Spotlight on South Asia flips the script of social justice

On April 28, Kanak Dixit, a prominent journalist, political activist, writer, and publisher from Nepal, began his talk entitled, “Democracy, Civil Society, & Human Rights in South Asia,” by encouraging the audience to look at this part of the world in a different way.

Maps with nonstandard orientations have been used occasionally to make statements about the political and socioeconomic relationships between the northern and southern hemispheres of the globe. During his speech, Dixit referred to an inverted map of South Asia as a catalyst for considering the people and places of the region in more humanistic terms.

“If you turn [the map] upside down, then you hopefully look at something other than the nation states, which means first and foremost…the people that make up nearly a fourth of the world’s population,” Dixit said.

The region commonly referred to as South Asia includes India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. But according to Dixit, centralized states lead to centralized civil societies and centralized shifting of news. By only focusing on populist politics and the palpable energy of nationalism and national politics, incongruities in population between nations can obscure the sheer amount of human suffering that occurs.

“If you look at South Asia from a different perspective,” Dixit continued, “then perhaps the topics we have to deal with today—civil society, human rights, and democracy—can bee seen in the right perspective rather than through the lens of what you would call the capital elites of Delhi, Dhaka, Colombo, Kathmandu, Islamabad, Kabul.”

Barring the exceptions of Afghanistan and Nepal, all countries included in South Asia were part of former colonies, and the borders drawn represent political boundaries which sever the continuities of history shared by the people in the region.

“The reality is,” Dixit explained, “South Asia as defined by the nation state was only created in 1947. The way we have been groomed to become nation statists, each of us citizens of a different country, is to look at something that is as little as 70 years old.”
Dixit emphasized that there was no ill will toward nation states, and that in order to exist on a practical plane, the call to reach for a South Asian identity should be in tandem with national and local identities.

Human rights in South Asia

Dixit highlighted the story of Nanda Prasad Adhikari and Ganga Maya, a couple whose son was murdered by Maoist sharpshooters in Nepal in 2004. Rather than go to human rights organizations or the various embassies, they decided to seek justice through the courts.

“They were ideal citizens of Nepal, or of any country,” Dixit said. “That you feel that you’ve been wronged, your son has been murdered, and you want accountability and closure. You want the murderer to be brought into court and assigned a sentence—but through due process.”

After eight years with no resolution, the couple went on hunger strike and was later detained multiple times, including being placed in a mental asylum. Adhikari died on Sept. 22, 2014, while his wife continues her fast in critical condition today. “In many ways their life was the most excruciating, yet unbeknownst to others,” Dixit went on. “It’s like a tree fell in the forest and nobody heard it.”

Dixit contrasted the life of Adhikari with that of Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army whose 1981 hunger strike and subsequent death while incarcerated were the subjects of extensive national media coverage that brought awareness to the Republican movement in Ireland. “Nanda Prasad should be the name that is emblazoned across South Asia and the world for somebody who dies for a belief in justice, pure and simple,” Dixit said.

Civil society in South Asia

Civil society often refers to individual citizens or organizations in society that are independent of the government, but also can refer to any elements or institutions of a democratic society that allow the will and interests of the citizenry to manifest.

In order to parallel democracy’s descent into demagoguery and the loss of momentum from earlier independence movements, which weakened the philosophical and academic strength of political parties, Dixit attempted to illustrate how civil society was being compromised by violence and the fear of violence.

In particular, individual citizens who utilize tools of the modern pulpit such as blogs and other social media to promote a plurality of views find themselves under threat with no organizational protection or support.

“You’re not part of an Amnesty International,” Dixit said. “You’re just doing a blog, speaking up for rationality, speaking up against Hindu fundamentalism or Islamic fundamentalism. But there’s nobody to back you up, and you’re fair game for the machete or the gun or the knife.”

Examples of violence could be seen in several recent incidents where rationalists, freethinkers, and bloggers we killed for speaking out. In the Maldives, a political blogger challenging in the increasing momentum toward Islamic fundamentalism was found stabbed to death in the stairwell less than a week before Dixit’s talk at PSU. Less than two weeks earlier, Mashal Khan, a journalism student in Pakistan, was brutally beaten and killed by a mob following accusations of having committed blasphemy.

“The saddest of course is Bangladesh and Pakistan,” Dixit said. “In Bangladesh there’s a particular way of using the machete to kill. So it’s not even a bullet in the back, but frontal attacks and the horror of it all. It’s happening continuously.”

In the case of India, Dixit pointed out that as the largest county in the region, India likely also had the largest burden of human rights abuses. However, while other countries in South Asia are often seen through the prism of the New Delhi press, the breadth and scope of India’s own track record on human rights is not always clear. “India, supposedly a democracy, doesn’t get as much press in terms of the devastation wrought on human rights within India,” Dixit explained.

India’s dominance of South Asia geographically, economically, and militarily is one reason Dixit feels a new understanding of South Asian regionalism is required. While intergovernmental organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation can be seen as a buy-in by the capital establishments of all these countries to the idea of regionalism, the nation state model is not good enough to address issues of human rights and social justice.

“There is this humongous country in the middle, and therefore you cannot rely on the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] model or the EU model to look at South Asia,” Dixit explained. “And to think that SAARC can somehow emulate ASEAN or the EU…it cannot.” These concepts were developed by Dixit and the editorial staff of Himal Southasian, a regional review magazine where Dixit served as a founding editor.

Reporters without Borders, an international nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of information and freedom of the press, released its 2017 World Press Freedom Index in April, which ranks 180 countries around the world based on the level of freedom available to journalists to gather and publish news and information. Nepal was the only South Asian country to break the top 100.
However, in November 2016, the magazine suspended operations after 29 years of publication.
Despite these setbacks, Dixit announced that the process of moving Himal outside of Nepal has been finalized, and the paper’s new home will be Colombo, Sri Lanka.

When addressing the coming challenges to overcoming the widespread lack of human rights standards and weakening of democracy and civil society across the region, Dixit didn’t mince words.

“I don’t have a real answer other than to say, most unromantically, that we just must keep on fighting,” Dixit concluded. “More democratically, strengthening democracy at the grassroots. I see that as the only way out.”

The event was made possible by a grant from the Internationalization Council awarded to Portland State faculty Bishupal Limbu, Priya Kapoor and Sri Craven. The grant also funded the Film Southasia Festival, which featured documentaries and nonfiction films highlighting the diversity of experience in South Asia.