The Erosion of Civic Space in South Asia

Across South Asia, the legal environment for the functioning of civil society has become increasingly hostile, despite the presence of constitutional guarantees of the right to association.
21 December, 2020

The South Asia Collective, a group of human-rights activists and organisations, recently published “The South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020: Minorities and Shrinking Civic Space” by the South Asia Collective. The report examines minority rights and the narrowing of space for human-rights defenders in light of increasing majoritarianism across the region. Its chapters, on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, conclude that three basic freedoms—the constitutional rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, have been increasingly curtailed across South Asia by legislation brought in by respective governments over the last ten years. This excerpt from its introduction summarises the report’s key findings, and looks at the threats to civic space for religious minorities, activists, non-governmental organisations and journalists.


Civic Space in South Asia: Key Findings

Democratic development has historically been limited in South Asia. India and Sri Lanka have enjoyed electoral democracy since their emergence as sovereign nations—although punctuated by prolonged civil wars, creating “zones of exceptions.” Citizens of other South Asian countries have experienced constitutional monarchies, military dictatorships, and civil wars, along with spells of popular governments. This has resulted in civil society being historically constrained across much of the region.

All South Asian countries have since the turn of the century seen developments that served as major turning points in the course of their civic space trajectories: In Afghanistan, the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the enactment of the constitution of 2004 created the space for the emergence of civil society. However, the assumption of power by the Ashraf Ghani-led National Unity Government and the disbanding of the International Security Assistance Force, both in 2014, have been followed by the imposition of severe restrictions on civic space. In Bhutan, a monarchy, the enactment of a modern constitution in 2008 created for the first time an opening for civic space and guaranteed civil liberties to its citizens. But the space for civic action—particularly regarding political and religious freedoms—has continued to be heavily constrained. Bangladesh saw the return of electoral democracy in 2009 after a brief period of military interference. The concentration of power with the Awami League after the 2014 elections—boycotted by the country’s principal opposition parties—has, however, resulted in a steady deterioration of civil and political rights. The most alarming recent example of democratic backsliding has been in India, where the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party after general elections in 2014 has led to the hardening of authoritarian tendencies and a historically vibrant civil society has come under sustained attack, with grave implications for its minorities. The re-election of the BJP in 2019 has intensified this trend, most notably in the highly militarised Indian-administered Kashmir, where civic space has now been almost completely erased after the revocation of the region’s limited autonomy in August 2019. In Nepal, civil society played a critical role in the dismantling of the Hindu monarchy and the establishment of a democratic republic in 2008. But since around 2010, there have been sustained efforts to curtail civic space. In Pakistan, despite an unprecedented two successive peaceful transfers of power in 2013 and 2018, the military continues to wield influence in key civilian matters, limiting the scope for civic action. In Sri Lanka, where civic space has been precarious due to its history of violent ethnic conflict that ended in 2009, two recent events have narrowed the scope for civic action: the Easter Sunday terror attacks and the resultant declaration of emergency, and the assumption of power by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, both in 2019.

Across the region, these developments have been followed by precipitous changes in the scope for enjoyment of the three basic freedoms—of expression, association and assembly—despite domestic and international recognition of these rights as fundamental. Simultaneous to this creation of a hostile environment for the functioning of civil society—particularly for minority rights-focused actors—violence and other forms of targeting against minorities have also seen a spike, in a region that is increasingly beset by rising majoritarianism. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided further impetus to many governments across the region to extend their stranglehold over civil society. 

How does South Asia perform on each civic space right? And what of its minorities? 

Recent Trends Concerning Freedom of Expression

Attempts to silence critical and dissenting voices have been observed in each country in South Asia, by both state and non-state actors. This has taken the form of threats and harassment, physical attacks, doctored prosecution, and incarceration. New provisions and legislations restricting the space for free expression have also been rolled out in several countries in recent years, adding to a host of draconian measures already in place. Restrictions on the access to the internet were reported from across the region, as was the ever-present phenomenon of state surveillance.

Physical attacks on media personnel have been reported from each country. In just the first nine months of 2020, killings of journalists were reported from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, all of whom have are among the worst performers in international indices of press freedom. Indian-administered Kashmir, for instance, has been perilous for journalists in recent years, with several instances of physical attacks, including by security forces, assassinations of prominent media voices, and fabricated prosecution of critical journalists, invoking draconian anti-terror and preventive detention provisions too. Other parts of India too have witnessed such media hounding, most recently under the cover of the COVID-19 lockdown.

