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Trouble in South Asia: Activism under fire

Activists in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have come under attack recently. If government cannot protect them, is the judiciary their only hope?

By: /
22 May, 2015
Irum Khan
By: Irum Khan
Indian journalist

As a kid I recollect reading a newspaper report on the attack on my father’s close buddy, Arvind Ghatpande. The goons who attacked him reportedly belonged to the Shiv Sena, a regional political party in India.

Ghatpande had filed a petition in the court, demanding that the 11 p.m. deadline on loudspeakers during the festive season be enforced. This had irked the radical Hindu outfit, some of whose members barged into his house to blacken his face.

But the man he was, the incident strengthened his resolve to stand up against unchecked — and in a way state-sponsored — hooliganism.

Over the years, the weaponry used to victimize activists like Ghatpande has traversed from juvenile insults to life-threatening attacks.

The epidemic of intolerance, and the impunity granted to assailants, is a formidable ecosystem established in the South Asian republics.

With fascism and majoritarianism having become the norm, activists are consistently risking their lives in challenging the status quo.

This sabotage of rationality has resulted in a number of casualties within the world of activism.

Pakistan: Crisis in Balochistan

Most recently, Pakistan was shamed with the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, whose life was truncated last month. Her only crime was providing Mama Qadeer, one of the Balochistan region’s leading campaigners, a platform to express his views at The Second Floor (T2F), her cultural hub and venue in Karachi. The latter is fighting for the rights of a common Baloch, allegedly the victim of Pakistan’s intelligence agency’s “kill and dump” policy.

Just weeks later, the 73-year-old Qadeer is now appealing the government’s decision to prevent him from travelling to the United States in a bid to reach out to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

In a recent, exclusive interview for OpenCanada, Qadeer spoke about the violence currently plaguing activists in his country, as he waited for his turn to be heard outside the High Court with Farzana Majeed, whose brother Zakir is one of the many disappeared for their province.

“Countless people have been targeted for talking about Balochistan. These include Mahmud, journalist Hamid Mir, and an editor of a Hindi newspaper who was declared a traitor by the government for publishing a story on the province,” he said.

“About 21,000 people have gone missing from Balochistan. Of these, 179 are women and 169 are kids. About 6,000 mutilated bodies have been recovered.“

India: Losing voices against religious extremism

Just two months before Mahmud’s death, one of India’s most progressive states, Maharashtra, lost a vociferous opponent of religious extremism.

Govind Pansare, a humble 82-year-old man, was out for a morning walk with his wife when assailants shot him dead. In the last few months of his life, he had objected to the idolisation of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. Pansare’s attacks on right-wing organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghatna (RSS), the Sanathan Sanstha and the Hindu Janjagruti Manch had earned him the ire of anti-liberal forces in India.

Before his attack, Pansare’s assailants threatened him in a letter, reading, “Tumcha Dabholkar karu?” ( “Should we repeat a ‘Dabholkar’ on you?”) It referred to Narendra Dabholkar, an activist from Maharashtra who was killed in 2013 for spearheading an anti-superstition campaign in India. His drive to bring about a law against superstition evoked sharp criticism from the Sanathan Sanstha and the Hindu Janjagruti Manch. Following his death, the Maharashtra government introduced a law against supervision and black magic, but it was criticized as diluted.

Like Pansare, Dabholkar received numerous physical and verbal threats to terminate his campaign against ‘godmen’ and supernatural beliefs in India. The former enjoy a free hand in the public domain as they lure people by instant wealth to be traded off with either human sacrifice or sexual exploitation of women.

Bangladesh: A blogger is silenced

Extremism has not spared India’s neighbouring country, Bangladesh, either. Radicalism has taken a formidable form there in recent years. Avijit Roy, an atheist blogger who spearheaded a campaign for secularism, was killed in February, 2015.

Roy had come to prominence in his homeland for his blog, Mukto-Mona (Bangla for ‘free mind’), in which he railed against all forms of organised religion.

The role of government, and the judiciary

What cannot be missed, in this spate of recent murders, is their political inclination.

Interestingly in all three countries, extremism thrives on the guarantee of protection from the government.

“With the army, along with the government, being complicit in the crime, our battle has turned formidable. Where should we look for hope?” Qadeer asked.

“There are certain issues that human rights activists are afraid of venturing into,” I. A. Rehman, secretary general of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission has said. “These include the disappearances of civilians and the war against terrorism, because the state and security services are hypersensitive. In Pakistan, there are no-go areas, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan, where human rights activists face serious difficulties, including threats to life.”

Whereas Pakistan’s is a case of state-sponsored fundamentalism, India does not seem too far behind, with successive governments playing opportunists and lending timely fuel to the fire.

Not only are people at risk but controversial ideas as well. Last year, publisher Penguin Books India was forced to pull out American writer Windy Dongnier’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, after protests from the right wing.

In January of this year, well-known Indian author Perumal Murugan announced his retirement after reportedly being by hounded by Hindutva vigilantes for his book Madhorubhagan. “Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

But if activists cannot count on the government for protection, the judiciary still offers a glimmer of hope, at least in India.

Earlier this year, the Delhi High Court embarrassed the Modi government, which had stopped Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from boarding a flight to London where she was to brief members of the British Parliament on the rights of forest-dwelling communities affected by coal mining.

“Development activities, not now, but for ages, have always had a counterpoint,” the court stated in its resulting order. “The mere fact that such debates obtain, or such debates metamorphose into peaceful protests, cannot be the reason for curtailing a citizen’s fundamental rights.”

Change in the toxic ecosystem of South Asian countries lies in such embarrassments to respective governments. Let’s hope there is more to come.

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