Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2024 > Towards civil liberties and a union of minds in Southasia

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 9, March 2, 2024

Towards civil liberties and a union of minds in Southasia

Friday 1 March 2024


by Sapan News Desk

One Southasia*, one voice - solidarity and collaboration! This is the message that emerged from the Southasia-focused panels at the recently-concluded World Social Forum in Kathmandu. These were among the over 400 activities at the WSF that included panels on solidarity with Palestine, the situation in Manipur state of India, peasants and trade unions, the World Feminist Forum, to mention some.

The Southasia sessions discussed issues including climate crisis, inter-country borders and civil liberties, with participants agreeing on the need for collaboration and cooperation in all areas.

A session titled ‘South Asian People’s Roadmap for Moving Towards a South Asian Union’ underscored the notion that the peoples of all Southasian countries must push their governments into urgently coming together around climate change.

Panellists and participants agreed that this is an emergency that needs to be dealt with at the regional level and that the future of Southasia can hold the promise only in unity, collaboration and shared prosperity.

Visa-Free Southasia

As we stand at the threshold of a new era and envision a South Asian Union, the journey cannot proceed with governments alone but with the collective will of the people, they said in a resolution. The region, with its ancient civilisations and interconnected history and today consisting a fourth of the world population, must move towards a ‘Visa-Free Southasia’.

What would a Southasian union mean as a concept, asked journalist and editor Kanak Mani Dixit, founder Himal Southasian magazine. “As of now we cannot mean union of states, as that would require governmental buy-in. Let us start with a union of minds in Southasia which will be based on the core value of empathy, the ability to look at the other’s point of view and to act for the wellbeing of all.”

For example, a Pakistani should be able to look at a subject from the point of view of an Indian and vice versa, he said.

Such empathy was evident at the session itself.

“Pakistan will face one of the worst impacts of climate change with no fault of their’s,” said climate scientist Sagar Dhara, with the South Asian People’s Friendship Association, Hyderabad, India.

“India prevents fast and easy access from one country to another in Southasia, despite the progress in roads and transportation,” commented Sajjan Kumar Singh, General Secretary, Nature Human Centric People’s Movement, Rajasthan.

The laws implemented by the political rulers greatly threaten natural resources in Southasian countries, he said, adding that these resources are for all. He gave the example of the River Indus that is the main source of water in Pakistan, and if India didn’t ensure the water flow, "how would that nation survive?”

In the session on Civil Liberties in South Asia, organised by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) of India, moderator Lara Jesani, a lawyer from Mumbai, made it clear that all countries in the region face hurdles in the path of civil liberties.

To inquire into and assess the situation of civil liberties in the Southasia region is “fundamental to the assertion and achievement of all human rights,” said Jesani.

All countries in the region face several similar challenges, ranging from the impact of climate change to curtailment of civil liberties, she added, noting that this makes it important for civil society and people to come together to share, learn and look for common solutions for the protection of people’s rights and freedoms.

Digital media laws are being promulgated that affect the freedom of expression all over the Subcontinent, said Biraj Patnaik, a human rights activist from India. He also pointed to the lack of cross-border mobility in the region, the “harsh steps being taken to subdue people’s voices”, and how elections, organised by authoritarian or competitive authoritarian governments, “are held only to show that democracy exists.’”

Harsh measures

Patnaik’s observation that laws like the Foreign Currency Regulation Act in India are enacted to curb the flow of foreign funding to civil society organisations was echoed by fellow panellist Nalini Rathnarajahm, women’s human rights defender and member South Asia Alliance of Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) from Sri Lanka.

“The NGOs are monitored every month about where they get support from and their budgets are scrutinised by the government,” she said, adding that people are arrested just for saying a few words that may sound anti-government or in favour of the opposition. Further, the Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community faces extreme scrutiny, she said.

The situation is not much different in Bangladesh. “The country is practising authoritarian governance, due to non-participatory elections in the last three terms. The present government enacted several laws to curtail the people’s voice. The spaces of civil society and the political activist are shrinking due to fear of arrest, and torture,” said Zakir Hossain, Chief Executive, Nagorik Uddyog (Citizens initiative), Dhaka.

