The Erosion of Civic Space in South Asia

21 December 2020
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.
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.

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.

The South Asia Collective is a group of human-rights activists and organisations