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Afghanistan’s Rigid Cultural Norms; A Serious Challenge for Girls’ Education

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The Afghan government, headed by Hamid Karzai, the first elected president of Afghanistan after the collapse of Taliban’s government in 2001 and its international donors with millions of dollars and other resources embarked a new era in Afghanistan. Since then the governmental and non-governmental organizations funded by international donors built many schools, recruited and educated teachers and instructors, and families started sending their progenies including girls to school. There is not an accurate statistic regarding the number of girls who went to schools during this period, but there is a widespread consensus that, since 2001, millions of girls who were deprived ofgaining education during the Taliban’s rule, found access to education.

Now that almost eighteen years have passed since the collapse of the Taliban’s regime, the status of education particularly girls’ education is not as good as it was expected. Roughly two-thirds of Afghan girls do not go to school according to the recent report published by the USAID. As the security situation worsens in Afghanistan, the progress that has been made towards girls’ education may result in a reversal. Despite the infusion of millions of dollars by foreign countries and other international independent institutions, the Afghan government could not fight with rampant challenges especially rigid cultural norms that ban girls’ education in Afghanistan. Girls are often kept at home because of harmful gender measures and these issues impede their education. Even on the basis of highly optimistic figures about the participation of girls in education, there are millions of girls in the country who have never been to school, and many more have just gone to school for a short time.When it comes to obstacles to girls’ education in Afghanistan, the government and other relevant institutions often mention insecurity the main reasons for the exclusion of girls from schools. They rarely touch the issue of cultural norms that deprive girls from education more than insecurity.

When the Taliban government collapsed in late 2001, the new Afghan government and its supporters, the countries that participated in the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan, faced with two major challenges: how to re-establish the educational system for half of the school-age population in a country with a high poverty rate and how to help girls who were excluded from education during the Taliban’s era to go back to school.To achieve this goal, the Afghan government, international donors, and foreign countries invested hugely in girl’s education in Afghanistan.They taught that by building schools, providing educational materials such as textbooks and other educational resources would help Afghan girls obtain education. There is no doubt that these aids paved the way for Afghan girls to find access to their basic rights – education. But unfortunately, neither the Afghan government nor the international organizations working on developing educational programs paid serious attention to one of the key challenges to girl’s education – the prevailing rigid cultural norms among the communities and families that ban hundreds and thousands of girls from going to school in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, there are still a large number of tribes and communities who assume women as home keepers and believe that they don’t’ have any kind of responsibilities outside the home. Given that they are not interested too much in sending their daughters to school. They still consider some of the common social norms as taboos such as schooling girls. Regardless of the fact that housekeeping and home affairs should be done well and appropriately, girls need to gain education. Some communities in Afghanistan think that schooling girls are a disgrace and for justifying their reasons, they refer to religion that actually, there is not any religious justification for halting girls from obtaining education. Among the number of Afghans who consider girls’ education as taboo and forbidden, it is believed that women should raise their children and not spend their time in school. Being ignorant of the fact that raising children can be done better if a mother acquires education. However, these and dozens of other traditional beliefs in Afghanistan have caused a large number of girls to be deprived of going to school.

To fight with the abovementioned challenges, the Islamic Republic Government of Afghanistan passed the Law on the Prohibition of Violence Against Women in August 2009. This law for the first time in Afghanistan considers child marriage, forced marriage, compulsory self-immolation and other 19 types of violence against women, including rape as a crime, and for those who commit imposed a penalty.Although the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women is an essential step in the eradication of violence against women and girls, it does not help girls have access to education. In other words, the above law does not help girls and women in the fight against the rigid traditional norms and values that ban them from gaining education.

According to the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, education is the right of all citizens and is provided free of charge by the state.To this end, the government is required to design and implement effective programs in order to promote the balanced distribution of education throughout Afghanistan, to provide compulsory secondary education. This constitutional principle stipulates the need for access to quality and balanced education services for all citizens of the country, regardless of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, gender and physical status. Article 44 of the 2004 Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan specifically deals with the education of women. According to this principle, the government is obligated to plan and implement effective programs for the balancing and development of women’s education. Another part of the government’s obligation is to comply with a number of international treaties. These treaties include Third Millennium Development Goals and Education for All. Under the two treaties, the Afghan government is required to provide all children with access to primary education.

The Prevailing Challenges towards Girls’ Education

Early and Child Marriage:More than half of the girls in Afghanistan aregetting married before reaching the age of 19, of which 40% are between the ages of 10 and 13, 32% at age 14 and 27% at the age of 15. The United Nations holds that seven million and 300,000 girls are getting married before reaching the legal age around the world every year, of which 12 percent are Afghan girls.According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the main reasons for the rise of forced and underage marriages in Afghanistan are poverty, unfair socialization, insecurity, and the continuing impunity culture. But researchers argue that illiteracy is the main reason for child marriage in Afghanistan.So, as girls get married, they do not continue their education. When they are kept ill treated as their parents, their daughters encounter the same fate as they faced after getting married.

In a country where a third of the girls marry before age 18, the marriage of children leaves many girls out of education. The minimum age for marriage for girls is in accordance with Afghanistan’s Constitutional Law is 16. In practice, the law is less enforced, which is why most girls are married before the age stipulated in the law. The consequences of marriage for children are very detrimental and lead to the exclusion from education. Other losses due to child marriage include serious health hazards, including the deaths of girls and their children due to early pregnancy. Girls who are married at an early age may also be more likely to be victims of domestic violence than girls who are married at a later age.