In 2015, murder campaigns of high-profile critics of the dominant ideology were reported from both India and Bangladesh, where adherents of Hindutva and Islamism, respectively, have been enjoying a growing level of impunity. Pakistan, too, has witnessed high-profile assassinations in recent years, of voices that have been known to be critical of the country’s powerful military establishment. In Afghanistan, clauses upholding Islam in the Mass Media Law of 2009—which sought to institutionalise freedom of expression in the country—have been weaponised and misused by the state, leading to instances of journalists being charged with blasphemy. Blasphemy laws have continued to be weaponised in Pakistan as well, and to a lesser degree in Bangladesh.

Two recent examples of states imposing extremely restrictive provisions upon the media—and dissenting voices in general—were observed in Indian-administered Kashmir and in Sri Lanka. A prolonged, blanket communications blockade—the longest ever observed in any democratic set-up—was imposed in Kashmir after the revocation of autonomy in August 2019. Later, a highly restrictive Media Policy was announced for the region, allowing authorities to control what content could be published and who could be empanelled as a journalist. And in Sri Lanka, the promulgation of Emergency Regulations after the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 resulted in the imposition of several provisions restricting the freedom of expression, including on the possession and publication of material deemed detrimental to national security. 

Some other recent examples of the enforcement of restrictive provisions related to free expression included Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act of 2018, under which anyone can be penalised for propagating online content deemed to be false, provocative or sensitive, and Nepal’s updated Criminal Code of 2018, which stipulates that journalists could be fined or imprisoned for publishing “confidential information.” In Bhutan, the Media Council established in 2018 has begun monitoring “offensive” and “harmful” content.

India and Pakistan both witnessed recent instances of prominent television channels critical of powerful establishment interests being temporarily being taken off the air. Given that government advertisements account for a substantial chunk of media houses’ revenues throughout South Asia, the press across the region is highly susceptible to governments exercising implicit control over content published or broadcast. Instances of surveillance of journalists were also reported from across South Asia. Self-censorship is, therefore, the norm in many countries. Social media and other online spaces, though more open than other public avenues, have also come increasingly under state scrutiny in each country. Internet shutdowns have also become common, most notably in India, which has emerged as the world leader in cutting off access to internet services in order to quell free expression and as a tool to silence dissent. Academic freedom has also come under attack, with recent instances of liberal and progressive academic figures in India and Pakistan facing intimidation, incarceration and violent attacks at the hands of both state and non-state actors.

Recent Trends Concerning Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The right to peaceful assembly continues to be violated across South Asia, with security forces in several countries resorting to the deliberate use of violent means to target protesters, leading to deaths in many cases. There have also been other legislative and executive efforts in many countries to enforce further restrictions on peaceful gatherings, even before the lockdowns put in place across the region due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the most recent examples of peaceful protesters being met with excessive force were in India, where protesters against the recent changes to its citizenship law were killed in police action in the states of Assam and Uttar Pradesh in 2019, and protesters seeking self-determination were killed in Kashmir. The right to peaceful assembly in Kashmir has become virtually non-existent, where authorities continue to impose regular curfews and lockdowns. “Pellet firing shotguns” and other “less lethal” and “lethal” weapons continue to be used with impunity against civilians in Kashmir. Pakistan and Afghanistan, too, have in recent years witnessed instances of security forces opening fire at peaceful protesters. Protesters in many countries have also come under attack by non-state actors, mainly by religious extremists. 

In Sri Lanka, the Emergency Regulations empowered the President to prohibit public processions and meetings likely to disturb public order or promote disaffections. Similar provisions exist in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—all arising from Section 144 of the same colonial-era Criminal Procedure Code—and continue to be routinely abused, most recently and profusely across several locations in India, including Kashmir. In Afghanistan, a move is afoot to rehaul its Assembly Law, which could seriously restrict the right to organise and participate in gatherings, protests and demonstrations.

Recent Trends Concerning Freedom of Association

Across South Asia, the legal environment for the functioning of civil society has become increasingly hostile, despite the presence of constitutional guarantees of the right to association. Restricting access to foreign funds has continued to be a key tool to stifle civil society, and alleged proselytisation remains a particularly sensitive topic for governments across the region. 

In almost every country, there have been moves in recent years that hamper the freedom of association. In 2017, Afghanistan sought to introduce restrictions that could require all NGOs to re-register themselves every three years. India, in 2020, enacted changes in its tax laws that will have similar effects on NGOs, albeit every five years. In Bhutan, the fear of revocation of registration certificates—which have to be renewed annually, according to the CSO Act of 2007—has resulted in civil-society organisations opting to completely refrain from advocacy on political issues. In Bangladesh, a government circular issued in 2019 threatened to cancel the registration certificates of NGOs that used the words “Adivasi” or “indigenous” in their name. In other countries too, CSOs continued to be subject to extensive and often arbitrary regulations, with complex procedures for registration, security clearance, and gaining approvals for funding. 

