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Pakistan And Sri Lanka Are Reminders Of The Political Power Of Economics

Both Pakistan's and Sri Lanka's leaders have resigned recently. Their fates should be a reminder to politicians in Asia and around the world: good economics might not be enough to get re-elected but bad economic decisions can hasten your fall.

On April 11, Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, following a no-confidence motion against the incumbent. A month later, in neighbouring Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe took oath as Prime Minister, for the sixth time, after the incumbent resigned.

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How A Newspaper Is Helping Save India's Endangered Languages

After a bill by Indian parliament sidelined local languages in India, one digital newspaper took up the task of helping preserve them.

NEW DELHI — Tucked in a corner of a house in the Chenab valley in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of the country is the office of The Chenab Times, a multimedia news website that aims to produce news in two main local languages of Jammu’s Doda region – Bhaderwahi and Sarazi.

The team uploads videos on YouTube that wrap up daily news, first in Urdu and then in Bhaderwahi and Sarazi. The news portal also gives space to writers from across the country to write for their op-ed section.

In Jan. 2017, 23-year-old Anzer Ayoob, the editor-in-chief of the news website, started this portal that would run news in Urdu and English. However, after the parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill – that made Hindi, Kashmiri and Dogri the official languages of the Union Territory – in September 2020, locals in the valley felt side-lined and ignored.

Many expressed dismay over the exclusion of Gojri, Pahadi and Punjabi and how the Bill coerced speakers to align with Hindi in a region where it is barely spoken. This also led to apprehensions over the marginalization of Urdu, which is the lingua franca in Pakistan. Language and politics are delicate subjects in the area. Both China and Pakistan lay claim to parts of Kashmir.

The civil society groups have expressed severe concerns over the Union government’s decision to digitize materials of Kashmiri language in Devnagri script, more associated with Hindi, instead of the Nastaliq script, pointing to serious apprehensions about the devaluation of the Persian script.

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Attack Looms In Ukraine's East, Macron-Le Pen Rematch, Gender-Neutral Passports

👋 Ndeewo!*

Welcome to Monday, where Ukraine braces for a new Russian offensive in the east, France’s presidential election has a je-ne-sais-quoi of déjà-vu, and the U.S. issues gender-neutral passports for the first time. Meanwhile, Die Welt’s reporter Alfred von Hackensberger visits Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown, which is bracing for more Russian attacks.

[*Igbo - Nigeria]

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Dozens Killed In Ukraine Train Station Attack

👋 مرحبا*

Welcome to Friday, where at least 30 are killed in a Russian rocket strike on a Ukrainian train station, Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed as the U.S. Supreme Court’s first-ever Black woman justice and polls are tightening between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen ahead of Sunday’s French presidential elections. La Stampa reporter Francesco Semprini follows the Ukrainian Special Forces patrolling the streets of Kharkiv in search of pro-Russian saboteurs.

[*Marhaba - Arabic]

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In The News
Lorraine Olaya, Anne-Sophie Goninet and Bertrand Hauger

Russia Blocks Mariupol Evacuation, Leaves Chernobyl

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Friday, where Russian forces halt Mariupol evacuation, Sri Lanka protests turn violent, and Australian police win this year’s April Fools’. Meanwhile, in Ukrainian news website Livy Bereg, Oleksandr Decyk argues that Putin’s gas-for-rubles ploy will amount to another failed attempt to blackmail the West.


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In The News
Anne-Sophie Goninet, Lorraine Olaya and Laure Gautherin

Nuclear Plant Attack, Humanitarian Corridors, Oligarchs Targeted

👋 Halu!*

Welcome to Friday, where Russia seizes control of Europe’s largest nuclear plant after a potentially disastrous attack, Ukraine and Russia agree to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians and the U.S. levels new sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Persian-language media Kayhan-London also reports on the unique prism through which Iran is seeing the Russia-Ukraine war.

[*Inuktitut - Inuit]

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In The News
Anne-Sophie Goninet, Bertrand Hauger and Jane Herbelin

Biden Prediction, Austria’s Vaccine Lottery, Googly Eyes Down Under

👋 Grüss Gott!*

Welcome to Thursday, where Ukraine lashed out at Biden’s prediction about Russian intentions, Austria is betting on a new incentive for the unvaccinated, and the Australian city of Adelaide is baffled by a mysterious spate of googly eyes. We also look at Russia’s latest efforts to dismantle the REvil hacking group, at Washington’s request, and what this means in the context of U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine.