Resistance anti-Teaching Girls by Male Instructors: In Afghanistan, many families are not willing to accept male teachers for their daughters. When the first girl school in Kabul was established in the early twentieth century, it was faced with a shortage of female teachers, and the government inevitably appointed male teachers to teach at girl schools, and this is still a problem for girl’s education in Afghanistan. With increasing female students, girls encountered more problems. In Afghanistan, in the remote areas still, families disagree with the presence of male teachers in girl schools. Despite this traditional belief, in many regions of Afghanistan, male teachers teach at girl schools. But, generally, a shortage of female teachers prohibits girls from going to schools. This problem gets more serious and severe, when girls grow older because traditional families in Afghanistan don’t let their daughters continue their education in presence of male teachers.

Unfortunately, there are not enough schools for girls in Afghanistan. Girls have two options either go to boy schools which are far away from their vicinity or leave education. Hence, some families prevent their daughters from traveling to another area for long periods of time. On the other hand, in some provinces of Afghanistan due to lack of facilities, girls and boys are allowed to study in the co-ed classroom, which is not acceptable for many families due to the dominant traditions and the culture governing in Afghanistan. Thus, many Afghan girls are left out of school in areas where the government cannot provide separate classrooms for boys and girls and schools don’t have adequate educational resources such as instructors, classrooms, and other supporting materials for teaching. And, families are not allowing their daughters to study together with boys in the one class.

Resistance against girls being taught by male instructors is not the same in every province of Afghanistan. This problem has been solved in the areas where the cultural barriers to girls’ education have been reduced, where households, school administrators and community elders have supported girls to complete their schooling even with male teachers. Those girls who are completing their schooling either with female teachers or male ones can enter higher education institutions and will be hired as teachers in girl schools after graduation. This has led to a minimization of female teachers in girl schools in some regions of Afghanistan particularly in the central provinces of Afghanistan. This achievement has strengthened both the presence of women in the community and the cultural sensitivity of preventing girls from entering school and university. This cultural and public awareness provides the ground for a new tradition in which families try to encourage their daughters to complete their education to become teachers to support other girls in their communities.

This change in attitudes towards the education of girls is more rampant in the central regions of Afghanistan such Ghazni, Bamiyan, and Daykundi provinces. Also, this attitude to helping girls go to school as boys have been developed in some ways in Badakhshan Province and some northern provinces of the country. But in other provinces, with the exception of the cities of the country, girls continue to be educated with serious cultural limitations. Even with educational facilities, families do not allow their daughters to go to school and families that allow their girls to go to primary school but ban them from going to secondary school.

Exclusion of Sexual Abused Girls from School: Besides war and conflicts that lead to girls’ exclusion from education, girls on their way to school also face unwanted crimes and abusive practices, including abduction and sexual harassment in Afghanistan. There are many reports of kidnapping of girls on the ways to schools by criminal gangs. Abduction is similar to acid attacks that have widespread effects on girls’ deprivation of gaining education. Kidnapping and sexual harassment cause many Afghan families in their communities to keep their children, especially girls, at home because sexual harassment and kidnapping can harm the honor of a family. So, it can have devastating consequences for girls ‘reputation and personality in their communities. That is why it is difficult for parents to bear it. Therefore, sexual harassment and kidnapping is also a key obstacle toward girls’ education.

The stigmatization and social taboos related to rape lead to many girls being abandoned by their families. Victims are penalized doubly over: they become social outcasts, whereas their violators go free. Several of these victims are schoolgirls. The weakening effects of sexual violence among the communities and families inevitably spill over into education systems. Girls subjected to rape typically experience grave physical injury – with long consequences for school attendance. The psychological effects, together with depression, trauma, shame, and withdrawal, have devastating consequences for girls’ education. Many girls drop out of school after rape pregnancy. Moreover, concern and terror of sexual attacks will lead families to prevent their daughters from going to schools. Fear of social stigmatization from sexual abuses is an important factor in household decisions on whether to send their children to school or not.

The question is here that Afghan families instead of fighting with stigmatization sexual harassment and kidnapping, they succumb to it. And most importantly, girls who been sexually abused are both the victim of sexual harassment and social stigmatization that it carries thereafter. Again, this social stigmatization depends that how families and communities interpret the consequences of sexual harassment and abuses. Since many families and communities still are in this believe that girls who have been abused sexually should be kept at home, and leave pursuing their education, hundreds and thousands of Afghan girls are deprived of education, as a result. This approach of families toward sexually abused girls that they should not go to school is rooted in the rigid cultural norms among communities. While studies indicate that one of the best ways to help the victims of child sexual abuse is providing education.

Gender Stereotype and Cultural Discrimination Against Girls’ Education: Gender stereotypingis the practice of ascribing to an individual woman or man specific attributes, characteristics, or roles by reason only of her or his membership in the social group of women or men. A gender stereotype is, at its core, that belief may cause its holder to make assumptions about members of the subject group, women and/or men.But a large body of literature demonstrates that stereotyping often results in violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals.An example of this can be the incapability of the justice system to hold perpetrator of sexual violence accountable on the basis of stereotypical views about women’s appropriate sexual behaviour.

