Deeds, not words: Delhi gasps for breath

Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was recorded at 400 units in October 2021, which is considered severe as per the scale developed by the Central Pollution Control Board. It is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Over the past few years, the discussion has centred on the health issues of its 30 million residents. Medical experts are clear: poor air quality leads to a number of respiratory problems, especially among the most vulnerable – children and the elderly. Dust particles from stubble burning in the farmlands of neighbouring Punjab and Haryana flow towards Delhi with a push from the North-western winds. This report by Vox explains the problem in detail and raises questions on the environmental importance of efficient agricultural practices. This continued issue highlights a critical lack of coordination between the state-level and central governments which is directly impacting the quality of life for Delhi residents.  

The Supreme Court of India had to step in to force the governments to chart a long-term plan to reduce the AQI. As a result, the Central Government has been ordered to devise an emergency plan in consultation with the Delhi and neighbouring states’ governments. The court heard the matter of Delhi’s pollution for the third time in 2021 alone and stated that ad hoc measures will not work to curb this problem. The court was responding to a petition filed by an 18-year-old environmental activist, Aditya Dubey who is seeking judicial intervention for measures to control worsening air quality in the city.

In response, the Delhi State Government introduced a 5 point plan to curb air pollution. The plan identified four key sources of air pollution and proposed solutions such as an anti-dust campaign, water sprinkling across areas with high dust emission, a ban on diesel generator sets, stopping open-burning of waste at landfills and spraying the bio-decomposer solution on 4000 acres of farmland within Delhi. It also proposed measures under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), such as banning coal furnaces, a key contributor to the city’s air pollution. Six of eleven coal powered plants in a 300 kilometres radius of Delhi have been temporarily shut and schools have been on a week-long leave as a part of the response. 
While these measures demonstrate an acknowledgement and an improvement in the response of the state government, they are not sufficient to address the critical issue which transcends state borders. The Delhi government has limited jurisdiction and is bound by geographical boundaries. The Central government must immediately intervene and, working with Delhi and surrounding state governments, generate a comprehensive and coherent emergency plan. Air pollution is an annual crisis for the city, making national and international headlines and impacting the health of an estimated 30 million people in the city. As the Supreme Court remarked, “This is the national capital. Look at the signal we are sending to the world”. It’s time for the Government of India to show leadership on reducing air pollution to protect the residents of Delhi and set an example for the rest of the country.

Photo Credit: Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty

Ending the Logic of Violence in Massacres

On Friday, April 9th, over 80 protestors demonstrating against the military coup in Myanmar were killed by state security forces in the town of Bago, near the country’s largest city of Yangon. The killings mark the latest in a series of state massacres that have seen over 600 protestors killed since the February coup. Meanwhile, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, hundreds of Ethiopian citizens were massacred by Eritrean soldiers fighting on behalf of the Ethiopian government in the town of Axum. In both cases, despite international condemnation, acts of state violence have continued, and those responsible for the massacres have gone unpunished. 

Halfway across the world from Myanmar, President Macron of France announced in December that France would continue to sell arms to Egypt, despite reports of continued human rights abuses by a regime that came to power through a military coup in 2013 and the subsequent massacre of between 800 and 1000 supporters of the previous president — a massacre for which no members of the Egyptian military have been accountable.

These three seemingly disparate events follow a particular logic of state violence in which the massacre has become a central tool of repression. Through the more “limited” violence of massacres, states can continue to strengthen their rule through violence and terror, while largely avoiding the international pariah status of Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad. So too can they rely on the tried and true tendency of nominally rights-supporting Western states: to look the other way, especially when military or economic ties are on the line. 

The result is a world less safe, more violent, and in which state sponsored massacres are becoming an increasingly common tool of repression. But it doesn’t have to remain this way. 

To end state-sponsored massacres, we have to think of new ways to break the logic of violence that makes massacres so useful to regimes. 

Ending the Logic of Violence

Is there a logic to the violence behind massacres? Looking at past and current massacres suggests that, rather than spontaneous acts of bloodshed,  they are in fact largely planned with the intention of furthering repressive rule. Through massacres, states set “us vs. them” lines of being, which portrays all dissidents to the regime as criminals, traitors, or terrorists, in which violence is the only acceptable response, in what is known as the “civil war regime.”

