The Power of a Name

Today is International Human Rights Day, a day to be thankful for the fundamental human rights that we enjoy – the right to speak freely, to undergo a fair and public hearing, to openly practice our faith, and to make decisions about our own lives. However, it is also a day to take action for those who are denied these unalienable rights. Thousands of men, women and children continue to be tortured to death, raped, forced from their homes, deprived of food and health care by their own governments or by armed militias, seemingly for the purposes of holding their grip on power.

Where does the campaign against these human rights abusers begin? Far too many groups and individuals face these obstacles.  Women remain hugely under-represented in government and other decision-making administrative positions. Indigenous people face discrimination denying them the opportunities to make full use of their guaranteed rights and face institutions that often fail to take account of their circumstances. Within the context of South Asia, Tibet epitomizes this human rights struggle.

Over the past half-century, there has been increasing tension between China and Tibet regarding Tibet’s political status. China’s position is that its government has exercised sovereignty over Tibet for over 700 years, and that Tibet has never been an independent state. On the other hand, the Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) position is that Tibet is a distinct nation with a history of independence. In 1959 the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Since then, McLeod Ganj has remained the headquarters for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) along with the Tibetan refugee community in India.

On May 14th 2011, the government’s title changed from the “Tibetan Government-in-Exile” to the “Central Tibetan Administration”. However, the Tibetan government’s title is far more than just a name. It represents a struggle and symbolizes an entire peoples commitment and diligence to regain their homeland. The Tibetan people should not be forced to acquiesce in the name of making their human rights campaign more “practical”.

In the past month, 27 Tibetans have set themselves on fire. Most of these individuals were in the prime of their youth with the youngest, a nun named Sangay Dolma, just 17 years old. Evidently, the long-drawn-out crusade against human rights abuse has forced the movement in a different direction. Regardless of how frustrating the campaign, time cannot be allowed to influence the global struggle to achieve universal human rights.

In my eyes the title “Central Tibetan Administration” does not imply that the Tibetan people are currently displaced, living as refugees in India. It does not show that the Tibetans are capable of autonomous rule, but seems to suggest that the Tibetans run a mere administration rather than a full-fledged government. The title almost has a positive connotation, as opposed to the emotions that one evokes from the phrase “in exile”. A government’s title caries a significant degree of value in the field of international affairs, and it is important for Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike to understand that Tibetans are currently engaged in a territorial dispute when their government is mentioned.

Earlier last year the Dalai Lama announced his retirement from his role as political leader of the CTA, but His Holiness will continue as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. This devolution of power is likely to result in a new constitutional structure for the Tibetan government-in-exile, which poses an overwhelming responsibility for the new leaders of the Tibetan movement. Unfortunately, I along with the Tibetan Youth Congress strongly believe that this change in nomenclature is a shift in the wrong direction for both Tibetans and the larger human rights movement.

In Solidarity,

Gautam Kapur

 

-Gautam Kapur is a freshman majoring in International Relations

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The Hajj: A display of Islamic nationalism

With the recent passing of Eid al-Adha celebrations, many across the globe watched in awe as almost four million pilgrims undertook Hajj, the fascinating and most vigilant display of Muslim solidarity. Throughout history, the Hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, has remained a critical component of the Muslim identity as the fifth pillar of Islam –a religious obligation for all able-bodied Muslims.

In thinking about this notion of the universal and spiritual sovereignty of Islam, an observation made by Prof. Sugata Bose of Harvard University springs to mind,

“Religion, even more so than the idea of nation, proved adept at crossing seas.”

This observation brings to surface the continuing interplay of a transnational and national allegiance amongst Muslim communities around the world, including South Asia. Today, with almost one third of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims residing in South Asia, this is of critical significance to the region. In complicating the idea of a national identity, Muslim pilgrims embark on their travel for salvation and on the way and amongst large gatherings engage in a powerful exchange of conversation and experience.