Cultural discrimination against women includes those differences of treatment that exist because of stereotypical expectations, attitudes, and behaviors towards women. The findings of the Special Rapporteur demonstrate that stereotype about women’s role within the family leads to a division of labor within households that often result in poverty for women and lower levels of education. A stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s capacity to enhance their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make decisions about their lives. The view that rearing children is women’s responsibility, is a negative gender stereotype among the families and communities. Likewise, in Afghanistan, because of the predominant cultural and gender norms among the families and communities, boys’ education in the majority of families is given priority to girls’ education, or girls’ education is not generally of interest or is acceptable merely for a limited period.

Women in Afghanistan are discriminated because of dominant beliefs of patriarchy from childhood, even before birth. And part of the reason that Afghan girls are experiencing severe gender discrimination is pertaining to the dominant discriminatory cultural norms among the communities in Afghanistan. They are born with discrimination and die with discrimination. Lack of public awareness of human rights standards, low levels of literacy, poverty, incorrect traditions, lack of laws that support the presence and participation of women in society are among the factors that increase discrimination and, as a result, deprive women of their rights and freedoms.According to Kristensen (2016), 70 % of the women whom the author interviewed said that they experienced discrimination in different manners.Many of the women whom the author interviewed had unique stories about their lives – how their brother was free to choose the education he wanted, while they were not permitted, either for economic reasons or because they had to get married instead.One of the stories that Kristensen cites from her interviewees is extremely shocking – “When I was little my parents had a bad financial situation. So, they just sent my brother to school, said you’re a girl. Girls do not need to go to school, because, finally they do marry, and they don’t need to learn.”In a traditional country like Afghanistan, women and girls are suffering from gender discriminations against them that are mainly rooted in the cultural norms of their communities and the gender stereotypes of men toward women.

Girls’ Education and the Dominated Patriarchal Codes: Social scientists define patriarchy as the power of man over women. They argue that patriarchy refers to males’ ideology, privileges, and other principles are perceived for subjugating the females’ roles and functions in the societies. Patriarchal societies are known for marginalizing the feminine.They typically ignore or trivialize what is concerned with feminine characteristics.

Given the above definition, a country like Afghanistan that has a strong patriarchal attitude toward womanhood. In Afghanistan, because of the predominance of patriarchal attitudes and behaviour in families and communities, the power of patriarchy regulates all relationships by means of education, and it serves the interests of the patriarchal society. Therefore, equal opportunities for women and men are not provided in the social, political, economic, and educational spheres. Men can easily implement their projects in different areas, but women will face a lot of problems in the same arena. In the patriarchal society like Afghanistan, the cultural norms do not provide women with equal opportunities for gaining education and working outside the home. Thus, women are left marginalized.

Since education as an important tool in the relationship of power, it can be the root stone of gender inequality in traditional society, and women are the main victims of this gender inequality. Afghanistan, as the country with the most patriotic power in the political, economic and social spheres, some prevents and communities either by cultural means or on the basis of the patriarchal principles deprive girls from their basic human right – gaining education. Additionally, women are not counted as members of society as their men counterparts, and it has been embodied in some communities due to the control of education by patriarchal society. So, as education is an important tool that can question the values ​​and norms of patriarchal society over the long term, communities’ elders and family’s decision makers (males) knowingly ignore girl’s education.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Cultural barriers are one of the main obstacles to the growth and spread of girls’ education in Afghanistan. A large part of these cultural norms is learned through the process of socialization that shapes our lives. In this context, one of the most important ways of development and transformation in each society is to challenge and ignore the norms that for various reasons are no longer responsive and meaningful for a group or stratum. Without breaking the norms of the old, the divine, the one-sided, the unequal and the incompatible with the style and the modern conditions of life in the contemporary world, the society is dying and ruining. The key to the dynamism and transformation of a society and culture is based on the critical and challenging approach toward the value systems and norms of that society. This process starts with the breakdown of the norm and ends with the transformation of values.

Studies and researches demonstrate that educating people can play a significant role in the transformation of cultural norms and rigid cultural values.Since in Afghanistan mostly girls are the victims of these rigid cultural norms, educating them can be one of the best and most effective ways to eliminate discrimination and gender inequalities. Because when girls gain education, skills, and, the capabilities required for their presence in the society, they can fight with the political, economic, social, gender, and educational inequalities in their living communities. The Afghan Ministry of Education as a responsible entity in providing education should pay close attention to the education and training of girls and women and provide special programs in this regard. These actions require that certain mechanisms should be created by the Ministry of Education and other relevant entities for fighting with the predominant rigid cultural norms that impede girls from gaining education. In addition to government responsible entities, educating girls is one of the best investments that families and communities themselves can make it happen because educated girls, for example, marry later, will have healthier children, earn more money that they invest back into their families and communities, and play more active roles in leading their communities and families.

All in all, the findings of the current research indicate that preventing girls from going to school on the basis of cultural norms prevailing in communities, been a major cause of child marriage, violence against women, discrimination against women and girls, and gender inequality in Afghanistan. Therefore, I would argue that Afghan families instead of halting their girls from going to school and keeping them at home, should fight with the predominant cultural norms that underlie their interpretation of girl’s education. They should help their daughters obtain education so that they can help the other girls who may encounter the same fate in the future. Escaping from the problems either social problems, cultural problems, or economic is not a rational solution, instead, facing and fighting with them can help the entire communities to secure their well-being and development in the societies. Therefore, families should help their daughters gain education and provide them with equal opportunities as their sons.

