Notes from the Sub-continent – April 2020
Mayuri Mukherjee

As coronavirus infections continue to rise around the globe, much of the media focus in the Indian sub-continent has remained focussed, as expected, on different aspects of the pandemic--how are governments managing this public health crisis, do they have an ‘exit plan’, what is the economic cost of shutting down our economies etc? However, in this edition of “Notes from the Sub-continent”, we take a break from this big story that is dominating all our news feeds to instead look for some of the other stories that gained some traction in this past month. For example, in Bangladesh, it was the release of the Hollywood action-thriller ‘Extraction’ on Netflix that got everyone quite excited--only to be disappointed by the Medellin-like grim portrayal of Dhaka, made worse by dialogues delivered by Bangladeshi characters in Hindi-accented Bengali. In Sri Lanka, the people took a break from fighting the pandemic to remember those who perished in last year’s horrific terror attack on Easter Sunday. They also raised some important questions in seeking justice for the dead. In Pakistan, oddly, the focus was on Indian Muslims and their perceived plight during the pandemic, topped with the usual commentary on Kashmir. In Nepal, the people’s long tryst with democracy and federalism continue unabated, even as the Prime Minister received brickbats for seeking to consolidate power under the cover of a pandemic.

Bangladesh: Responding to Netflix’s well-crafted but Orientalist Gaze

In Bangladesh, the one story that managed to generate quite a bit of excitement and opinion even in the time of a pandemic was, interestingly, the film Extraction. Released on the popular OTT streaming service, Netflix, the action-thriller is set in Dhaka--and had, naturally, piqued the interest of Bangladeshis given that their little country rarely gets such attention in Hollywood. But once they tuned in, it seems like most were disappointed with the depiction of the country, their language and their culture. Fahmidul Haq, a film scholar at the University of Notre Dame and a critic of Bangladesh origin, wrote in the Daily Star that the film follows the standard Hollywood formula, wherein, Dhaka is “the villain's habitat”--where a Bangladeshi drug lord holds hostage the son of an Indian drug lord--and it is from this place that the white man in his “Superman-esque” form--in this case as an Australian mercenary--must save the victim. Haq rightly notes that such a grim depiction “would satisfy the orientalists gaze of the audience of the West, but it is probably at odds with the Bangladeshi audience…”

In particular, Haq writes that “the lack of research into local culture seems clearly evident”. Given that the film was shot primarily in India, he noted that, “A Dhakaite would easily find some errors (such as Hindi street signs…). The Dhakaite Bengali accent of the characters was not authentic (Hindi intonation marred the Bengali).” At the Dhaka Tribune, film editor and producer Siam Raihan also noted on similar lines that some of the Indian actors who played the Bangladeshi characters “completely butchered the language” while “most Dhaka-based characters in the film sounded like they are from West Bengal”. Raihan was also appalled by the portrayal of Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies as being “controlled and bribed by Dhaka-based international drug cartels”. He writes, “It paints a picture to the world that Dhaka is like Medellin in Colombia during the Pablo Escobar era, which is far from true.”

That being said, Raihan still had a word of praise for the film-makers and gave them full credit for “recreating Old Dhaka in Ahmedabad with such attention to details from the vehicles, to posters in streets, to every single sign board of each shop in each sequence”. He also hoped that films like Extraction would, “create the urge in them (Bangladeshi film-makers) to craft such stories on a massive scale for the global audience; stories which will be the accurate representations of the rich history, heritage and diversity of our beloved Dhaka.”

Sri Lanka: Taking Stock since last year’s Easter Attack

Though a year has passed since the horrific 2019 Easter attack, Sri Lanka’s wounds have barely healed. On April 21, the entire country came together to take stock of the situation--the judicial, the social, and the political aspects--and stood in solidarity and resolve. In its editorial, the Financial Times noted that, “the painful lessons it (the attack) taught all Sri Lankans is still being navigated by the entire country. The colossal loss of life is all the more harrowing because it could have been prevented and the lack of accountability that has haunted Sri Lanka for decades reared its ugly head again last year and a multitude of questions remain unanswered.”

The paper also noted that since the attack, “the political stars have realigned and with former President Maithripala Sirisena now allied with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the space for genuine accountability appears limited. The United National Party (UNP), whose Leader and top members also played vital roles in the run up to the tragedy, cannot be disregarded either.” Finally, the editorial also highlighted, “the need to foster communal harmony... The targeting of the Muslim community showcased racism and intolerance in the worst possible light.”

The Island in its editorial also reminded its readers about the mastermind of the attack Zahran Hashim, and also asked some important questions: “Irrefutable evidence has emerged that, at the time of their suicide attacks, he and his fellow terrorists had been working tirelessly to expand their terror network... It is believed that Zahran had links to the ISIS... which belatedly claimed the responsibility for the Easter bombings, but did he really work for the ISIS proper or did he have links to one of its affiliates? Was his handler working for another organisation masquerading as an ISIS agent? The picture is not clear.” The newspaper called for a “separate investigation into the external links Zahran had established”.

On a different, conciliatory sort of note, Shreen Saroor wrote in the Colombo Telegraph, against the backdrop of global pandemic, “It is the resilience of the human spirit that can salvage us from both the pandemic and the politicking. In some way, there is a silver lining in this dark time—by coming together through collective struggle and sacrifice we will unite to overcome this challenge. Let us learn that lesson today in honour of those taken away from us on 2019 Easter Sunday.”