In Egypt in 2013, these lines took the form of the military vs. Islamists, who were labeled “terrorists” and an existential threat to the state in which the only response was force. A similar scenario is occurring in Myanmar today, according to the New York Times, in which “a steady diet of propaganda feeds (the military) notions of enemies at every corner, even on city streets…the cumulative effect is a bunkered worldview, in which orders to kill unarmed civilians are to be followed without question.” In these environments, massacres of civilians are not just a result of us vs. them lines, but also help reinforce future rule by rationalizing massacres as necessary to protect the state from internal enemies. States that perform massacres are therefore more violent and more repressive, as the regime increasingly resorts to violence to maintain power.  

There is also a second, equally important, logic to massacres: their ability to be forgotten, ignored, or rationalized by the international community which might otherwise be compelled to act in larger-scale acts of violence (see Libya, 2011). In 1989, the response to the Tiananmen massacre was waved away to permit China’s integration into the global economy. Similarly, the Rabaa massacre of 2013 was forgotten to gain Egyptian military support against the Islamic State. Authoritarian regimes know this, and are willing to wait out short-term costs knowing fully well that the long-term repercussions will be minimal. 

While the international community has little power to stop the effectiveness of the first logic of violence, it has tremendous leverage over the second. To stop massacres, the international cost of a massacre must be higher for the regime than its domestic benefits –  in short, to make massacres “illogical” as regimes weigh their own risks. 

What tools do we have to make this a reality? While international military intervention has a complicated history of abuse, it doesn’t mean that non-military options can’t be equally as effective, especially when coordinated multilaterally across nations. Ending military assistance to regimes that commit massacres – as the Obama administration initially did against Egypt in 2013 before backtracking two years later – is a powerful first step, as are targeted sanctions on responsible leaders that minimize the impact of nationwide sanctions, which disproportionately impact the poor and marginalized. Regime actors can also face the threat of prosecution across a coalition of nations under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, a precedent recently set in Germany in the ongoing trial of a former Syrian regime military officer.

These are certainly not the only tools available, and by setting a framework adopted across a series of nations that can quickly “snap” into place in the event of massacres, the threat of real and long term consequences can serve as enough of a disincentive for a regime to step back and de-escalate violence in the face of dissent. 

Risks and Rewards 

There is a real short term risk in this, namely in the willingness of authoritarian powers such as Russia to openly support states that conduct massacres, such as Syria and recently Myanmar. Traditionally, this has been the main rationale for maintaining ties with violent regimes: that it is better to keep regimes close and slowly adapt their behavior than allow the emergence of a Chinese or Russian authoritarian bloc. 

The problem is that this hasn’t worked – Egypt, for example, is now more repressive than ever before, while rights abuses have only continued during Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict. Instead, a set framework of actions in the wake of massacres gives states a choice: to rule through violence, or to continue to benefit from access to the larger international community, a choice most authoritarian leaders have until this point been sheltered from making. 

The problem is not that massacres are unavoidable – it is that, for too long, nations that claim to stand for human rights and the responsibility to protect have consistently put economic, military, or geopolitical priorities before ending mass violence. But regardless of the short-term costs, in the long term, we have the opportunity to create a powerful new norm against state-sponsored massacres, one that can save hundreds of thousands of lives and create a safer and less violent world. Isn’t this a risk worth taking? 

Dystopia after Democracy: Myanmar Coup

In the two weeks since a military coup against the government of Myanmar, growing numbers of civilians have taken to the streets of Yangon and in cities around the world to demand the release of jailed democratically-elected representatives, including the domestically popular, if internationally disgraced, icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The demonstrations in Myanmar have featured a vibrant array of references to meme culture and themed attire in an appeal to garner support against the military’s attempt to take control of Myanmar for the next year. Perhaps the strongest gesture throughout the peaceful protests has been the three-finger salute. The sign of solidarity, first used in anti-coup protests in Thailand, is attributed to the Hunger Games series. The dystopian tale of underdog youth taking on vicious and authoritarian evil has become an international rallying cry across a new generation of activists. 