Hamidullah Bamik is a Fulbright Scholar, education policy analyst, and a social development researcher. His research focus is on girl’s education and women empowerment, gender equality, good governance, and socio-economic development in South Asia but particularly Afghanistan. He has worked with World Bank Capacity Building Projectsat Supreme Audit Office of Afghanistan from 2013 to 2018 as a capacity building consultant. Currently, he is working as a social development researcher at Asia Culture House, a non-profit cultural and art organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Additionally, he is a frequent contributor on sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and social developmentissuesto Outlook and Etilaatroz, the two leading Newspapers in Afghanistan, and Modern Diplomacy, a leading European opinion-maker with far-reaching influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

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South Asia

India’s multi-alignment: the origins, the past, and the present

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In the initial two decades following India’s independence, India’s foreign policy was heavily determined by the personal predilections of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his protégé VK Krishna Menon, both influenced by British socialism. Nehru himself handled the external affairs portfolio until his death in 1964.

The policy of ‘non-alignment’ which the duo initiated in India’s foreign policy gained world-wide attention since early 1950s, which later became a full-fledged movement and forum of discussion in 1961 (NAM) that consisted of developing and newly decolonised nations from different parts of the world, primarily from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But, the policy never meant isolationism or neutrality; rather it was conceived as a positive and constructive policy in the backdrop of the US-USSR Cold War, enabling freedom of action in foreign and security policies, even though many of the individual NAM member states had a tilt towards the Soviet Union, including India.

However, the lofty Nehruvian idealism of India’s foreign policy in its initial decades was not successful enough in integrating well into India’s security interests and needs, as it lost territories to both China and Pakistan during the period, spanning 1947 to 1964.

However, when Indira Gandhi assumed premiership, realism had strongly gained ground in India’s political, diplomatic and military circles, as evident in India’s successful intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Even at that point of time, India still sticked on to the policy of non-alignment until it was no longer feasible in a changed international system that took shape following the end of the Cold War, which is where the origins of a new orientation in India’s foreign policy decision-making termed as ‘multi-alignment’ lies.

Today, India skilfully manoeuvres between China-led or Russia-led groupings such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with its involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), in which Japan and Australia are also members.

Militarily though, India is still not part of any formal treaty alliance, and is simultaneously part of a diverse network of loose and issue-specific coalitions and regional groupings, led by adversarial powers, with varying founding objectives and strategic imperatives.

Today, non-alignment alone can no longer explain the fact that recently India took part in a US-chaired virtual summit meeting of the Quad in March 2021 and three months later attended a BRICS ministerial meet, where China and Russia were also present.

So, how did India progress from its yesteryear policy of remaining equidistant from both the US-led and Soviet-led military blocs (non-alignment) and how did it begin to align with multiple blocs or centres of power (multi-alignment)? Answer to this question stretches three decades back.

World order witness a change, India adapts to new realities

1992 was a watershed year for Indian diplomacy. A year back, the Soviet Union, a key source of economic and military support for India till then, disappeared in the pages of history, bringing the Cold War to its inevitable end.

This brought a huge vacuum for India’s strategic calculations. Combined with a global oil shock induced by the First Gulf War of 1990 triggered a balance of payment crisis in India, which eventually forced the Indian government to liberalise and open up its economy for foreign investments and face competition.

India elected a pragmatic new prime minister in 1991 – PV Narasimha Rao. The vision he had in mind for India’s standing in the world was quite different from his predecessors. Then finance minister and later PM, Dr Manmohan Singh announced in the Indian Parliament, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

This was during his 1991 budget speech and it marked the beginning of building a new India where excessive control of the state on economic and business affairs seemed no longer a viable option.

At a time when Japan’s economy was experiencing stagnation, China was ‘peacefully rising’, both economically and industrially. The United States remained as the most influential power and security provider in Asia with its far-reaching military alliance network.

As the unipolar world dawned proclaiming the supremacy of the United States, PM Rao steered Indian foreign policy through newer pastures, going beyond traditional friends and partners like Russia.

In another instance, 42 years after India recognised Israel as an independent nation in 1950, both countries established formal diplomatic ties in 1992. Indian diplomats accomplished a task long overdue without affecting the existing amicable ties with Palestine.

In the recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is worth noting that India took a more balanced stance at the United Nations, which was different from its previous stances that reflected an open and outright pro-Palestine narrative.

Today, India values its ties with Israel on a higher pedestal, even in areas beyond defence and counter-terrorism, such as agriculture, water conservation, IT and cyber security.

Breaking the ice with the giant across the Himalayas

China is a huge neighbour of India with which its shares a 3,488-km long un-demarcated border. Skirmishes and flare-ups resulting from difference in perception of the border and overlapping patrolling areas are a regular occurrence in this part of the world.

For the first time after the 1962 war with China, which resulted in a daunting defeat for India, diplomatic talks for confidence-building in the India-China border areas were initiated by the Rao government in 1993, resulting in the landmark Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the defacto border between India and China.

The agreement also provided a framework for ensuring security along the LAC between both sides until a final agreement on clear demarcation of the border is reached out. The 1993 agreement created an expert group consisting of diplomats and military personnel to advise the governments on the resolution of differences in perception and alignment of the LAC. The pact was signed in Beijing in September 1993, during PM Rao’s visit to China.

Former top diplomat of India Shivshankar Menon noted in one of his books that the 1993 agreement was “the first of any kind relating specifically to the border between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China … It formalized in an international treaty a bilateral commitment by India and China to maintain the status quo on the border. In effect, the two countries promised not to seek to impose or enforce their versions of the boundary except at the negotiating table.”

