Welcome to South Asia Brief, the weekly newsletter that keeps you up to date on a region that is home to one-fourth of humanity.
This week: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays the cornerstone to a controversial temple, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is poised for a comeback in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan plans its grand assembly of elders.
“Today, centuries of waiting are over.” That’s how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi summed up the moment he laid down the foundation stone for a new grand temple to the Hindu god Ram in the city of Ayodhya on Wednesday. While the coronavirus pandemic limited the number of officials present to fewer than 200, hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in to watch saffron-robed priests perform ceremonies kicking off the construction of the temple.
The proposed shrine isn’t just any temple. Hindus believe it is the site of the birth of one of their most important deities, Ram. Muslims, on the other hand, point to the fact that the temple is being built on the very site of a 16th-century mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992—an incident that sparked deadly riots across the country.
The importance of Aug. 5. The Modi government has planned this day for months. The country’s Supreme Court greenlighted the construction of the temple as far back as last November, but New Delhi picked Wednesday for its ceremony because it was the first anniversary of the abrogation of Kashmir, when India revoked the Muslim-majority state’s autonomy and brought it under the central government’s control.
Combining these two events—ending Kashmir’s special status and building a Ram temple—has powerful symbolism. Both moves were campaign promises for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last two national elections and capture how the government has achieved its goal of Hindu dominance.
With Hindu supremacy, of course, comes Muslim suppression. As the Economist points out, while Kashmir and the Ram temple are two of the BJP’s core agenda items, a third could be the end of Muslim family law, which is still partly practiced in India. The BJP has already made crucial advances, criminalizing a medieval Muslim law in which men could divorce their wives by saying the word talaq, or divorce, three times.
The end product of the BJP’s recent policies is an increasingly uncertain time for India’s nearly 200 million Muslims. Another BJP initiative, a controversial citizenship law that could discriminate against Muslims in particular, was put on the back burner last December only after mass protests. With the pandemic still spreading, Wednesday’s moment of Hindu triumphalism not only passed without public interruption, but it also served as a timely distraction for Modi’s large Hindu base.
Next steps. What goals does Modi chase after fulfilling his campaign promises? The backdrop to India’s increasing Hindu nationalism is quite dire. India just crossed 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and could be the world’s worst-affected country by the end of the year. The economy, slowing dramatically before the pandemic, has gotten worse.
Estimates suggest that as many as 100 million Indians have lost their livelihoods and tens of millions of migrant workers are displaced. The economy could contract by as much as 10 percent this year. There is little real chance of a fiscal recovery until the health crisis abates—and in India there is no sign of that until the world produces a vaccine.
For Modi, fixing these problems will be much harder than symbolic moves to appease his base. Ironically, by shutting down or slowing the internet in Kashmir, and by standing by as the authorities discriminate against Muslims (as they did during the Delhi riots this year), India is curbing the aspirations and productivity of its largest minority group—a circumstance that can hardly provide a tailwind for the broader economy.
India hits 2 million COVID-19 cases. India is now just the third country after Brazil and the United States to cross 2 million known coronavirus cases. As shown below, recent trends are holding steady: Cases are spiking the most in India, while other major South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan are not far behind. In each case, testing rates are too low to accurately gauge the spread of the virus. Health experts estimate that community transmission is well underway.
Sri Lanka’s election. Votes are still being counted in Thursday’s national election in Sri Lanka, but all signs point to Mahinda Rajapaksa returning to power as prime minister. Rajapaksa is expected to be appointed prime minister by his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party wins the most seats. If the SLPP wins a two-thirds majority, observers expect it to sanction expanded powers for the presidency, entrenching the Rajapaksa family’s grip on power. India’s Modi has already called Mahinda Rajapaksa to congratulate him on his performance.
Afghan grand assembly. On Friday, Afghanistan will convene a loya jirga, or grand assembly of elders, to discuss the fate of Taliban prisoners. Kabul has so far released around 4,600 of a requested 5,000 prisoners as part of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal. The remaining 400 are proving to be too controversial to release without further debate: According to a presidential spokesperson, many have been convicted in mass killings and sentenced to death. A loya jirga is constitutionally enshrined as the highest expression of the Afghan people.
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Dodgy debt. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the country’s central bank, announced a debt restructuring scheme this week, the Financial Times reports. Coupled with an extension of an ongoing debt moratorium, the RBI hopes the moves will encourage banks to shed their risk-averse instincts and continue lending to businesses. Indicators of consumer demand, however, show that the economy remains fragile.
That’s it for this week.
Photo: Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images