“Growing up, growing together”: Young South Asian activists speak up for peace and human rights in the region

By Sapan News Service

Young activists from across South Asia came together to highlight the erosion of human rights in the region amidst growing majoritarian authoritarianism and a rise in discrimination on basis of religious and ethnic identities.

Participants at an online session on “Human Rights and Equality in South Asia: Growing Up, Growing Together” organised by South Asia Peace Action Network (Sapan) called on governments in the region to ensure establishment and strengthening of national human rights institutions and support the development of a dedicated regional human rights institution.

Speakers included lawyer and human rights activist Lara Jesani from India, activist Nirupama Ghimire from Nepal, feminist activist and researcher Subha Wijesiriwardena from Sri Lanka, historian and activist Ammar Ali Jan from Pakistan, activist Zahra Hussaini from Afghanistan, and activist and journalist Sushmita Preetha from Bangladesh.

In her opening remarks, Dhaka-based feminist and rights activist Khushi Kabir said, “our nations are mostly totalitarian or on the verge of becoming totalitarian”, enabled by a culture of impunity countries across South Asia. “Where democracy exists, it is floundering in many ways… Religion is being used as a tool for creating ‘the other’”. Her comments highlighted the commonality of human rights issues and concerns across South Asia.

Recognising the unwillingness or inability on the part of the regional leaders to effectively address the widespread human rights violations across South Asia, participants of the Sapan webinar also signed a declaration to draw attention to the commitments enshrined in the SAARC charter in relation to human rights and the right to development and called on the governments to reactivate SAARC. The Declaration (open for endorsements) also urged the development of robust regional human rights mechanisms and a dedicated regional human rights institution.

The event on Sunday 26 December 2021 was the ninth in Sapan’s series of monthly webinars “Imagine! Neighbours in Peace” and commemorated Human Rights Day, observed annually on 10 December, as well as 36 years of SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation established in Dhaka, 1985. This December also marks 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence. South Asia comprises nearly a quarter of the world’s population, most of them youth. Most of the speakers at the event were under 35 years old, not even born when the above events took place.

Conducted by Delhi-based activist Priyanka Singh, the event was organised at a time when majoritarian authoritarianism and discrimination on basis of religious and ethnic identities are on the rise across South Asia. Speakers from across South Asia, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the diaspora shared aspirations through speeches, music, and poetry.

Speakers underscored the need to sustain and promote responsible adult behaviour that accepts differences and celebrates diversity, finding convergences and building solidarities along the way.

Shahram Azhar

The event concluded with “Expressions” featuring artists from around the region sharing music and poetry of hope and resistance. Revolutionary poet Habib Jalib’s Jamhuriyat (Democracy) took on a South Asian colour with a slight modification by singer Shahram Azhar, an economics professor at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania. Hailing from Rawalpindi, Azhar is a founder and former lead singer of the Laal Band known for its musical renditions of powerful progressive poetry.

Changing the original “Das Karod Insaanon” (100 million people) to “Do Arab Insaanon” (two billion people), Azhar sang to a melody composed by Husnain Jamil of Progressive Students Collective, Pakistan, and a Sapan founder member.

Afghan activist Zahra Hussaini from Bamiyan province, currently based in Sweden, shared her experiences and work in Bamiyan and Kabul. She talked about the grave human rights situation prevailing in Afghanistan today, particularly in relation to women, children, and journalists.

Zahra Hussaini

Co-founder of the “Ride a bicycle” campaign in Bamiyan, she has worked with war victims at the Human Rights and Democracy Organisation, Afghanistan. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, she knows of at least 32 journalists who have been picked up or imprisoned – “we don’t even know what is happening with them”.

Sri Lankan activist Subha Wijesiriwardena placed the human rights situation of her country in context of similar issues and concerns in nearly all South Asian nations. Now based in New York City, she spoke about the Prevention of Terrorism Act which, she said, is frequently used to target minorities and dissidents. She also expressed apprehensions about the recently constituted “One Country One Law” taskforce, and highlighted the increasing discrimination and violence against Muslims and LGBTIAQ+ persons in Sri Lanka.