Pakistan: Worrying about Indian Muslims

Throughout April, it seemed like Pakistan’s main concern, apart from fighting the Coronavirus, was the plight of Indian Muslims. The Dawn newspaper had at least three editorials on the matter; The Express Tribune also had a couple. There was one in reference to Kashmir wherein the Dawn newspaper slammed India for being “up to no good along the LoC”, adding that ceasefire violations along the Line of Control during a deadly pandemic is “even more egregious”. The paper hoped that “the common foe both states face in the form of the coronavirus should convince India to desist from its provocative tactics…” but warned that, “If India continues to carry out such inadvisable violations of the LoC and similar cross-border hostilities, Pakistan will respond in kind. This will take away attention from one of the gravest health emergencies of the modern epoch.”

Two other editorials in the Dawn dealt with the condition of Indian Muslims in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. The newspaper took up the case of Maulana Muhammad Saad Khandalvi, head of the Delhi-based Tableeghi Jamaat Markaz, who has been booked for manslaughter for organising a public gathering that led to a spike in coronavirus infections in India. The editorial said that, “While there is little doubt that Tableeghi Jamaat leaders acted irresponsibly... the extreme reaction from the Indian authorities betrays the latter’s intolerant and bigoted approach towards Muslim citizens”. The paper also surmised that, “The recent move to stigmatise and make an example of a Muslim community leader” is part of a pattern of discrimination against Muslims that includes “the crackdown on India-held Kashmir, to the biased citizenship law that blatantly targets Muslims.”

In the other related editorial, the newspaper expressed concern about how the entire Indian Muslim community was still being blamed for the irresponsible actions of the Tableeghi Jamaat. It worried that, “Under the Narendra Modi dispensation, Muslims have been pushed to the fringes of society, as Nehruvian/Gandhian secularism has been dumped in favour of a muscular, toxic Hindutva narrative” and called upon “the champions of democracy and human rights in the world” to “speak up before the ogre of Hindutva devours the Indian Muslim community”.

In another editorial, the paper argued that the situation of Indian Muslims might be changing for the better as “voices are finally being raised against the BJP-RSS combine’s anti-Muslim proclivities”. In this context, it referred to the Kuwaiti Council of Ministers calling upon the OIC to take “necessary and urgent measures” to protect Indian Muslims; and pointed to the report by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which says India has “tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom”. The editorial concluded that while the Muslim world, the US, and Europe have been quiet on this issue for many years, “the ‘world’s largest democracy’ now stands exposed... for its anti-Muslim agenda”. The USCIRF report also got coverage in the Express Tribune which argued that, “Religious freedoms in India continue to face threats from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva regime”. The editorial noted that, “the last time India received such a worrying rating from USCIRF was in 2004. Again, a time when the BJP was in the Centre, and more notably, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat…”

The Express Tribune also had an editorial on the changes to Kashmir’s domicile law which lets India citizens who have lived in the region for a certain length of time claim domicile status. It noted that with the recent changes, Prime Minister Modi “doesn’t even need citizens to willfully move there… He can just turn thousands of government employees into Kashmiris overnight.” The editorial also said that,“Modi is clearly using the pandemic as cover... And even though the (Pakistan) Foreign Office has called on the United Nations and the world to take notice... it is, unfortunately, clear that with Covid-19 ravaging daily life in every major country, world leaders have bigger domestic issues on their plates. By the time they can turn their focus back on international matters, it will likely be too late for Kashmiris.”

Nepal: Undermining Loktantra

In Nepal, it seemed that even as a pandemic raged around the world, there was enough politicking to keep the Press busy in Kathmandu. Some of the controversial Bills tabled last year continued to gain traction while Prime Minister KP Oli was roundly criticised for seeking to consolidate power at any cost.

The Kathmandu Post began the month (and the Nepali New Year) with some hope and restraint: it noted that controversial Bills that the government wants to pass “present the greatest danger to a democratic Nepal since the country’s days under a dictatorship” and “people have started losing faith in the government”; however, it also said that, “Despite its flaws, this is the government we have chosen, and it still has three more years to deliver on its promises”; and called upon the government to “introspect and take note of its mistakes”. In particular, it ticked off the Prime Minister for his tendency to “drown out voices that do not toe his line”. When he sought to “ram through controversial ordinances”, the paper in another editorial criticised him and President Bidya Devi Bandari’s for pushing to a “new low”.

On Loktantra Divas, the paper again came down hard on the Prime Minister for “misinterpreting” his large electoral mandate. It said: “It is no secret that Oli has been critical of the move towards federalism… It is also not news that Oli has, time and again, shown a tendency to embrace authoritarian tendencies... Perhaps no one had guessed in 2006 that the most danger to a democratic Nepal since the country’s days under a dictatorship would come from a popularly elected Prime Minister who helped usher in a republican set-up.”

Echoing the sentiments of The Kathmandu Post, the Nepali Times noted that while, “Some democratic countries are using the disease (the coronavirus pandemic) as an excuse to stifle dissent..” while others have resorted to “extra-constitutional measures to cover up their deficiencies”, it is clear that, “the Oli administration is guilty of both”. This was specifically in reference to the two ordinances that were passed, making it “easier to legally split a political party”. The editorial noted that, “This sent a shock wave through the NCP, brought howls of protest from coalition partners and the opposition, and a wave of outrage from commentators and social media.” It also pointed out that, “His goal is still to prevent his arch-nemesis Pushpa Kamal Dahal from succeeding him as Prime Minister for which he is trying to thwart a possible no-confidence vote against him by holding up the threat of splitting the party... But what the move exposed is a wholesale disregard for democratic norms, constitutionalism, and an undermining of an elected parliament. This will force the country into prolonged instability. And instead of making him stronger, the move has weakened Prime Minister Oli.”

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