused the Parliamentary Speaker of violating the constitution by approving the appointment of a controversial official as the head of the police chief. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed Deshabandu Tennakoon as the 36th Inspector General of Sri Lanka Police (IGP) since 26 February. According to the BBC, the opposition leader Sajith Premadasa on his 'X' page posted:"The Constitution is being blatantly violated for the second time. Shame on you speaker!” The Constitutional Council had not approved the IGP's appointment, he claimed, citing four positive votes, two negative votes, and two abstentions. A decision needs to receive at least five votes. The speaker's casting vote is only available in tying votes. In the post, he declared, "4/2 is not a tie." Countering these Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana responded that the accusations are 'totally baseless'. He said: "If they think there is a violation, they have to go to the courts, not come to parliament”.

Sri Lanka: No-Confidence Motion over the Enactment of Online Safety Law
On 27 February, Parliamentarian G. L. Peiris said that the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SBJ) would go for a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against the SLPP over the enactment of the Online Safety Act, which is contrary to the Constitution.  For the Bill, out of a total of 225 MPs, 108 cast their votes in favour of the bill, and 62 voted against it. The opposition party of SBJ alleged that Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is working on an extension of the executive. According to The Island, Prof. Peiris said in a statement that "in spite of our efforts to convince the Speaker to adhere to the SC’s recommendations, he simply went ahead with the despicable political strategy pursued by the Wickremesinghe - Rajapaksa dispensation.”. The Online Safety Bill was passed in violation of the Supreme Court's determination by the Speaker’s Office.

Sri Lanka: White party receives backlashes and termination of long-term tourist visa
On 28 February, BBC reported that the organizer of the “White Party” in Sri Lanka had cancelled the event and apologized after it created a backlash online. The event was planned and was called off later. The advertisement of the event mentioned a white dress code and it also had a line stating "Face control: White" which was mostly interpreted as the event was only for the white people. The backlash to the event was fast, with many on social media calling it "disgusting" and "racist." The venue later issued a statement announcing that the party had been cancelled, claiming that its staff team "did not conduct a thorough enough check" and had "severed ties" with the event organisers. The organizer along with the venue owners are believed to be Russians.

Bangladesh: Reopening of schools after closure due to Myanmar border tensions

On 27 February, Dhaka Tribune reported that five government primary schools and a madrasa near the border of Bandarban with Myanmar, which had been closed for a month due to security concerns, have finally reopened. This decision comes after a period of heightened tension in the region, leading to the closure of these educational institutions. The Bandarban Deputy Commissioner announced that teaching would resume in these schools starting. The closure of these schools was initially prompted by the unstable situation on the Myanmar border, with continuous firing and mortar shelling by the Arakan Army and junta forces. However, as the situation improved and no further incidents of violence were reported since February 6, the district administration decided to reopen the schools.

Bangladesh: Deteriorating Dhaka air quality, ranked second globally
On 27 February, Dhaka Tribune reported that amid global concern over air quality, Dhaka has recently earned a troubling distinction, ranking second among cities with the poorest atmospheric conditions. The Air Quality Index (AQI) registered an alarmingly high score of 181, classifying the city's air as "unhealthy." This dismal rating places Dhaka behind India's Mumbai, which holds the top spot with an AQI of 183, followed by Kolkata and Delhi occupying positions three and four with respective scores of 178 and 171. According to the AQI scale, when the value for particle pollution lies within the range of 101-150, it is deemed "unhealthy for sensitive groups," whereas values between 150 and 200 are categorized as "unhealthy" for all individuals. The threshold for "very unhealthy" falls between 201 and 300, and any readings above 301 are labelled as "hazardous," presenting significant health hazards to local populations. The AQI serves as a valuable tool that provides information about the current state of air quality and its potential impact on public health. In Bangladesh, the AQI takes into account five primary pollutants: particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and ozone. For years, Dhaka has struggled with air pollution problems, particularly during the winter months when the air quality deteriorates significantly.

Bangladesh: Building fire killed 46 people in Dhaka
On 1 March, The Daily Star reported that 46 were killed in the fire at the building in Dhaka. The remains of 39 people were identified this morning. Bodies were handed over to their respective family members at Dhaka Medical College Hospital and Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn & Plastic Surgery. Six bodies that remained unidentified were not claimed by anyone due to severe burns and a DNA test was needed. The rest of the critically injured people were undergoing treatment.

Nepal: South Asia worst hit by the Red Sea crisis
On 27 February, The Kathmandu Post reported that the South Asian countries may feel economic troubles due to the Red Sea tensions. Nepal which is an import-driven country may face this in two ways- one, rising shipping costs and the second, shared rising cost burden from India since Nepal is largely dependent. According to the executive director of South Asia Watch on Trade, Economies and Environment (SAWTEE), reported by The Kathmandu Post stated: “A quarter of Nepal's exports are bound for Europe, including Turkey, and the US through the Suez Canal,” and the change in route might raise freight cost and duration of the travel. The threat of raising shipping costs may raise import costs in India for leather, plastics, and spices will further disrupt Indian exports and cause losses for exporting companies. The loss in India signifies a loss in Nepal too. According to the report ‘Red Sea Attacks Monitor: “The closer the Suez Canal to an Asian economy is, the larger the relative increase in trade distance will be as a result of closure. This will in turn cause a bigger rise in shipping costs and time and a larger decrease in trade volume.”

Nepal: Muslim community faces issues to find burial ground
On 27 February, according to The Kathmandu Post, a group of Muslim community people in Baglung, a hill district of Gandaki Province are worried about landlessness, mainly anxious about managing burial grounds when they face bereavement. Bharat Gaire, mayor of Galkot Municipality, after coming to know the exact situation, disbursed Rs. 25,000 to the affected families. However, it was not enough. He also said, “We provide them assistance during their times of need. However the municipality is unable to secure land for burials. The municipality has been searching for land to address their problem.”

Nepal: The Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project with India stagnant
On 01 March, The Hindu highlighted that more than a month after the signing of an agreement between India and Nepal for long-term power sharing, progress on the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project (PMP) remains stagnant. The PMP stands as the largest bilateral power project envisioned by both nations. The agreement was reached during the 7th India-Nepal Joint Commission Meeting aimed to boost Nepali power exports to India to 10,000 MW over a decade, with the PMP designed to generate approximately 6,480 MW of energy and provide irrigation water for vast areas in both countries. The impasse primarily revolves around disagreements on benefit-sharing, particularly regarding irrigation and flood control benefits. Efforts to revive discussions on the PMP require a delicate balance of interests and a willingness to address each party's concerns effectively.

About the authors

Akriti Sharma is a doctoral scholar at NIAS. Shamini Velayutham and Dhriti Mukherjee are Research Assistants at NIAS. Sneha Surendran is a postgraduate scholar at the OP Jindal Global University. Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, and Narmatha S are postgraduate scholars at Madras University.

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