In Pakistan only a Muslim can be the president of the country, noted Diep Saeeda of the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS), Lahore. Meanwhile, the youth of Pakistan are leaving the country because of the lack of livelihood, some of which is linked to the never-ending conflict between India and Pakistan, she added.

Saeeda also referred to the attacks she has faced on social media for her views.

Nepal may look like the only safe place in South Asia where civil liberties are still intact, enabling the WSF itself to take place here, said Namrata Sharma, Chair Mass Communication, Nepal National Commission for UNESCO. However, stringent laws now threaten press freedom and freedom of expression, including the Electronic Transmission Act and Social Media Bill, while other laws related to the digital media are also being formulated and in the process of being promulgated. Meanwhile, the social media app TikTok has been summarily banned in Nepal, she said.

There have already been several incidents of journalists, cartoonists, youtubers and singers in Nepal being imprisoned for expressing themselves. Additionally, the Government periodically places restrictions on public protests. The constitution of Nepal includes some excellent policies, but various loopholes allow the government to act arbitrarily “in the so-called cliche of protection of the sovereignty of the nation,” said Sharma

The political dispensations in Southasian countries are eroding the already fragile democracies that existed before this, said PUCL Chairperson Kavita Srivastava, summing up the discussion. India’s Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill proposes to bring independent journalists and individuals sharing news and information on digital platforms under the regulatory framework; this, and the suppression of minorities is almost universal in our region, she added.

“Additionally, the foremost institution to ensure checks and balances against the tyranny of the state — the judiciary — is also not fully independent all around the region,” said Srivastava. “To restore civil liberties which are slowly being curtailed in the region under the camouflage of democracy in Southasia, we need to start a united movement for the restoration of human rights.”

Overall, participants in the panel agreed that political violence, arbitrary arrests, denial and criminalising of all forms of public dissent on the streets and on social media was a commonality all over Southasia. Governments are promulgating laws which increase state regulation, and surveillance was being legislated in the name of data protection.

People’s SAARC

The political challenges the people of the region face as Southasians will have to be considered when making plans towards a Southasian Union, said Deekshya Illangasinghe, Executive Director South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), from Sri Lanka. She was speaking at the session South Asian People’s Roadmap for Moving Towards a South Asian Union.

Governments are more focused on creating new alliances like the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) rather than taking forward the existing South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), she said.

Many of the speakers and participants of this session are also members of the Southasia Peace Action Network [1] (Sapan), a global network advocating the need for open or at least soft borders in Southasia.

In December last year, Sapan held an online session [2] calling for the revival of SAARC, and in March 2023 it urged Southasian governments to work towards convening an official SAARC Summit at the earliest [3].

The WSF included a session on ‘People’s SAARC’. The Southsian region is one of the least integrated due to strict visa regulations and difficult travel in the region, noted Illangasinghe.

The lack of integration also affects the economy. As a farmer from India asked, “Why should tomatoes in India get wasted and sold for less than 20 rupees while other Southasian countries import them from Dubai?”

The rhetoric created by our governments is leading to the younger generations "recognising themselves less and less as Southasians", said Illangasinghe. "If we are to move towards a Southasian Union we must ensure that the people recognise themselves as Southasians and for this to happen people-to-people connections must be strengthened”.

At present, there aren’t even any direct flights between Pakistan and Nepal, even as Kathamndu promotes itself as the meeting place of Southasia, noted journalist Kanak Mani Dixit.

Dixit asserted that SAARC still has an iconic value to promote the concept of one Southasia, even as the SAARC and Southasia should not be understood as synonymous. "Nepal has now been Chair of SAARC since the last summit in 2014, for nearly a decade, because New Delhi has sabotaged the holding of the subsequent summit in Islamabad, Dixit said. He added: “As the Chair, We need to review what Nepal has done so far. Has Nepal publicly sought to convince India to hold the next summit in Pakistan? No. When Nepal’s Prime Minister meets Mr. Modi, does he say let’s get SAARC going? No."

Rather than pointing fingers at New Delhi or any other country, we need to question why Nepal is trying "be comfortable to New Delhi,” said Dixit, stressing the need for all Southasian people to come together and get SAARC to do what it was started for.

– A Sapan News Network syndicated feature available for republication with due credit to

*Note on Southasia as one word: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan News Network uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means ‘dream’.

[This a Sapan News Feature]

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.