Notes from the Sub-continent (Nov 16-30)
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 Bangladesh’s success in holding to account those who had attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery inn 2016. This is followed by coverage of Sri Lanka’s presidential election and the crisis in Pakistan over the Army chief’s term extension. These are two very different developments but it is interesting to note the concern over weakening institutions (as opposed to individual issues) in both countries. In Nepal, we return to

Bangladesh: Welcome verdict

On November 27, seven of the eight accused in the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terror case were convicted and sentenced to death. The verdict was welcomed across the country where the memory of the ghastly attack that claimed 23 lives is still raw; and the conversation about Islamist radicalisation far from over. In fact, on the day of the verdict, one of the convicts appeared in court wearing a black prayer cap which had the Islamic State terror group’s logo on it. This, in its own right, has sparked a new debate on and national security. No surprise then that the Daily Star in its editorial on the verdict found it necessary to clearly underline that, “The killings were carried out by a bunch of individuals misled by a distorted narrative... Their professed philosophy has no relationship with the teachings of Islam”. The editorial also issued an important word of caution: “We cannot let our guard down... It is premature, we feel, to suggest that we have seen the end of extremism in this country”. Instead, the editorial suggested not to “split hairs on whether there is physical presence of international radical groups in Bangladesh or not” but instead focus on developing “our own counter-narrative,” keeping “constant vigilance”, and “halting the spread of militant ideas in our education institutions”. The editorial also, quite rightly, complimented the law enforcement agencies that ensured that justice was delivered in a speedy manner. The Dhaka Tribune also echoed this same sentiment, noting that the perpetrators were apprehended soon after the attack; that they were brought to trial quickly, thereby ensuring that the rule was upheld; and finally that the whole process was completed in a reasonable amount of time.

Sri Lanka: The Rajapaksas return

Last month, Sri Lanka’s former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election, as many had expected. And days after he was sworn into office, he appointed his brother, the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister. The Sunday Times in its largely pro-Rajapaksa editorial laid out the policy priorities for the new government. At the top of the list is to make “minorities feel one with the country”, followed by “setting right the economy”. On the foreign policy front, the editorial noted that, “India has reason to be wary of President Rajapaksa’s leanings towards China” but also pointed out that in the last stages of the military operations against the LTTE, he, as wartime Defence Secretary, had engaged in extensive back channel diplomacy with Delhi. And therefore was a known figure. Two other key issues were highlighted by the Financial Times. In one of its editorials, the paper red-flagged the absence of a strong “Opposition capable of robustly defending institutions and rights”. It also noted that the Rajapaksas’ party could, during the legislative election next year, “sweep up a large chunk of parliamentary seats and effectively undermine efforts made during the last five years to strengthen democratic institutions.” In a second edit, the paper considered the familial appointments and concluded that this, “in and by itself is not problematic, as many had worried, as the Constitution has adequate checks and balances in place”. However, the paper warned that the system was only effective “so long as these checks and balances are respected, rule of law, accountability and the space for an institutional democracy to function will remain open. But if the Constitution is not upheld, then fears of power being concentrated in one family will surface once again”. It added that, “Sri Lanka has already seen instances when too many institutions and powers are held by members of one family, and what can ensue in such a set of circumstances, so it is understandable that moderates and minority communities may feel jittery”. Of particular concern in this context is the President’s own campaign promises to amend the Constitution, in particular Amendment 19.

Pakistan: Will Bajwa be back?

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa was scheduled to retire on November 29. In August, Prime Minister Imran Khan extended his term by another three years but on November 26, Pakistan’s Supreme Court suspended that decision over procedural irregularities. Two days later and just hours before the chief’s tenure was about to expire, the country granted him a six-month extension during which time the government is expected to get its house in order. Irrespective of how this controversy unravels, commentators seem to agree that it is yet another addition to a long list of debacles under the Khan administration.

The Dawn editorial noted that, “the government’s ineptness has not only damaged its own reputation but also threatens to drag the military as a whole into disrepute.” It added, “The episode lays bare the PTI government’s authoritarian streak and its lack of maturity.” More broadly, the editorial described the appointment crisis as, “a landmark case: unprecedented questions are being raised, threatening to upend the accepted status quo, and holding a mirror to society’s psyche”. It noted: “Consider that four army chiefs have given themselves extensions while two others were so favoured by the government of the time — but no one thought to ask whether this was legal at all.” It also directed a question at Gen Bajwa himself, asking if he was, “thinking of himself or his institution”.

The Express Tribune also blamed Imran Khan’s government for its “criminal negligence and carelessness” and slammed “its inability at handling official affairs, even those of serious nature”. Importantly, it also located the appointment crisis on Pakistan’s complicated “political chessboard” -- noting that the crisis comes at a time when the Prime Minister has expressed support of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, of whom he was once a bitter critic. The editorial pointed out that, “Khan’s interior ministry has succeeded in getting an order from the Islamabad High Court that bars a special court from announcing its verdict in the long-drawn high treason case against Musharraf just at the eleventh hour.” It also noted that the nine-party opposition alliance continued to lurk around the corners, only adding to the atmosphere of political uncertainty.

Nepal: Cartographic quibbles

After the government of India published a map that showed the Kalapani region as Indian territory, it brought back an old and frankly forgotten border dispute with Nepal. Nevertheless, the matter gain enough traction for the government in Kathmandu to issue an official statement claiming the tri-country junction as its own while New Delhi stuck to its original position on the matter.

Writing in the Kathmandu Post, Atit Babu Rijal describes India's move “a breach of good faith” and adds that, “Encroachment by India has been going on for a very long time, but the Nepal government has never protested strongly against it. This has given India the opportunity to slowly and steadily make these areas its own. The current map is a step forward to permanently take over these lands.” Rijal’s assessment is that, “India wants to keep a close watch over Chinese movements on the border, and Kalapani seems to be strategically the best point to do so.” Hence, he advices the government in Kathmandu to raise the issue on international fora, and not rely on Delhi’s assurances. He also warns that, “Unintelligent handling of border disputes could lead to political crises and xenophobia, which has already been fuelled by tensions on the border.” In My Republica, Mahabir Paudyal makes the important point that while, all-party consensus is rare in Nepal, on this matter, “every single party has the same voice about Kalapani. Even Madhesi parties, which have traditionally maintained silence on India’s highhandedness... came out with one voice: Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura are Nepali territories, and Nepal should convince India to forgo its claims on them through diplomatic and political channels”. Paudyal also notes that, “India demonstrated a great diplomatic finesse when it resolved all border-related disputes with Bangladesh... With Nepal, it must be even easier because we are not in border dispute with India in a true sense”.

In contrast, NP Upadhyaya, writing in the Telegraph Nepal, had a much more critical take, asking, for one, how Prime Minister KP Oli, whom he describes an “India-trusted man of the not so distant past”challenge India? He also had some colourful suggestions on what Nepal could do if India refused to honor the 1815 Sugauli Treaty and vacate the area. He said, “Nepal has every right... to demand the territories occupied by Nepal prior to signing of the Sugauli Treaty which goes as far as Kumaon and Gadhwal up to Sutlej in the West and River Teesta in the East which approaches territories up to almost Bhutan”. He added, “Ignoring the Treaty will automatically bring back almost half of the present day Uttar Pradesh to the legal jurisdiction of Nepal. Some portions of Bihar State too automatically come to the fold of Nepal.”

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