[*Swabian - Germany]

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Alfonso Masoliver

Immigrants Don't Drive Up Crime: Here Are The Facts

Crunch the numbers, or just look around...and we see that immigrants, wherever they may come from, are not a disproportionate cause of crime or cultural degradation across Europe.

Standing outside Hamburg's Arts and Crafts Museum, I observe a little the traffic and bustle of this historic German port, home to two million people. I notice to my right two German women sitting on the grass in the Carl Legien Platz, gaunt but eager as they prepare themselves a syringe full of some drug. To the left, sitting on the museum's steps, is an African man, wearing a pretty checked shirt and white cap. He wipes his face in despair, trying to decipher a manual for a gadget or contraption.

Once they have had their injection, the women recline to enjoy the buzz, until two policemen arrive. They dryly nod at the African and ask the women for their ID. I observed with fascination and must say, no travel journalist should omit to record these little bits of reality. They are as informative to readers as sight-seeing recommendations or dining tips.

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Anna Akage

Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan: Perils Of A Diplomatic Triangle

Russia's foreign minister visited Pakistan for the first time in nine years — just in time for the deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. It points to an important change of actors in one of the deadliest conflict zones in the world.

On April 6, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Pakistan to lead conversations on Afghan peace, military supplies and cooperation in the nuclear sector. It was the first visit by a Russian official to the country since 2012.

"We can confirm that Russia is willing to continue to assist in strengthening the anti-terrorist potential of Pakistan, including supplying them with appropriate equipment," Lavrov said at a press conference, as Russian daily Kommersant reports. According to Lavrov, Russia and Pakistan will continue practicing regular joint tactical exercises to combat terrorism and piracy together.

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Malvika Sharma*

A Village Wedding On The Militarized Indo-Pakistan Border

Despite decades of violence and tension between opposing army outposts, villagers caught in between have no choice but to keep living their lives.

DEGWAR-MALDAYALAN — Tucked away in one of the dips in the Pir Panjal mountain ridges, in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, is the borderland village of Degwar-Maldayalan. And driving there on a chilly winter's night, aware of the notorious army pickets facing each other on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan dividing line, was a one-of-a-kind experience.

A week after the latest line of control (LoC) flared up across several borderlands situated along the LoC, the borders here have been tense. But learning to be certain in uncertain times is something that residents of these hostile geographies have always lived with. And of all the certainties, one of the most important — even in the midst of a pandemic — are the many marriage ceremonies that take place during Diwali.

Weddings are being held as the usual full-blown affair, albeit with some interesting details that speak to how life and culture continue to flourish here on this tumultuous front amid a period of prolonged abnormality that will likely outlast the pandemic. Indeed, despite a lifetime spent in a zone of conflict and violence, with day-to-day ceasefire violations and high surveillance, the villagers here seem to have made peace with their surroundings.

In the dark of the night

The rugged, single-lane road that leads to the village is a relatively recent addition, and thus, traveling there from the nearby town for a night-wedding is a luxury that didn't exist a decade ago. There still aren't any streetlights, and the harrowing darkness made the drive downright scary.

Adding to our unease was the fact that in the distance, the lit-up surveillance-fence running along the north-western mountain-ridges appeared closer than it actually was. A few other lights atop different locations on the hills beyond the fence were the forward positions held by the Indian Army.

The villagers here seem to have made peace with their surroundings.

The surveillance fence grew closer as we drove towards the tail end of the village and looked like a brightly lit, insurmountable wall, curvaceously running all over the hills in front of us. The village sat in eerie silence right below it, and the darkness in it grew scarier with sleepy surroundings and locked doors, very unappealing for a village celebrating a wedding.

After a walk through the weathered mud lanes, there was light at the end of the road as the hustle-bustle around a couple of houses marked the area where the ceremonies for the night were being held.

After a quick round of exchanging greetings, we went inside a newly renovated concrete-pucca house with many kaccha-mud houses around in the vicinity. A couple of young Muslim girls from the village, escaping the crowd and the noise around the house, had taken refuge in the same guest room we were made to sit in, and after a few shy attempts at conversation, they finally opened up about the nature of life in middle of the shelling zone there.

Inter-religious tolerance has led to years of acceptance and mutual co-existence.