The fragile steps towards a representative democracy under the Thein Sein government in 2010 ushered in unparalleled levels of international engagement that fundamentally altered Myanmar’s society in official and unofficial channels after nearly six decades of rule by the military junta. International aid and foreign leaders poured in to demonstrate support for the transition while civil society reforms exponentially increased internet access across the country. Alongside the Hunger Games references, popularized signage and social media posts communicate another common message: “You’ve [messed] with the wrong generation.” 

Both the actors and the political landscape have changed. General Min Aung Hlaing has misjudged the dynamics and discourses that have become broadly entrenched over the past decade. Internal forces that the military has long sought to control, through overt violence and constitutional measures, are quickly gaining momentum. By some local estimates, the growing number of civil society actors participating in the protests may be substantial enough to wrestle effectual control away from the military in under three months. Subsequent reports have also cited growing support from within the police force, most often evidenced through a surreptitious display of the three-finger salute.

The lack of international reaction – at the time of writing only New Zealand and the US have responded to the coup with sanctions – is all too familiar for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and ethnic minority communities like the Rohingya, Karen, Chin and others.  Beyond a stifling set of international sanctions, external actors have historically provided little meaningful support to the people of Myanmar. The resistance, swollen in size and resolve, is likely to be seen as an increasing threat to military dominance. This troubling dynamic could soon lead to an escalation of violence unless some form of external pressure is applied to shift the balance of power. In the Hunger Games series, ‘tributes’ appeal to sponsors to provide critical aid and material support. Provisions, especially when leveraged at the right time, can alter the outcome of the ‘competition.’ Anti-coup protests, if supplemented by timely strategic support from the international community, could help to restore the democratically elected government and signal robust backing for transitional policies.  

Protest in Kayuske, 9 Feb 2021

Explaining the prominence of the three-finger salute, one protester responded, “We knew that it would be easily understood to represent concepts of freedom, equality, solidarity.” And while the realm of international relations is markedly nuanced, identifying authoritarian violence in Myanmar is relatively straightforward. The only question that remains is whether the international community will rise to match this resolve and put substance behind the words ‘May the odds be ever in your favor.’

Islamophobia and the Rohingya Genocide

Over the last 20 years, Islamophobia has captured the headlines worldwide – from France and Germany to Australia, the UK and the US – and in Myanmar. Since the 1960s the Rohingya population has suffered systematic racism by the Myanmar government. 

Global Attention on the Rohingya was further heightened in 2011, by what many would describe as ‘hate speech’, that circulated over Facebook by the radicalised monk, Ashin Wirathu. This caught the attention of the international media and led to a major public outcry, many protesting in the UK and worldwide on the streets and outside Myanmar’s embassy demanding justice for the people of Rohingya and describing  this direct attack as a form of Islamophobia. 

The fleeing of the Rohingya has not stopped. In the recent media, it has been shown that many Rohingya are paying large sums to travel by boat or escaping by foot, grabbing a few personal belongings. Many have been forcibly displaced into neighbouring states such as Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Thailand and Bangladesh initially refused them entry, abandoning them at sea. Today, over 800,000 Rohingyas live in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest refugee camps. 

The UN has confirmed that the Myanmar military’s campaign against the Rohingya has been motivated by ‘genocidal intent’ and that this is a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Nevertheless, the Rohingyas’ pleading desperation has been dismissed as ‘exaggeration’ and silenced by the leading politician in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, who now supports the same army that for twenty years denied her freedom. She has gone from being a victim to a heroic leader and now one of the main perpetrators of the outbreak of mass violence against the Rohingya.   

In 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi pleaded for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands to drop the genocide charges against the Myanmar government. Can she not see what’s happening in her state? 

According to the satellite imagery of ‘new destruction in Rakhine state’ between October and November in 2017, around 354 Rohingya villages were destroyed. Rakhine’s Buddhist monks and Burmese soldiers allegedly killed 24,000 Rohingya civilians, committed rape and other forms of sexual violence against Rohingya Muslim women and young girls, and many civilians were thrown into fire pits. 

