Rahul Kumar/OneWorld South Asia
South Asia is not known as a highly stable region but this year, some of its main protagonists - India, Pakistan and Afghanistan - became united over their treatment of women. As news related to withdrawal of American troops and bombings in Afghanistan; suicide attacks and blasphemy laws in Pakistan; protests over various aspects of governance in India; became a staple, there was a barrage of incidents related to violence against women from these countries.
If the Taliban were poisoning the water tanks of girls’ schools in Afghanistan to keep them away from ‘western’ education, radicals shot and seriously injured the 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan for promoting education for girls, and women in India were fighting for stronger laws against rapists as rapes increased alarmingly across the country.
Even as the Afghan government investigated the poisonings in almost half-a-dozen schools, Pakistani girl Malala survived miraculously and has now become an international mascot for the girls’ right to education. In India, the government found itself out of sync with the public as many politicians made derogatory remarks against women for protesting a bestial attack by six young men on a 23-year-old woman. Anger over the government’s insensitive response made campaigners vent sarcasm, abuse and ridicule over Twitter and Facebook.
It was in 2012 that young Indians learnt to vent their feelings, ask for justice, and grab the attention of the government through the social media. The government responded both online and offline. On the positive side, the Prime Minister’s Office went live on Twitter, Sam Pitroda held a Twitter press conference and various ministries opened up Facebook pages.
On the negative, a touchy government sought to block the accounts of prominent social media activists, including journalists, on Twitter. It went to the extent of writing to Twitter and Facebook to block and remove pages and content that was ‘offensive’. In other words, comments critical of the government and its style of functioning were asked to be removed which only strengthened people’s perception about the government being overly sensitive to public scrutiny.
Offline, the government sought to curb and restrict popular mobilisation by shutting down public transport services many a times. Parts of central Delhi, the seat of governance that also has symbols of India, were made inaccessible to protestors. Still, angry and defiant people made their way to the protest sites to not only vent their anger but also prod the government to take notice of its own people.
The government found itself on the back foot once again when ethnic riots between the Bodo tribe and Muslims erupted in Assam and continued for weeks, ultimately leading to a mass exodus not only in Assam but also the entire country. The riot-affected people had to take shelter in camps for months together. But the ethnic clashes took a turn for the worse when certain Muslim groups retaliated in many states in South India by threatening and attacking people from the Northeast and forcing them to return back to their native states. The government blamed the attacks on inflammatory materials and hate speeches posted over the Internet by Pakistan but India was in flames.
The polio virus came in sharp focus in the South Asian region with India reporting a polio-free year and the World Health Organisation removing the nation from the list of the polio-endemic countries. On the other hand, 2012 ended with more polio news when the Taliban shot dead five women anti-polio workers on the pretext that they were spying for the US. The virus remains in just three countries worldwide, of which two - Afghanistan and Pakistan - are in South Asia. These remain endemic because of strong resistance to polio-eradication campaigns by the Taliban.
Bangladesh remained in news for most part of the year for its stand on not allowing humanitarian relief to the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. It received flak from international NGOs for not allowing the refugees to either work or to receive food aid after it banned three organisations, Doctors without Borders (MSF), Action Against Hunger (ACF) and the UK-based Muslim Aid to distribute aid to the Rohingyas.
Meanwhile, Myanmar itself saw major changes in its style of functioning. After a long time, the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi saw freedom and addressed people and governments in India, the UK and her own country. Even the US opened up to better relations with Myanmar with President Barack Obama’s visit even as the UN hailed the changes taking place in the junta-run country.
Nepal as usual remained in a political ferment as the country saw yet another deadline pass over the formation of a consensual government. With the political parties unable to name a consensus prime ministerial candidate, the Himalayan country ushered in the New Year on an unstable note.
Overall, despite a turbulent year, the region is witnessing changes that will go a long way in ushering in democracy, freedom of speech as well as more accountability from the governments (hopefully). The internet demonstrated its power with people successfully standing up to the government and trying to make their voices heard. But with the disdain that politicos treated people across the continent, the point is whether the political class is willing to identify itself with the governance that people want and the issues that the masses think are important.
As 2012 came to a close, people hope that memories will not be shortlived and the sacrifices made by the numerous polio workers, Malala Yousafzai and the victim of the Delhi gang-rape will usher in reforms in governance and a positive change in mindsets.
Need to watch and wait.