They narrated a few stories about the violence they grew up with in the village, including one about a family of three who were wiped out when a shell landed atop a shelter they had taken refuge in during a heavy exchange of fire between the pickets on the front in the past. The shelter was a cowshed located towards the fence and away from the house we were sitting in. The family locked their concrete house and chose the cowshed in hopes that its mud-roofing would protect them from any serious damage. But when a shell hit the "safe haven" directly, they were killed.

Still, the young Muslim girls seemed to have made peace with the surroundings they live in. They were sisters to Waqar (name changed), the groom's maid, who had the most important role to play in the wedding of his childhood friend Prakash, the groom (name changed).

Though Poonch is a Muslim majority district, the shared syncretism in this borderland district among the multi-religious ethno-Paharis, Pahari-Kashmiris, and Gujjars and Bakerwals is exemplary despite the religious identity assertions and continuous polarization of identities vis-à-vis a Hindu Jammu and a Muslim Valley.

Degwar-Maldayalan is one of those last few frontier villages in this borderland district where the inter-religious tolerance has led to years of acceptance and mutual co-existence.

On common ground

Waqar and Prakash, who grew up as brothers, show the interreligious exchange in the village even though most of the Hindu households practice exclusion and distancing with regard to food, utensils, kitchen spaces and other things that could be considered "impure." The practice has its roots in Brahmanism, and most of the Pahari Hindus and Sikhs have been following the tradition for generations.

View over Degwar-Maldayalan — Photo: Malvika Sharma

Even though these practices have a class dimension to it, such a selective-spatial exclusion with respect to the indoor-socio-spatial interactions and their construction inside the house didn't influence the cultural exchanges between the communities outside. Thus, Waqar and his family playing a key role in the wedding inside a Hindu household, while hardly ideal for those who strictly adhere to these exclusionary practices, isn't frowned upon either. Plurality thus has its own ways of teaching warmth and sharing even in spaces that are exclusionary.

This is the quintessential role that diversity plays: It has the power to break through the homogeneity and spread pluralistic values that teach mutual co-existence. The multi-religious Pahari ethnicity in Poonch thus has a shared cultural existence that goes beyond the boundaries of religion and creates a culture that has tolerance for any sort of discrimination and exclusion which institutions like religion, caste, class otherwise generate.

Waqar was the dost of Prakash for the gana-ceremony and thus tied a thread/gana, vowing a sacred bond of protection and support that the dost supposedly promises the groom for a lifetime.

Diversity has the power to break through the homogeneity and spread pluralistic values.

After a spellbinding discussion on how a mehndi raat in a Muslim wedding differs from the mehndi raat in a Hindu wedding, all of us were asked to attend a ritual where the groom hides with his dost and the family has to find and beseech him to come inside so that the henna can be applied leading to the culmination of the mehndi raat.

The groom creates many distractions with multiple groups of his friends hidden as a deviation at different locations thus making it more difficult for the family to locate the groom. The family begins the search with great enthusiasm.

The dhol and the baja were beating in full swing only to add to my anxiety, which was already high given that walking behind a group of people with bright lanterns and loud drum beats is like asking for trouble. I kept my distance, but a shell targeted at us would not have.

I looked at the villagers dancing and celebrating in front of me and then looked at the surveillance-fence and the forwards pickets barely a mile away from our position. It disturbed me as I knew the havoc that the cross-border violence had unleashed on the civilian population only five days ago and how the frontier areas such as this one were put on alert since then.

Life goes on

But my anxiety did not resonate with these villagers who were performing as if they owned the moment and its fate. I did share my fear with a few elderly people and asked them if it was safe to be walking out in the open like this, in the dark of the night, purposely inviting unwanted attention from the forces manning the border.

A few laughed at my interventions and others asked me to think of good things as "thoughts of shelling" was a disgrace to the sanctity of the occasion that I was a part of. In that moment, all I could do was to hope for the groom to reveal himself soon enough before the hullabaloo reached the fence.

Loss of lives, and yearning for peace.

The fear in me constantly distracted the observer in me, but it was the groom's chosen hiding place — a bunker — that had me back as an active observer. Community-bunkers built all across these fronts by the administration aim to provide temporary relief in times of heavy shelling. The implementation of the policy and the construction of bunkers under the same have not been fair and equal for each and every villager residing here. That aside, who would have thought the role a bunker would play in a wedding ritual such as this?