Why have the UN and other international bodies been so ineffective in resolving this conflict and delivering justice for the victims?- Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has rejected the ICJ’s ruling ordering measures to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya, meaning the court’s judgment has had little impact on the ground. Also, the paltry sanctions imposed on the Burmese by various governments, including the US, UK, and the EU, have had symbolic value but failed to deter the Burmaese military’s actions. These sanctions have only targeted individual members of the army  – mostly freezing their assets – , nowhere near the scale of other ‘interventions’ as can be seen widely across the Middle East and other areas of interest from the old colonial masters. And despite the Burmese government agreeing to take the Rohingya back, Rakhine remains a hostile place. Would the Rohingya people want to return to a country that denies them citizenship and where conflict could reignite?  

The Rohingya genocide and the subsequent refugee crisis did not come without a warning. Like all genocides, this was systematically done, through targeted legislation and many years of repression, dehumanisation, polarisation, extermination and denial of the Rohingya Muslim people. This catastrophic case of the Rohingya genocide exemplifies the horrific consequences of structural Islamophobia, culminating in a refugee crisis.  

A young heavily pregnant woman walked for five days and gave birth before entering Bangladesh. She now resides in a refugee camp made out of frayed cloth, without clothes or food for her newborn child and only a chewed-up pillow supplied. This case exemplifies the impact of the Myanmar government’s actions against the Rohingya – a beautiful blessing born into a state of discrimination and violence; a by-product of the political era.  

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Rise of Islamophobia in India

In 2014, the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right, populist party was characterised by fervent Hindu nationalism and Islamophobic comments in speeches and interviews by BJP leaders. More recently, coronavirus has given further opportunities for the expression of anti-Muslim sentiment by members of the party

This propaganda began when a religious congregation organized by the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamat experienced a large number of positive coronavirus cases. This created a storm on social media, calling  this the beginning of ‘corona-terrorism’ by a jihadist organization. The Tablighi Jamat is a non-partisan religious movement with no links to any terrorist organization. Regardless, the “coronajihad” hashtag became a new means of spreading toxicity over Islam at an already fraught time for Muslims across  the world.

In various states across India, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were specifically targeted because of the “cornajihad” phenomenon. In places like Uttarakhand, many shops owned by Muslims were forced to shut down, with Hindu shops allowed to operate as normal. A 22-year-old boy was violently beaten up by a Hindu mob for coming back from a religious gathering. He was accused of spreading “corona jihad”. 

These attacks underline the ignorance of the common people about the core tenets of Islam – which can easily be manipulated by the BJP and other Hindu elites. The linkages of all Islamic gatherings to terrorist activities have become the new normal in today’s populist agenda. The core principles of the Islamic faith have never supported and the terrorist activities in recent decades committed notionally in the name of Islamic have caused great harm to those who profess the Islamic faith. 

In the wake of “coronajihad” attacks in India,  the World Health Organization released a cautionary statement regarding the profiling of coronavirus cases on racial, religious and ethnic lines. The WHO emphasised that such discrimination is incredibly dangerous during a global public health crisis. Even though the Indian Prime Minister made a desperate attempt at uniting the nation by saying “COVID 19 knows no race, religion, caste, creed or borders, we must stay united in this fight”, the fire was already lit and such statements had little effect. The rise of Hindu nationalism has led to violence against Muslims by numerous members of the BJP.

Muslim men have been beaten for dating Hindu women. Some have been targeted for selling or eating beef. Under this regime, secularism in Indian has come under severe strain. The enablers of the BJP want a Hindu nation into the Islamic republics elsewhere in South Asia and the Middle East. In these places, Muslims have little freedom to choose their religious beliefs, and only non-Muslims get licenses to buy alcohol or pork. The BJP’s endgame is to create a similar Hindu Republic where all Hindus should follow the principles of Hindutva.

In December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, making religion a criterion for Indian citizenship. The law fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan while removing  “illegal immigrants” from the country. Most of the immigrants from these three countries were Muslims, and many of them feared that they would be put in concentration camps if they didn’t change their religion to become naturalized citizens.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided the latest platform for these forms of Islamophobic hatred. Such treatment of Muslims has angered many secular members of Indian society. A country that for so long has been a haven of religious freedom has, under the BJP, increasingly become a nightmare for Muslims across India

source image: wikicommon