The effects of a broader transnational allegiance, or a sense of Islamic nationalism as it can also be referred to, trickles down into the everyday lives of Muslim communities in South Asia, altering the political, social and economic dynamics of the region. Muslims of contemporary India, where they remain a minority consisting of less than 20% of the total population, face a particularly complex identity crisis. With continuing pockets of bitterness between Hindu and Muslim communities throughout India, India’s Muslims very often find themselves in a complicated net of allegiances. However, with leading Islamic organizations in India such as Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind, complex variations of Indian Muslim’s nationalistic philosophy have been fashioned such as mu’ahadah. This is based on the idea that India’s Muslims and non-Muslims have established a mutual contract since the time of independence also reflected in the Indian constitution, propagating a secular state.

Therefore, when thinking about the powerfulness of the Hajj and what it means to the worldwide Muslim community, one cannot help but think about the persistence of multifaceted and multilayered identities in the South Asian region.

-Zara Juneja is a junior majoring in International Relations

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The Silent Dissident: Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the plight of the Rohingyas

During her recent trip to the United States, Nobel Prize winning Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took to the stage at the San Francisco Freedom Forum to accept the inaugural Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. However one couldn’t help but feel that “the lady” who accepted the prize on Saturday was very different from the lady who was conferred the award. The award was conferred to a Suu Kyi who is considered one of the world’s most celebrated pro-democracy campaigners; a fearless human rights advocate and a hero to other activists around the world including the late Havel himself. But the Suu Kyi who accepted the award on Saturday was perhaps nothing more or less than a cautious and calculative politician.

This transformation has been nowhere more evident than in her continued silence over the issue of the sectarian unrest in Burma’s west between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas.  Ongoing sporadic violence between the two groups has taken the lives of hundreds and displaced thousands on both sides though the loss on the Rohingya’s side has been much more.  The Rohingyas have traditionally been discriminated against by the Buddhist majority, so much so that it has led to the United Nations describing them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Since 1982, when the-then head of state General Ne Win reframed citizenship laws leading to the Rohingyas being considered illegal aliens in a land that they had inhabited as early as the 8th century, at least 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.

Their living conditions in Bangladesh weren’t any better even though they escaped the religious persecution they faced back in Burma. A Bangladesh government, already facing problems of widespread poverty and resource crunch, reluctantly offered a helping hand under increasing pressure from the international community and its own citizens who were sympathetic to the Rohingyas. After the latest episode of violence though, the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made it clear that they would seal their borders and not let in the thousands of Rohingyas who were fleeing murder, rape and torture in Burma.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s silence is especially alarming considering the regional repercussions of the issue, which she will have to deal with if, her government comes to power in 2015. Bangladesh’s stance with Rohingyas has led to some quarters crying foul over its handling of the case of Bangladeshi citizens who have migrated to the state of Assam in neighboring India where a separate case of violence between the indigenous Bodos and the Bengali speaking Muslims has erupted recently, a large number of whom have resided in Assam for decades. These clashes have led to the death of many on both sides and in turn has led to hostility towards citizens of North East India, of which Assam is a part and a mass exodus of the North-Easterners from major Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.

However, there’s an even bigger underlying problem that has the potential to lead to a standoff between the three countries if not now, then by the time Ms. Suu Kyi’s government comes to power. The government of Bangladesh has suggested that members of the Rohingya community have links to fundamentalist groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has in turn led the Burmese authorities to dub the Rohingyas as ‘Islamic insurgents’. The irony of the situation is that similar concerns, however dubious they may be have been, have been raised against Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam by the local authorities who suggest their links to organizations such as the Bangladeshi terror outfit, Harkat ul Jihad Islami, which has undertaken major attacks within India. All this poses an enormous danger to the regional peace and stability and can create a potentially awkward diplomatic standoff, which is the last thing Ms. Suu Kyi needs as she tries to gather more support from the international community in helping rebuild Burma.

Voices from all over the world, including government authorities and human rights groups have urged Ms. Suu Kyi to take an explicit stand against the violent repression of the Rohingyas. However, her views on the issue have been vague and ambiguous at best. She has suggested that there has been human rights abuses on both sides, which while factually true vastly undermines the disproportionate suffering of the Rohingyas. She has further stated that the need of the hour is to ‘”clarify” citizenship laws and grant equal citizenship to all ethnic minorities. On the face of it, this might suggest that she is calling for more rights for the Rohingyas. But the statement conveniently hides the fact that officially Burma doesn’t recognize Rohingyas as ethnic minorities as they are not even considered citizens.

