Notes from the Sub-continent (Nov 1-15)
Mayuri Mukherjee

In this fortnight’s compilation of some of the big ideas being debated in the media across the Indian sub-continent, we start with the coverage of the Ayodhya verdict in Bangladesh and Pakistan--where the issue generated significant interest, as expected. Then we move on to Sri Lanka where we take a break from electoral politics to look at the renewed debate over the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $480 million foreign aid package. Finally, in Kathmandu, we see how the papers sought to make sense of the government’s sudden decision to replace all the provincial governors who had been appointed by the previous regime.

Bangladesh: Lawful verdict or foregone conclusion

Bangladesh’s leading English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, had an exceptionally sober and mature editorial on what is, no doubt, in equal parts, a complex and emotive issue. The paper noted that the “aggrieved parties have all, without exception, called for calm, preferring the legal path to any other means” and that this was, “the rational way of addressing an issue which has been the cause of age-old friction between the two communities…”. It also made the important point that, at the end of the day, “A mosque here or a temple there does not necessarily enhance the status of—nor denigrate—any particular religion. The location of a place of worship should in no way detract from the fundamental messages of the two major religions of the world...both of which espouse the cause of universal brotherhood and peace”. Finally, it called upon the government to ensure that the situation was not exploited by trouble-mongers, keeping in mind the anti-Hindu riots that had taken place in Bangladesh after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.

Trying to strike a similar balance but essentially offering a much more critical take, commentator Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury wrote in the Dhaka Tribune that the verdict seemed to usher in India’s age of Hindu majoritarianism. It noted that while on the positive side, “The court had affirmed that the placement of Ram Lalla inside the mosque in 1949 was unlawful” and “that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was illegal”, the list list of negatives was much longer. Unconvinced of Lord Ram’s historical veracity or of the existence of a Ram temple under the Babri Masjid, the author said that the verdict was based on “inconclusive proof” but given how long it had taken to be delivered, it had in fact, “prepared Muslims for losing the court case”. The question now, according to the author, was if the Ayodhya case would open the flood-gates for Hindus to claim Muslim places of worship.

Pakistan: Ayodhya and the path to a Hindu Rashtra

As was only to be expected, Pakistani newspapers across the board were critical of the verdict. The Dawn editorial sought to take a moderate path by suggesting that, “it would have been better had the court given the site to neither side, considering the sensitivity of the matter and its impact on communal relations in India”. However, soon enough it moved on to a more predictable narrative: it claimed that “the destruction of the mosque marked the beginning of the end of the Nehruvian ideal of a secular India”, warned that, “the verdict will embolden the foot soldiers of Hindutva and send a message to India’s minorities — particularly its Muslims — that religious triumphalism and violence tactics by the majority are condoned in modern India,” and finally urged, “the Indian people” to “decide whether they wish to adopt a democratic course, or build a Hindu rashtra”.

The Express Tribune also made a similar pitch: After listing all the negative coverage the verdict had received in the Western press, the editorial surmised that, “Secular India is dead” and that, “this was a verdict born not out of legalities, but rather out of the Indian state’s capitulation to a fascistic ideology”. The Nation, on its part, struggled to make sense of why The Supreme Court had awarded the disputed land to the state for a Hindu temple even though it had ruled that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was illegal, and eventually concluded that, “the Indian Supreme Court is too spineless to hand out just verdicts”. It also added that this was a lesson for Pakistani lawmakers who must now acknowledge that the Supreme Court of India will quite possibly take a similar approach to Kashmir and “The abrogation of Article 37-A and 370 will go unquestioned in the SC”.

Sri Lanka: MCC and a Misinformation Campaign

In the last week of October, the then outgoing Sri Lankan cabinet decided that it would in fact sign an agreement with the US aid agency Millennium Challenge Corporation for a $480 million grant that had been in the works for a while. The grant was controversial and viewed in some quarters as a tool for US control that would impinge on Lankan sovereignty. The government's decision to approve the deal literally days before the country went to the polls was met with much opposition, and even the release of a draft of the agreement did not help the situation. Eventually, the government decided to postpone the signing even as the Supreme Court agreed to hear a fundamental rights case the deal.

These developments reignited an old debate about whether the deal would promote Lankan enrichment or if it was a tool for entrapment. In the The Colombo Telegraph, Rusiripala Tennakoon listed some of the key questions in this regard: “Is our national sovereignty at stake? Are we subjected to any force by any super power…? Do the proposed agreements fall in line with the International Laws and UN charters? Are we not becoming a party to the very principles of non- alignment to which we committed ourselves in the past?

In the Financial Times, Asanga Ranasinghe asked, “How can Sri Lanka make the most of this grant? He pointed out that, “It is apparent that many sectors in Sri Lanka could directly or indirectly benefit from the MCC grant” including from the “inflow of technology” and “the new opportunities created for local businesses…”. Ranasinghe also rightly noted that, “Part of the confusion seems to be regarding economic corridors and other agreements such as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)”. The Island ran a similar feature by Rajan Philips which also pointed out that the MCC “was not being forced by the US on Sri Lanka”, that the agreement was “not incompatible with international law,'' that it is “not a national security agreement”, and does not include the development of "growth corridors" which are perceived in some quarters to have the potential to split the country into two distinct parts.

Nepal: Weakening institutions

In an unexpected turn of events, on November 3, Nepal’s cabinet removed all seven provincial governors who had been appointed two years ago by the previous regime and brought in a new lot within two days. The changes came at a time when Prime Minister KP Oli was not in good health, and added to the uncertainty in Kathmandu.

The Himalayan Times editorial wondered why the governors were relieved of their duties without assigning any reason whatsoever. It asked: “Were the governors a hindrance to the functioning of the provincial governments or were they not being cooperative, coming as they do from a different political ideology?” The newspaper opined that, “The government has set a bad precedent by sacking the governors appointed by the previous government. Given the reactionary politics that our parties engage in, each successive government will be tempted to replace the governors with their people without allowing them a full term, thus weakening the institution. This is bad for federalism.”

The Kathmandu Post in its editorial made the point that while the changes was unexpected, they were not “unconstitutional”. However, the editorial added that, “the constitution is a living document.. It needs to be followed in its spirit, which is to always uphold the democratic process.” In other words, while the Constitution allows the President to remove a governor at any time, the latter’s “power cannot be exercised in an arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner.” The editorial slammed the government for “sheer misuse of power” and noted that, “Centralising power, weakening institutions and crushing dissenting voices are the major features of an authoritarian regime. The activities of the Oli-led government, unfortunately, tick all the boxes.”

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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