The 1993 pact was followed by another one in 1996, the Agreement on Military Confidence-Building Measures. The following two decades saw a number of agreements being signed and new working mechanisms being formalized, even though two major standoffs occurred in the Ladakh sector in 2013 and 2020 respectively and one in between in the Sikkim sector in 2017.

The agreements served as the basis upon which robust economic ties flourished in the 2000s and 2010s, before turning cold as a result of Chinese aggression of 2020 in Ladakh. However, the 1993 agreement still was a landmark deal as we consider the need for peace in today’s increasingly adversarial ties between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants.

Integrates with Asia’s regional architecture

Before the early 1990s, India’s regional involvements to its east remained limited to its socio-cultural ties, even though the region falls under India’s extended neighbourhood, particularly Southeast Asia. But, since 1992, when the Look East Policy (LEP) was formulated under the Rao government, India has been venturing into the region to improve its abysmal record of economic and trade ties with countries the region.

New Delhi began reaching out to the ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1992 and was made a Sectoral Partner of the association in the same year. Thus, India kicked-off the process of its integration into the broader Asian regional architecture.

In 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a key platform for talks on issues of security in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India became ASEAN’s summit-level partner in 2002 and a strategic partner in 2012.

A free trade agreement (FTA) was agreed between ASEAN and India in 2010. And in 2014, the erstwhile LEP was upgraded into the Act East Policy (AEP). Today, the ASEAN region remains at the centre of India’s evolving Indo-Pacific policy.

Bonhomie with the superpower across the oceans, the United States

1998 was an important year, not just for India, but for the world. Until May that year, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possessed nuclear capabilities. That year, ‘Buddha smiled again’ in the deserts of India’s Rajasthan state, as India under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee successfully conducted a series of underground nuclear bomb tests, declaring itself a nuclear state, 24 years after its first nuclear test in 1974 code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’.

The move surprised even the US intelligence agencies, as India managed to go nuclear by bypassing keen US satellite eyes that were overlooking the testing site. Shortly after this, Pakistan also declared itself a nuclear state.

India’s nuclear tests invited severe international condemnation for New Delhi and badly affected its relationship with Washington, resulting in a recalling of its Ambassador to India and imposed economic sanctions, which was a big blow for India’s newly liberalised economy.

But, a bonhomie was reached between India and the US in a matter of two years and then US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, the first presidential visit since 1978. The Indo-US Science and technology Forum was established during this visit and all the sanctions were revoked by following year.

Bharat Karnad, a noted Indian strategic affairs expert, notes in one his books that, “Vajpayee’s regime conceived of ‘strategic autonomy’ to mask its cultivating the US, which resulted in the NSSP”.

The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between the US and India was launched in January 2004 that covered wide ranging areas of cooperation such as nuclear energy, space, defence and trade. This newfound warmth in Indo-US relations was taken to newer heights with the conclusion of the landmark civil nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008.

Today, India is a key defence partner of the United States, having signed all the four key foundational pacts for military-to-military cooperation, the latest being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, signed in October 2020. The two countries are key partners in the Quad grouping and share similar concerns about an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to cultivate this special relationship with the United States, reinforced by cooperation in the Quad grouping and also by constantly engaging a 4.8-million strong Indian diaspora in the United States.

The leaders of both countries, from Vajpayee to Modi and from Clinton to Trump have reciprocated bilateral visits to each other’s countries. And, India looks forward to the Biden-Harris administration for new areas of cooperation.

But, a recent military manoeuvre in April, this year, by a US Navy ship (which it calls a FONOP or Freedom of Navigation Operation) in India’s exclusive economic zone, off Lakshadweep coast, casted a shadow over this relations.

The US openly stated in social media that it entered the area without seeking India’s prior consent and asserted its navigational rights. This invited mixed reactions, as it was highly uncalled for. While some analysts consider it humiliating, others think that the incident occurred due to the difference of perceptions about international maritime law in both countries.

Today, along with the US, India skilfully manages its ‘historical and time-tested’ ties with Russia, a strategic foe of the US, and moves forward to purchase Russian-made weapon systems, such as the S-400 missile defence system, even after a threat of sanctions. But, in the past several years, India has been trying to diversify its defence procurements from other countries such as France and Israel and has been also promoting indigenisation of defence production.

A BRICS formula for responsible multilateralism

India is a founding member of the BRICS grouping, formalised in 2006, now consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – the emerging economies of that time with a potential to drive global economic growth and act as an alternate centre of power along with other groupings of rich countries such as the G-7 and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

India always stood for a responsible global multilateral system and rules-based order. Indian leaders have attended all summit-level meetings of BRICS since 2009 unfailingly. Last year, the summit took place in the backdrop of India-China border standoff in Ladakh, under Russia’s chair, a common friend of both countries, where the leaders of India and China came face-to-face for the first time, although in virtual format.

The primary focus of BRICS remains economic in nature, but it also takes independent stances on events occurring in different parts of the world. The grouping also established a bank to offer financial assistance for development projects known as the New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai, China, in 2014, with an Indian as its first elected president.

BRICS also became the first multilateral grouping in the world to endorse the much-needed TRIPS waiver proposal jointly put forward by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights on Covid vaccine-making during the duration of the pandemic to provide developing countries that lack adequate technologies with means to battle the virus.