Politically, Suu Kyi doesn’t have much to gain but a lot to lose by opening her mouth on the matter. By taking a stand against the violence, she risks losing the electoral support of not only the Rakhine population who hugely outnumber the disfranchised Rohingyas, but also the rest of the Buddhist majority of Burma who consider the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and a threat to the security and stability of their nation. As Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, Maung Zarni says, “She (Ms. Suu Kyi) is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

During her speech at the San Francisco Freedom Forum, Ms. Suu Kyi expressed her initial unwillingness about speaking on the topic given to her – “The Long Road to Freedom.” She said that she wished to speak about the life of the great dissident, Havel instead. Havel once said, “Without free, self-respecting and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.” Perhaps she should remind herself of Havel’s idea of a free nation as she embarks upon Burma’s long and treacherous road to freedom.

Join the South Asian Political Committee today for a student roundtable to discuss the issue of the Rohingyas and other such problems of displacement and migration in South Asia. For more information on the event visit http://sites.tufts.edu/sapac/

-Shayan Purkayastha is a senior majoring in Computer Science and the co-chair of the South Asian Political Action Committee 

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Welcome Back!

Welcome back to what we at SAPAC hope will be another fantastic semester filled with thrilling new ideas and opportunities to further continue the dialogue on South Asia. After organizing the many events last semester,  such as a round-table on State building in Afghanistan and a discussion on the Psychology of Conflict in Kashmir with Justine Hardy, we cannot wait to delve deep into the innumerable issues of this bustling region yet to be deliberated, discussed, and debated.

While we welcome everybody’s contribution (yes, please do send in any ideas, write-ups or simply just opinions and thoughts that you would like shared,) SAPAC is excited to announce that we are looking for TWO new E-Board members – a Freshman Rep and  a Social Media Rep!

Everybody is welcome, so please do follow the link below and submit your application!

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?fromEmail=true&formkey=dGFXanB1aVBveDBWTm9RLUg2ZVJmWlE6MQ

On that note, we hope to see you all at our events throughout this semester and really encourage everybody to get more involved with this complex yet exhilarating region of the world!

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Sustaining the dialogue on South Asia

As this year comes to an end, SAPAC’s executive board would like to thank all of you who came for our events, and helped make them a success. This year we have expanded our campus presence, by organizing a wide-range of events. We really enjoyed the student led discussions, where we were able to engage in vibrant discussions about some pertinent issues in the subcontinent from state building in Afghanistan to India-Pakistan relations. This semester we tried to bring in those with  expertise in the region like Professor Partha Ghosh and Justine Hardy. One of our greatest feats was being able to successfully collaborate with other groups on campus like the new Association for Pakistani Allies (APA), the Hindu Students Council (HSC), BUILD India and organize Tufts first ever South Asia Week. We hope this will become an annual event at Tufts.

Of course having a website and launching a blog were two new initiatives and we have  had students write about a range of issues related to South Asian politics, economics and society. We encourage more of you to write to us with ideas for blog posts, and of course actual bog posts.

Our blog but also our group as a whole occupies an important position in an institution like Tufts which values it’s global-minded student community and encourages us to be aware of the world around us. Given the South Asian region’s growing importance in today’s global context, whether it is related to economic development or social and political change, we believe it is important to make sure that this dialogue continues and that SAPAC continues to attract students who are interested in sustaining this dialogue through their interest in the region or those who are interested in learning about it.

On that note, we think it is valuable to learn about the kind of work that Tufts students are doing in South Asia, whether it is over the summer or in their life post-Tufts. We have spoken to a range of students who have worked in diplomacy, policy-work, rural development, and entrepreneurship.

So as you depart for summer, or for those of you seniors who have graduated and may be looking at opportunities in the region, be sure to look at our newest page “Tufts Students in South Asia,” which will profile the work of Tufts students and Tufts alumni in South Asia.

Have a great summer!

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