Subha Wijesiriwardena

Many across the region, she said, are asking questions about “how to navigate the complex push and pull of living in times of ethnocentrism and the erosion of our democratic institutions and spaces while targeting the mechanisms which do remain to us?”

Mumbai-based lawyer Lara Jesani spoke about repressive draconian laws and the shrinking democratic spaces in India. She gave the example of the Bhima Koregaon case in which leading activists working for the rights of communities, Adivasis, and environmental justice were arrested. In the Delhi riots conspiracy case, despite records about the situation, the case was twisted to falsely implicate leading activists in the CAA-NRC protests. “Even registering our dissent has become extremely difficult. And this has obviously also led to the silencing of those who believe in India’s democratic values. It has had a chilling effect, especially on the youth,” Jesani said.

Lara Jesani

However, she found hope in the “growing consciousness which needs to be celebrated”, for example, the Shaheen Bagh protest and the farmers’ protests. These powerful examples underscore the potential for change, said Lara. We need “to collect our strengths, and to come together to demand accountability and demand a regional mechanism… There is a lot of potential for us to work together, and ensure that there is and there will be change in South Asia”.

Space for dissent is shrinking in Bangladesh too, as Dhaka-based journalist Sushmita Preetha highlighted. She spoke of the draconian Digital Securities Act, which “allows security agencies to pick up and arbitrarily detain anyone critical of the government or the ruling party, over vague allegations of damaging the reputation of the state or creating instability”.

Sushmita Preetha

The government has clamped down on dissent on social media, but hate speech and fake news, particularly targeting women, Hindus, indigenous and LGBTIQ communities continue unchecked, she said. The region “seems to be stuck in a loop where violence and hatred in one part breeds/fuels bigotry in another”.

The anti-Muslim sentiment in neighbouring India and Myanmar make it increasingly difficult to counter the propaganda of Islamist groups in Bangladesh, especially with the Bangladesh government pandering to communal forces.

Lahore-based historian and activist Ammar Ali Jan said that peace activists and human rights activists can only offer solidarity to comrades in the region, while holding their own governments accountable. He especially expressed solidarity with the people of Afghanistan “who are fighting against extremism in a very difficult situation” and called for making women’s rights and rights of minorities a precondition for any kind of dialogue with any future Afghan government.

Ammar Ali Jan

Unable to control or satisfy their populations the ruling elites need to “constantly have enemies around – both internal and external”, he said. The manufacturing of enemies and hatred of “the other” being used to target dissidents around the region make it all the more necessary for the people to assert their common identity and destiny as South Asians. “The only way we can be secure is through peace, solidarity, and love”.

From Kathmandu, activist Nirupama Ghimire spoke about the human-rights situation in Nepal, and the growing role of social media in activism. Hashtags, information shared to stories and posts, and “the ability to hear a diverse range of voices and opinions now underpin and mobilize every demonstration”, she said.

Nirupama Ghimire

Social media has been used to “misinform, incite violence, and interfere in social political movements” but it has also helped amplify the voices of those generally ignored by mainstream media. One example is the “#EnoughisEnough” campaign, a loose campaign that came together on social media that led to making the Covid-19 RT-PCR test mandatory in the initial Covid phase.

Agriculturist and educator Waqas Nasir in Lahore moderated the discussion and question-answer session. The event ended with the “Expressions” segment which besides Shahram Azhar, featured Samia Mehraj from Kashmir with her poem “War and time wait for nobody’s mothers in Kashmir”. Recalling the words of Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul, she talked about poetry as a means to assert agency and document history. Poetic archives must be “seen as evidence of people’s lived experience”.

Samia Mehraj

Dhaka-based activist Bithi Ghosh presented a video of the songDharmo jar jar e dunia sobar” (To each her own faith, the world for all) written and composed by her cultural group Samageet in 2012 after an attack on a Buddhist temple in Chittagong. The underlying message is that religion is personal to individuals while the world belongs to all.

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