As India gears up to host this year’s upcoming BRICS summit, there is no doubt that being part of the grouping has served the country’s interests well.

Manoeuvring the SCO, along the shores of the Indo-Pacific

The SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a regional organisation consisting of eight Eurasian powers, largest in the world both in terms of land area and population covered. It stands for promoting mutual cooperation and stability, where security issues can be freely discussed and conflicts are attempted to be resolved.

India is not a founding member of the SCO, which was created in 2001. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2017. The grouping’s members also include Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, excluding Turkmenistan.

Sharing a common platform with Pakistan and China and the presence of a long-term friend, Russia, has helped India diplomatically in key occasions. Using the SCO platform, the existing differences between member states can be discussed and prevented from escalating into major conflicts.

This was evident most recently visible in 2020 when the foreign ministers of India and China agreed on a plan for the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops from the LAC, as a major step in the diffusion of tensions in Ladakh that had erupted since May that year.

But, Russia and China collectively oppose the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, something that surfaced into political discourse with the famous speech delivered by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2007 in the Parliament of India, calling for “the confluence of two seas” and hinting at a new maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

It is in this context that the grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States gained prominence. The four Quad countries came together to offer humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ambit of the grouping’s co-operation ranges from maritime security to cooperation in Covid vaccine production and distribution.

After a decade since the first joint naval exercise of the four Quad countries took place in 2007, the ASEAN’s Manila summit in 2017 provided a platform for the four countries to connect with each other and enhance consultations to revive the four-nation grouping.

The Quad has been raised to the summit level now with the March 2021 virtual summit, and has also conducted two joint naval exercises so far, one in 2007 and the other in 2020. This loose coalition is widely perceived as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

India is the only country in the Quad that shares a land border with China. At the same time, India is also the only country that is not a formal security ally of the United States, meaning if India quits, the Quad ceases to exist, while the other three countries can still remain as treaty allies. However, setting the US aside, cooperation among the other three Quad partners has also been witnessing a boom since the last year.

India and Japan have expanded co-operation in third countries in India’s neighbourhood such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region and offer an alternative to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is perceived as having implications of a potential debt-trap aimed at fetching strategic gains.

Amid the pandemic, both the countries have joined hands with Australia to launch a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to diversify key supply chains away from China.

However, India doesn’t perceive a free and open Indo-Pacific as an exclusionary strategy targeted at containing some country, rather as an inclusive geographic concept, where co-operation over conflict is possible. This was articulated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018 at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.

Various additions were made to this view in later stages, as the concept evolved into a coherent form, representing New Delhi’s expanding neighbourhood. This vision aligns well with related initiatives such the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), aimed at improving maritime security, trade, connectivity and management of shared resources.

The future

For India, this is an era of complex multi-alignment, different from the Cold War-era international system, where multiple centres of power exist. At different time periods in the past, India has adapted well to the changing circumstances and power dynamics in the international system.

India’s strategic posture today, despite being aspirational, is to have good relations with all its neighbours, regional players, and the major powers, to promote rules-based order, and in the due process to find its own deserving place in the world.

In July, last year, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India ‘will never be part of an alliance system’, even though a tilt towards the US is increasingly getting visible, taking the China factor into account. Jaishankar also stated that global power shifts are opening up spaces for middle powers like India.

As the world tries to avoid another Cold War, this time between the United States and China, the competing geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime region is poised to add up to New Delhi’s many dilemmas in the coming years.

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South Asia

The unrecognized demographic situation of West Bengal and consequences yet to occur

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World’s second large demographic nation India’s state West Bengal is now apparently residence of over 91 million population. At the same time, West Bengal is the fourth-most populous state and the fourteenth-large state by area in India. It is also the seventh-most populous country subdivision of the world. To get an insight into the present situation of West Bengal anyone has to look back in 1947 and later consequences. As being a prominent ethnocultural region of India, West Bengal faced political partition in the year 1947 in the wake of the transformation of British India into two separate independent nations India and Pakistan.  Under the process of partition, the then Bengal province was bifurcated into two segments. The predominately Hindu living area named West Bengal, a state of India, and the predominately-Muslim living area turned as East Bengal and after becoming a province of Pakistan that renamed as East Pakistan and later in 1971, the Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh.

In 1971 at the time of partition, the Muslim population of West Bengal counted 12% and the Hindu population of East Bengal remained 30%. While at present, with continuous Muslim immigration, Hindu persecution, conversions, and less production of offspring, West Bengal’s Muslim population has increased to 30% (up to 63% in some districts). While as per the counting report of 2011 Bangladesh’s Hindu population has decreased to 8%. When at the present situation for Hindus in Bangladesh is certainly dire, then life has become increasingly difficult for Hindus in West Bengal, having a Muslim-appeasing government. The governance of the elected government led to the demographic and cultural shifts in West Bengal. Prevailing of the same governance after the 2021 Bidhansabha election leads to the destruction of Hindu’s belonging everywhere in Bengal. The situation stood worse in the outskirts where media coverage is poor, compelling Hindu families to flee in adjacent states or to hide. A sizable number of Bengali Hindu families already preferred to shift to Assam.

Looking back as per a striking report of July 2014 by Times of India fewer children were born in Bengal and the prediction was there will be even fewer in the next generation. The 2011 Census shows a decadal growth of 13.84% in West Bengal, which was significantly below the national growth average of 17.7%, and the decadal growth was lowest ever and beaten only by the aftermath of the infamous Famine of  Bengal,1942.

