The South Asia Channel

Afghan Presidential Campaign Begins; Indian Students Protest Racist Attack; Pakistani Taliban Nominate Peace Delegation

The Rack: "This is Danny Pearl's Final Story," Asra Q. Nomani (Washingtonian).

Afghanistan

Presidential campaign season kicks off 

Campaigning for Afghanistan's presidential election officially began on Sunday, with the 11 candidates starting to flesh out their platforms and their supporters hanging posters around Afghanistan (AP, Reuters, TOLO News, VOA, WSJ). While the field of presidential contenders could narrow by the time the vote occurs in April, there are currently no clear frontrunners and none of the candidates are expected to garner enough votes to avoid a runoff election (RFE/RL). Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, making this the first political transition in Afghanistan's history since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. 

Speaking to supporters on Sunday, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani said he would focus on identifying economic, judicial, and constitutional reforms, as well as reining in the government bureaucracy and applying development projects more evenly across the country (Pajhwok).

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, also held a rally on Sunday, highlighting the need to alleviate poverty across Afghanistan and enforce laws more equally (Pajhwok). Speaking one day after two of his party aides were gunned down in Herat province, Abdullah also addressed Afghan security concerns, saying that "the world should not be frightened of Afghanistan, nor should Afghans be afraid of the world" (BBC). With the election occurring as U.S. and NATO combat troops prepare to withdraw from the country in December, security is a top concern for voters.

Ján Kubiš, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan, condemned the attack on Abdullah's aides on Sunday, saying: "This coward action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated" (TOLO News). Like Abdullah, Kubiš urged Afghan authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice and asked the country's security forces to be on heightened alert in the weeks leading to the elections (Pajhwok).

Roadside bomb kills four policemen in Kandahar 

Four Afghan police officers were killed in Kandahar province on Friday when the vehicle they were traveling in hit a roadside bomb (AP). According to Parvez Najib, a high-ranking provincial official, the blast occurred near the province's volatile Spin Boldak district, near the border with Pakistan (RFE/RL). There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack, which also injured another policeman.

-- Bailey Cahall

India

Students from India's northeast protest racist attack

Recent violence targeting the northeastern Indian community in New Delhi has sparked outrage and accusations of racism and apathy (The Hindu, Indian Express, DNA). Nido Taniam, a 19-year-old student and the son of a Congress Party legislator from Arunachal Pradesh, died on Thursday from injuries he sustained in an attack at the Lajpat Nagar market, allegedly by shopkeepers who made fun of his choice of hairstyle. About a week earlier, on Jan. 25, two women from Manipur were assaulted by a group of men in South Delhi and were turned away from filing a FIR (first information report) by the police (Indian Express). 

On Sunday, several student organizations, including the North East Students' Organisation (NESO), Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union (AAPSU), Naga Students' Union, and All Assam Students' Union staged protests across Delhi and met with Lajpat Nagar police to demand swift action. Protestors spoke strongly against the treatment faced by students in the city. "Our people are looked down upon, given second-class treatment and discriminated against, especially in North India," said AAPSU's Pritam Sonam. Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress, described the incident as a "blot on society" and demanded strong action against those involved (Indian Express). In a rally in New Delhi, Narendra Modi criticized the ruling Aam Aadmi Party for Taniam's death and a controversial raid that targeted several Ugandan women in South Delhi, accusing the Delhi administration of being "careless" about governance (Indian Express).

Sonia Gandhi targeted in AgustaWestland scandal 

Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her aides have been named in an ongoing corruption trial in an Italian court over a helicopter contract signed between the Italian defense manufacturer AgustaWestland and the Indian government in February 2010 (DNA India, India Today, Times of India, Daily Mail, Indian Express). Prosecutors presented a note written in March 2008 in which middleman Christian Michel urged the head of AgustaWestland in India to "target Mrs. Gandhi and her closest advisers" to secure a contract for 12 AW-101 helicopters. The note identified her "key advisers" as "Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee, M. Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes, M. K. Narayanan and Vinay Singh." Michel reportedly wrote that Gandhi "would not be flying anymore in the Mi-8 choppers" and that "she was the driving force" behind the deal.  

