South Asia's Testing Times

Author Name: Omer Aamir      24 May 2021     India

South Asia is resilient to all kinds of external pressures and perforations. Rather, internal tensions amongst regional states oscillate this region from stability to instability and vice versa. This time its resilience is being severely tested.

India has become the epicentre of the global outbreak of the Corona Virus. It hit a new record of 3,689 deaths on Saturday due to the virus. Moreover, the number of new cases also hit a record of 392,448, with the highest number reported in Maharashtra (with the total reported in that state crossing 4.5 million). According to New York Times, “Vaccines are running short. Hospitals are swamped. Lifesaving oxygen is running out. Each day, cremation grounds burn thousands of bodies.”

The situation in India is tragic. Protests have erupted outside hospitals, with people scrambling to get oxygen for their loved ones; and blaming the medical authorities when they fail to secure it. Karnataka, a state in India’s South, has been particularly badly affected. The total number of cases there has crossed 20 million.

The Modi government has also faced challenges on the political front as it courted defeat in West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress won a two-thirds majority (taking over 200 seats in a 294 state assembly). Thereby putting her in line to become the Chief Minister for the third time.

However, the general populace in India is in distress, and they have voiced it vociferously. The Modi government is largely to blame. Super-spreader politico-religious events (read: Kumbh Mela), political rallies held by none other than the Home Minister and ex-president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party Amit Shah and instigating farmers to protest by forwarding unpopular reforms all contributed to the mishandling of the pandemic by the government, a mishandling that has led to the current catastrophe in the country. In early April, the Uttarakhand government permitted the public to attend the Kumbh Mela (where millions of devotees stood shoulder to shoulder without face masks), thereby dismissing the all-around deteriorating Corona situation in the country. The world’s largest vaccine producer has run late and short of its target.

India’s Eastern neighbour is also in a mess, but of a different kind. Myanmar’s military coup in February has undercut the delicate balance in the country and set it on a path to civil war. The militia groups fighting the country and pro-democracy protestors have combined forces to take on the military junta. However, the Tatmadaw has stood firm and looks to defend the coup resolutely. This firmness is despite the fact that religious leaders from all shades have come out in opposition. More than a thousand innocent lives have been lost since the military imposed the coup.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s position and policies during the pandemic have been more calculated and mature as the country has imposed a smart lockdown in large cities. Pakistan has also closed off its borders with Iran and Afghanistan after the novel outbreak. The country is using this approach to secure its populace (under the guidance of the National Command Operation Centre, headed by the Federal Minister of Planning Asad Umar and an Army three-star general). According to general perception, the last outbreak was started through the Zaireen (religious pilgrims) returning from their holy pilgrimage. However, this time around, Britain has been the source that has brought Pakistan a novel kind of variant from the large Pakistani diaspora settled in the British Isles. It is ironic that even though a new kind of mutated variant was coming from Britain, however, it was from Pakistan that England banned travel initially. However, the next variant is likely to come from India. The Indian variant is already causing headaches for lawmakers in Britain and elsewhere.

Moreover, during the pandemic, India has also been slammed for its Human Rights violations. The state of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJ&K) faces a double lockdown. First is the military lockdown by the Indian state. The second is the pandemic-induced lockdown. The population of the Kashmir valley has seen no respite despite India’s rocky domestic situation.

The Indian economy is also taking a nosedive. According to Moody’s, it contracted by about 9%, one of the highest contraction in the world, even by the pandemic depression standards. While the same agency predicted a rebound growth of around 8%, this was before the onset of the calamitous second wave. It remains to be seen how bad this wave is likely to hamper the economic prospects of the world’s second-most populous nation. The perception is that the negative economic trend for India is likely to continue in 2021 as well.

The precarious situation in IIOJ&K is causing regional instability and daggers drawn between the two South Asian neighbours. The February 2019 Indo-Pak skirmish indicated the inherent belligerence of India, one that could spiral out of control at any time.

There is likely to be increased hostility as the two South Asian neighbours continue to be embroiled in cross-border skirmishes and increased violations occur on the Line of Control. The thaw that was anticipated after back-channel diplomacy is looking to fade away. It took many years for a semblance of talks to prevail between the two sides; however, that is proving to be fleeting.

In conclusion, the South Asian region remains in flux, one that is of a negative kind. The only simmer of hope is the proposed American withdrawal from Afghanistan and a hopeful return to normalcy in that country after more than 40 years of war. However, that is also only an optimistic plank, which can fall into the abyss by the slightest distortion. However, God willing, it does not, even though the more robust planks seem to be falling on Pakistan’s East.

Omer Aamir is a Researcher for Security & Legal Affairs at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). He has done B.A LL.B (Hons) from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. The article was first published in Foreign Policy News. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com

Image Source: Bollinger, Robert. "New Variants of Coronavirus: What You Should Know," 22 Feb 2021, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/a-new-strain-of-coronavirus-what-you-should-know

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