The ease and comfort with which build-spaces and culture amalgamate with "the idea of survival" in these hostile geographies inspires both awe and fascination. The twisted normalcy of these borderlanders speak volumes about the life that they have learned to perform amidst the gory details of violence and destruction that is unleashed almost every day here along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Life here has seamlessly adjusted to the many structures associated with any volatile borderland geography and has made them its own, similar to how everyday fears and threats have transformed into a sense of both loss and yearning; loss of lives, and yearning for peace.

While walking back towards the house with the groom, the happiness of having found him made everyone so excited that the band played the drums even more loudly. I heard an elderly man, maamu (uncle) to the groom asking the bandmaster to play it so loud such that even Imran Khan from across could be tempted to join in the celebrations …

Only people dwelling on the front can make such an invitation — which also meant that the noise generated was likely to reach the other side as well.

When I heard the elderly, my heart skipped a beat and I immediately looked at the fence, hoping that the soldiers and snipers on both sides would let the celebration be as it was, praying that no one or nothing should pay us a visit in the dark of that night.

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Beena Sarwar

Fisherman Are Easy Bait To Feed India-Pakistan Conflict

When Pakistani fisherman Abdul Karim Bhatti, who had been a prisoner in India for seven months, was flown home to Karachi, Pakistan, at the end of July, his family didn't rejoice. They were receiving his dead body.

The only information they received was that he died on July 1 at the B.K. Hospital, Bhuj. Or so stated the death certificate, a bilingual document in English and Gujrati, issued on July 9 by the government of the state of Gujrat. No postmortem was carried out.

The Indian maritime security forces had arrested Bhatti, along with other fishermen, on January 8 and carted them off to prison.

The bureaucratic paperwork facilitating Bhatti's last journey was replete with ironies.

"Dead body of the deceased is not required for investigation purpose (sic) hence there is no objection for repatriation of mortal remains…" stated the "no objection certificate," issued on July 27 by the police in Bhuj, district headquarters of Kutch district, Gujarat.

Pakistan issued an emergency passport the same day "valid for a single journey." Mode of transport: "by foot/by road."

Thousands of divided family members on either side can't meet.

The families of those who die in custody across the border deal with similar delays in getting the bodies of their loved ones back. In early 2018 alone, at least three Pakistani fishermen and one Indian fisherman died as prisoners in the other country.

The killing of the Indian national, Sarabjit Singh, in a Pakistani prison shortly before he was due to be released became a high profile case, and was followed by the retaliatory killing of Pakistani national Sanaullah in a jail in Jammu. Earlier, the repatriation of another convicted Indian spy, Surjeet Singh, instead of Sarabjit had caused massive confusion.

These tragic episodes sum up the tit-for-tat relationship between India and Pakistan. They also symbolize much of what is wrong between the neighbors, whose relations are a far cry from what Pakistan's founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah had envisaged. The two countries, he told a reporter, would be like the U.S. and Canada: open borders, freedom of trade and travel. The very different reality has long stymied development in the region.

The increasingly rigid visa regime prohibits cross-border tourism. Thousands of divided family members on either side can't meet. Imagine being unable to attend a loved one's wedding or funeral a few hours' drive away because you can't get a visa.

Indian fishermen sowing their name cards as they reach city railway station — Photo: Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/ZUMA

In this age of instant news, Bhatti's death wasn't reported on either side until reports about his body's repatriation surfaced.

That was, ironically, the day that academic researcher M. Tahseen in Pakistan and activist and analyst MJ Vijayan in India dispatched a letter to prime ministers Imran Khan and Narendra Modi, endorsed by hundreds on either side, urging them to release cross-border prisoners ahead of Pakistan and India's upcoming Independence Day celebrations, on August 14 and 15.

Many Indians and Pakistanis at home and abroad commemorate these days together in a conscious defiance of the "enemy country" narrative. They point out that both countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998 but still can't feed and educate their populace. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed these shortcomings starkly.

The tragedy of Bhatti, Vijayan tells me, "had a very dampening effect on the campaign and many of us." But, he adds, "our letter is making some serious impacts even in Delhi power corridors."

We treat each other's detained nationals like prisoners of war.

India and Pakistan treat their own prisoners badly enough, stuffing them in overcrowded jails and subjecting them to the same colonial-era penal system.

Foreign nationals have things worse. They suffer "blanket denial of bail and parole, curbs on communication with family and lawyers, suspension of regular hearings in courts, delayed consular access, suspension of international flights," notes Madhurima Dhanuka, the program head for prison reforms at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

For Indians in Pakistani prison or vice versa, things are even worse. "We treat each other's detained nationals like prisoners of war," says M.A. Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Families frantic about their loved ones' safety, with no means of communication.