There is currently no evidence that this plan of action was executed, though the Indian defense ministry did scrap the contract on Jan. 1 after alleging that AgustaWestland had paid bribes to Indian officials. 

India's lower house on track for worst record ever 

India's 15th Lok Sabha is on track to end its term as the worst-performing lower house of parliament since India's independence in 1947, passing only 165 bills, the lowest number ever, in its five-year term (Times of India). Of the 126 bills currently pending in parliament, 72 are in the lower house, meaning they will lapse when the new Lok Sabha is constituted in May.

The bills include anti-graft legislation such as the Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and Officials of Public International Organizations Bill and the Whistleblowers' Bill, as well as educational research bills such as the Higher Education and Research Bill and the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill. However, the remaining 54 bills pending in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) will continue. Thirty-nine bills died at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha and 43 expired after the 13th Lok Sabha ended.

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson

Pakistan

Pakistani Taliban nominate peace delegation

Days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the creation of a government committee authorized to conduct reconciliation talks with the Pakistani Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the militant organization, announced that they had created a five-member delegation to represent their interests in the peace process (Dawn, RFE/RL, TOLO News). In an email statement to reporters on Saturday, he said that Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party; cleric Maulana Samiul Haq; former cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz; Muhammad Ibrahim, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party; and Mufti Kifayatullah, a leader of Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam religious party would meet with the government's committee. Shahid added that the group "sincerely wanted peace talks with the government," and promised security for the government negotiators in the areas under Taliban control (Dawn, ET, Pajhwok). 

Khan, whose opposition PTI party has long favored negotiations with the Taliban, said in a statement that he would support the peace process, but would prefer to do so in a different role, arguing that the Taliban should use their own members as representatives instead (BBC, AP). Shireen Mazari, a party spokesman, told reporters that the party supported the government's committee and hoped "it would start meaningful talks" (LAT). The Taliban have not yet commented on Khan's apparent refusal to accept their nomination. 

The two committees are set to meet for the first time on Monday (ET).

Blast in Peshawar cinema kills five 

At least five people were killed and more than 30 were wounded on Sunday when unidentified attackers threw two hand-grenades inside a cinema in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (AP, ET, RFE/RL, VOA). According to police, the stampede out of the theater following the blasts is what led to many of the injuries. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, local sources told Al Jazeera that the attack "occurred amid fears that armed groups would use violence to derail [the government's] plans to hold talks with the Pakistani Taliban;" Imran Khan's PTI party controls the provincial government (AJAM). An investigation is ongoing.

New arrest warrant issued for Musharraf

In addition to rejecting former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf's request to go abroad to receive medical treatment for a heart condition, the Pakistani court in Islamabad reviewing the treason case against him issued a new arrest warrant for the ex-military ruler on Friday (BBC, NYT, RFE/RL). Musharraf, who is facing a number of court cases related to his time in office, has been at the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi since Jan. 2, when he suffered chest pains on the way to court. The warrant that was issued is "bailable," meaning that Musharraf could avoid arrest if he files a bail application on time. He is the first former military ruler to face trial for treason in Pakistan -- he is also charged with murder and restricting the judiciary. If found guilty, Musharraf could be sentenced to death or face life in prison. 

Inside Pakistan's bomb school

In an effort to combat the steady threat from improvised explosive devices (IED), Pakistan's military has created the Counter IED, Explosives, and Munitions School, a place where the country's security forces can practice looking for and defusing IEDs in a safe and controlled environment (AP). The Associated Press was the first foreign media outlet allowed access to the facility and found a school "designed to mimic scenarios the security forces might find in real life in classes that last from three to eight weeks." According to the report, it includes a mock urban environment where "devices" are hidden in cupboards, pond, and a graveyard. With militants constantly coming up with new ways to plant such devices, instructors at the school say it's just as important for them to be proactive in their training so they can try to stay a step ahead.

-- Bailey Cahall

Edited by Peter Bergen. 

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