While the retrospective study of the demography of West Bengal shows that the culturally dominant Hindu population in West Bengal during the first census of 1951 was around 19,462,706 and in the 2011 census it had increased to 64,385,546. While the percentage of the Hindu population in the state decreased from 78.45% in 1951 to 70.54% in the 2011 Census. The data sharply indicates fewer children birth within families of Hindus only while the population of Muslim counterparts tends to grow over time. Once considered a symbol of Indian culture, what has happened in Bengal for the last few decades is the indicator of West Bengal’s demographic future.

Starting from the diminishing of the Hindu culture, communal riots against the Hindus have started happening for quite some time and the situation has been that the banning of celebrating the festivals of Hindus has started in the last few years. Added to those the recent genocide of Hindus depicting a recent trend of population.

Back in 2015 the famous American journalist Janet Levy has written an article on Bengal and the revelations that have been made in it state that Bengal will soon become a separate Islamic country. Janet Levy claims in her article that civil war is going to start soon in Bengal after Kashmir. Which almost begun in recent times in the wake of the Bidhansabha Election of West Bengal.   

Ushering the prediction of Janet Levy mass Hindus will be massacred and demanded a separate country.

She cited the facts for his claim back in 2015 that the Chief Minister of West Bengal has recognized more than 10,000 madrassas who were privileged to receive funds from Saudi Arabia and made their degree eligible for a government job, money comes from Saudi and in those madrassas, Wahhabi bigotry is taught.

In the recent past Chief Minister started several Islamic city projects where Islamic people are taught also started a project to establish an Islamic city in West Bengal. It’s evident that Chief Minister has also declared various types of stipends for the Imams of mosques but no such stipends were declared for Hindus primarily. Janet Levy has given many examples around the world where terrorism, religious fanaticism, and crime cases started increasing as the Muslim population increased. With increasing population, a separate Sharia law is demanded at such places, and then finally it reaches the demand of a separate country.

Author and activist Taslima Nasreen once became reason to test the ground reality for West Bengal.

In 1993, Taslima Nasreen wrote a book ‘Lajja’ on the issue of atrocities on Hindus in Bangladesh and forcibly making them Muslims.

After writing the book, she had to leave Bangladesh facing the threat of bigotry. The author settled in Kolkata considering that she will be safe there as India is a secular country and the constitution also provided the freedom of expression. Eventually experienced the nightmare that Taslima Nasreen had to face a riot-like situation against her in 2007 in Kolkata. Even in a secular country like India, Muslims banned Taslima Nasreen with hatred. Fatwas issued to cut her throat on the secular land of India.

Upholding the threat the author was also attacked several times in different cities of the country.

But the secular Leftists never supported Taslima, not even the Trinamool government of West Bengal because the Muslims would get angry and the vote bank would face shaking.

That time first attempt was made in which Muslim organizations in West Bengal demanded the Islamic blasphemy (Blasfamie) law. Raising questions on India’s secularism and action of secular parties.

Janet Levy further wrote that for the first time in 2013 some fundamentalist Maulanas of Bengal started demanding a separate ‘Mughalistan’. In the same year riots in Bengal, houses and shops of hundreds of Hindus were looted and many temples were also destroyed by rioters under the safe shelter of government and police.

After the Bidhansava Election 2021 the Hindus of West Bengal facing the same or even worse situation.

Are Hindus boycotted?

Victorious party supremo of West Bengal was afraid that if the Muslims were stopped they would get angry and would not vote and after getting freshly elected her government falls into that vicious circle again.

It is evident from the aftermath of the election result in West Bengal that not only riots but to drive away Hindus, in districts where there are more Muslims, boycotting Hindu businessman. In the Muslim majority districts of Malda, Murshidabad, and North Dinajpur, Muslims do not even buy goods from Hindu shops. This is the reason why a large number of Hindus have started migrating from West Bengal like Kashmiri Pandits, here Hindus leaving their homes and businesses and moving to other places. These are the districts where Hindus have become a minority.

Invoking such incidents Janet, stated that the demand for partition of Bengal from India will soon begin from the land of West Bengal. No demographic theorist interpreted the present demographic situation of West Bengal sabotaging Malthusian theory.

In accord with Janet’s analysis, a few recent sources also indicated the number of the Muslim population, in reality, is much higher than the number on record given to the hiding of numbers of children by Muslim parents when a survey takes place. Implementing CAA, NRC could have been way out for West Bengal to check the proper demographic status and to prevent further population explosion to sustain Bengali Hindus. Perceiving the appeasement politics of government for the last 10 years it’s seeming to be unlikely to get any sharp solution. 

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South Asia

Covid-19 has made Feminist Foreign Policy all the more Relevant to India

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Photo: Amit Ranjan/Unsplash

As the impact of the year long COVID19 pandemic continues to be felt across different parts of India—where patriarchy is entrenched in the social code and inequalities against women are being intuitively practised—the repercussions of the health crisis along with the ever deepening gender gaps are being disproportionately and severely borne by women. Yet, most of the discussions revolving around the pandemic have either been gender-blind or gender-neutral, often resulting in the systemic subjugation or marginalisation of women.