Foreign funding of civil society actors seems to be a particularly sore point. Recent examples of governments moving to choke the access of NGOs to foreign funds included Bangladesh’s Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation in 2016, and India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) in 2010. Restrictive clauses to FCRA introduced by the previous Congress-led government in 2010 have since been further tightened and weaponised by the BJP-led government, resulting in a situation where access to foreign funds is subject to periodic license renewals, caps on how the funds can be used, and, among other things, an undertaking not to engage in religious conversions. A further amendment earlier in September 2020 has made it even more difficult for groups to pursue human and minority rights work. Despite freedom of conscience and faith guaranteed in most South Asian constitutions, religious conversion remained a touchy subject in other countries as well, including Nepal and Bhutan, where proselytisation is banned and NGOs receiving foreign funds are not allowed to engage in religious activities. In an alarming move, in 2019, Nepal’s International Development Cooperation Policy directed foreign NGOs to fund development work instead of religious and political institutions.

Minority and Human Rights Defenders

Across South Asia, the recent resurgence of majoritarianism—in different forms and degrees in different countries—has been a central reason behind the rapid shrinking of civic space. Accordingly, the ramifications have been direst for the region’s religious, ethnic, caste, gender and sexual minorities, who have all historically faced various kinds of subjugation and discrimination, and also for those who have advocated for their rights.

Christians have faced violent attacks in all South Asian countries, with the most notable recent example being coordinated suicide bombings of churches in Sri Lanka in 2019. Elsewhere, sporadic instances of violence against Christians continue to be reported, often under the cover of legislation in place in many countries that restrict proselytisation. Hindus have faced discrimination and violent attacks in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, all of which constitutionally privilege Islam as the state religion. Dalits, too, have faced caste discrimination wherever they are present, including and particularly in the Hindu-majority nations of India and Nepal. Muslims have increasingly come under attack in India, in the form of both hate crimes and state-led discriminatory measures, including legislations and policies. Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir have also come under renewed, state-led attack and a complete erasure of civil and political rights. Muslims have suffered resurgent attacks and surveillance in Sri Lanka as well in recent years. In just the last two years, both Sri Lanka and India witnessed major anti-Muslim riots in which state security forces were allegedly complicit, in May 2019 and February 2020 respectively. At the same time, Muslim micro-minorities such as Shias have faced frequent and severe attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as have Ahmadiyyas, who are constitutionally discriminated against in Pakistan.

The space for minorities to advocate for their rights remained constricted across much of South Asia due to the constant fear of violence and other forms of targeting by state and non-state actors. Across the region, there have been innumerable instances of attacks, harassment, prosecution, abductions, and murder of minority and human rights defenders. The targeting of rights defenders has also taken the form of the malicious invocation of stringent national security laws that are in place in every country. Defamation, sedition, anti-terror and blasphemy laws have been frequently misused to target rights defenders. Several countries have also recently observed increased and sustained militarisation, with military and intelligence forces keeping particularly close tabs on human rights activism. It is common for intelligence agencies to use intimidatory techniques against human rights defenders, particularly in Indian-administered Kashmir, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

Further Shrinking of Civic Space during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Civic space in South Asia has come under renewed stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, with all countries in the region imposing measures that have resulted in the further erosion of basic freedoms, raising fears that shrinking civic space may end up being further entrenched in the region. Restrictions on movement and assembly were put in place in each country in the form of lockdowns. The lockdowns varied in geographical spread, severity and duration across the region, with India’s 68-day nationwide lockdown being described as among the world’s most stringent. India saw several instances of lockdown violators being assaulted by security forces.

While no country in South Asia declared a formal state of emergency, the cover of the pandemic was used by multiple governments to impose fresh restrictions on expression, association and assembly. India was the most systematic suppresser of free expression, with dozens of reports from across the country of journalists being harassed, threatened, assaulted, arrested and prosecuted for their coverage of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Arrests for allegedly publishing false information about COVID-19 were also reported from Sri Lanka.

The Indian government also used the COVID-19 lockdown to dismantle protest sites that had come up in opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, and later began a campaign of arresting and criminalising prominent anti-CAA protesters and activists, mostly Muslims, accusing them of instigating the February 2020 riots in Delhi. 

This is an edited excerpt from “The South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020: Minorities and Shrinking Civic Space,” published with permission from the South Asia Collective.