Pakistan today holds 270 Indian fishermen and 54 civilians, and India has 97 Pakistani fishermen and 265 civilian prisoners, according to the twice-yearly prisoner list that both countries have been exchanging since 2008. The last one such lists were exchanged July 1. Ironically again, that was the day Bhatti died.

A month after his death, Bhatti's body was sent a thousand kilometers across from Gujarat to the Wagah border in Punjab. The humanitarian Edhi Foundation of Pakistan that facilitates prisoner exchanges arranged for him to be on the Lahore-Karachi flight.

Fishermen who had died in cross-border custody used to be sent home on a direct Karachi-Mumbai flight, a little over an hour and half. This is no longer operative.

Fishing in the Brahmaputra river — Photo: David Talukdar/ZUMA

The repatriated living follow the same convoluted route via Wagah border as Bhatti's mortal remains, except that they don't get to fly. It's the bus or train for them.

Wagah border is where the Pakistan Rangers and Indian Border Security Force personnel famously undertake their aggressive goose-steps in a choreographed, daily flag-lowering ceremony at sunset. The spectacle in verdant agricultural Punjab is a world away from the shared coastline where fish workers like Bhatti barely eke out a living, in Pakistan or India. They belong to the same ethnic community.

Many are the sole breadwinners of their families, largely unlettered, plying the traditional trade of their forefathers. They know the risks of the sea.

The danger of storms pales before the border patrols of the other side who arrest them and confiscate their catch and boats. But most fisherfolk know no other way and have no skills to enter another trade.

Arrested fishermen's families suffer the trauma of not knowing their whereabouts for weeks or months and are vulnerable to starvation. Their children, often the first generation in this community to be educated, are forced to drop out of and take up jobs when their fathers go missing at sea.

Both countries agree that fishermen inadvertently crossing the unmarked maritime border between the two countries are not criminals or spies and should be released once this has been verified.

In 2008, they signed an Agreement on Consular Access that stipulates the release and repatriation of detained persons from the other country "within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of sentences." They are also supposed to "provide consular access within three months' to cross-border prisoners.

Most fisherfolk know no other way and have no skills to enter another trade.

This rarely happens. The before trial period can be longer than the actual sentence. It can take months to verify the prisoners' identities. Almost invariably poor and unlettered, they rarely have any documentation.

"Nearly 100 of the Indian prisoners have completed their sentences and their nationality has been confirmed, but they're still in jail," says activist and journalist Jatin Desai in Mumbai, former general secretary in Mumbai of the Pakistan India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).

The region's largest and oldest people-to-people group, launched in 1995 – of which I am a founding member – the PIPFPD has long been pushing back against the "us versus them" binary that dominates the narrative. Peace activists want the states to institute a "no-arrest" policy at sea and equip the fishermen's boats with GPS devices.

The India Pakistan joint judicial committee on prisoners formed in 2008 has echoed these demands. Comprising four retired judges from each country, the committee used to meet prisoners jailed on either side twice a year, until the last meeting in October 2013. Efforts to revive it five years later led to India nominating its members. Pakistan has yet to do so.

A few days after Bhatti was buried, hundreds of fisherfolk demonstrated in Karachi against his death. They burnt an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and accused Indian authorities of killing Bhatti. News reports on either side highlighted the demonstration and its allegations, the symptom rather than the cause of the issue.

If Khan and Modi let the fishermen go, it would give the region something to celebrate in these dark times. Prisoner repatriation, say experts, is a "low-hanging fruit" that can counter the dominant belligerent narrative.

On a human level, releasing the fishermen will enable hundreds of families to focus on rebuilding their lives as both countries celebrate their independence days. "Let them also experience freedom at this time," says activist and journalist Jatin Desai.

The move would be all the more meaningful at these times of increased hardships caused by a global pandemic.

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Aditya Ramanathan

Kashmir Is Quietly Feeding India-Pakistan Nuclear Tensions

As the showdown deepens over the contested region with Pakistan, India is now weighing whether to water down its nuclear no-first-strike policy.


NEW DELHI — Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh chose Pokhran – the site of India's nuclear tests – to suggest last month that the future of the country's nuclear no-first-strike policy would depend on changing "circumstances." Singh's surprise statement was apparently aimed at Pakistan after tensions escalated following the Indian government's decision to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.

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