In light of these challenges, the thematic debate on gender equality can no longer continue just on papers, it in fact, needs to be converted into actions by the Indian government in order to deal with the short term consequences of the pandemic as well as to develop long-term sustainable peace. The adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) framework is the best way to achieve this dual goal. A FFP could offer a concrete opportunity for India to build a more inclusive policy making set-up; breakaway from the predominant patriarchal notions; and, address pandemic relief strategies—from the viewpoint of women and other vulnerable or under-represented sections of society.

Gendered Impact of COVID19 in India

Within India’s socio-cultural and economic realms—that have historically been marred by inequalities and rigid stereotypes—the gendered effects of the COVID19 pandemic have been both, intersectional and complex.

To begin with, owing to the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 patients, health-care workers in India, particularly the nurses of whom approximately 88.9 per cent are women remain much more vulnerable to contracting the deadly virus. The existing problem of shortage of basic equipment for these healthcare workers further aggravates these concerns.

Second, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on an already shrinking Indian economy resulting in financial cut downs and rising unemployment. Women—either due to the deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes or due to the subconscious bias that arises out of such attitudes—have stood at the forefront of being temporarily or permanently laid-off from their jobs. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, with the commencement of the nationwide lockdown, the rate of unemployment reached 23.5 per cent in March to April 2020 with higher shares of unemployed women. The unemployment rate for women further reached 12.39 per cent as of February 2021.

Third, women in India are now being confronted with a shadow pandemic where forced proximity, isolation, increased substance abuse, lack of access to justice etc. during the on-going health crisis has resulted in an increasing threat of domestic or gender-based violence.  As per a set of data released by the National Commission of Women in April 2020, there was an almost 100 per cent increase in domestic violence during the lockdown.

Nonetheless, these are only some of the immediate effects of the pandemic on women in India. There are other sequential consequences that will emerge in time including, the problems of depletion in savings and assets, pandemic-related widowhood, etc., which would collaboratively make recovery extremely difficult for women.

Evidently, in India, the pandemic is exploiting pre-existing economic and social inequalities along with social norms that give men embedded advantages, and has been posing a real threat to closing gender gaps. In fact, according to the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index, India has already slipped down 28 spots to rank 140th among 156 countries in comparison to its 112th position among 153 countries for the year 2019-2020.

But despite bearing a differential impact, women in India have not been included either directly or indirectly in the development of response strategies to deal with COVID19. As such, they remain absent from decision-making tables that involve the shaping of the future of our societies. However, research indicates that the inclusion of women along with other diverse voices makes for better options in policy making and in bringing about comprehensive outcomes that accommodate the needs and concerns of all groupings.

How can a FFP help?

These unfortunate states of affairs demand an adjustment in India’s thinking and strategy, bring about a paradigmatic shift in its traditional policymaking and allow for diverse representation to effectively deal with COVID19 pandemic. The present crisis is therefore, precisely the time to be talking about a FFP in India and for its representatives to make a stronger commitment to mainstream gender at the policy level.

By critically reflecting on the existing international power structures, a FFP framework focuses on protecting the needs of marginalised and female groups and places issues of human security and human rights at the heart of discussions. In doing so, it provides a fundamental shift from the conventional understanding of security to include other arena of foreign policy such as economics, finance, environment, health, trade etc.

With this new perception of health risks and crisis management as a security threat, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, India can potentially explore broadening the humanitarian trade options under its international arrangements to address shortages of medicine and lack of access to personal protective equipment for health workers within its territory— a vast majority of which continue to be women.

The adoption of a FFP could also pave the way for an increased regional cooperation, facilitate regional discussions on myriad issues and enable the development of targeted recovery program designed specifically for the empowerment of women. Such a program would account for the fact that the economic repercussions of crises disproportionately affect women and therefore, help India in securing assistance from its neighbour to address the gendered economic and social effects of the COVID19 pandemic.

Besides, FFP does not only mean considering power structures and managing relations at the global level alone but also evaluating outcomes within the country’s own domestic landscape. In this sense, a FFP could provide India with an important starting point for bringing about an internal shift by focusing more on gender issues, especially in terms of the strictly defined patriarchal gender roles and eliminate barriers that continue to restrict women’s participation in decision-making processes.

An emphasis on women’s participation in India’s leadership positions would in turn catalyse the application a gender lens to the process of domestic policymaking, thereby, achieving comprehensive outcomes that are inclusive of diverse perspectives. Such policies will promote women’s concerns as humanitarian issues, prioritize and safeguard the continuum of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and continue to facilitate the provision of information and education, thus making women better equipped to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.


Adding on to these factors, given that the FFP is an all-inclusive approach, its application could also potentially strengthen cooperation between the Indian government and civil society organisations or women’s network at home as well as abroad to manage the pandemic and its deleterious effect on people, especially women. At a time when the government resources are overwhelmed in their fight against the pandemic, greater involvement of civil society organisations can in fact, play a critical role in advocating social justice, women’s rights, social equity, and provide medical and food support, distribution of hygiene kits, spreading awareness about the virus, etc. These efforts could bring about a considerable improvement in women’s vulnerable position under the current Covid19 crisis in India.

Conclusion

As such, the FFP approach offers huge potential to address some the major institutional and organisational injustices against women in India, and the COVID19 pandemic represents a critical juncture in this regards. A FFP is important not only to ensure that the gendered imbalances inflicted by COVID19 do not become permanent but also for the long term economic and social development of the country, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the advancement of national security as well as peace. But whether India will adopt or even consider moving towards a FFP in the near future remains to be seen.

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