The South Asia Channel

U.S. Ambassador to Meet Modi; Nine People Die in Peshawar Attack; Clapper: Karzai won’t sign BSA

Editor's Note: The New America Foundation's National Security Program is looking for Pakistani fellows to participate in its New Voices Program, an initiative to bring Pakistan's next generation of leaders to meet policymakers and persons of influence in Washington, DC. For more information about the six-week fellowship, as well as application requirements, please check out the fellowship listing here.

India

U.S. ambassador to meet with Modi; no change in visa policy 

U.S. officials announced on Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell will meet BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a shift in Washington's hands-off policy due to Modi's alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots (Indian Express, AP, WSJ, Economic Times, Guardian). According to sources that spoke to The Hindu, Powell will meet Modi on Thursday in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat (The Hindu).

However, the U.S. State Department clarified that the meeting did not imply a change in its visa policy against Modi, who has been barred from visiting the United States since 2005 for "severe violations of religious freedom." Modi was chief minister when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in his state, killing over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims (The Hindu). Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, said the meeting was part of a larger U.S. strategy to reach out to Indian political and business leaders. In the months since his elevation to prime ministerial candidate, envoys from Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have met with Modi, who is seen as a frontrunner in the upcoming Indian election. Gujarat also represents investment opportunities in nuclear energy, currently the largest investment possibility for U.S. companies.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said U.S. officials were "free to meet with Modi," but hoped they would apply standards consistent with their human rights beliefs (Indian Express).

India scores low in press freedom 

India ranked 140 out of 180 countries surveyed in terms of press freedom in a report released Wednesday by Paris-based think tank Reporters Without Borders (WSJ, Business Standard, Hindustan Times, Economic Times). The ranking was a one-point jump from the country's 2013 ranking, when the world's biggest democracy recorded its steepest fall on the annual list since 2002. The report singled out the insurgency in Kashmir, where communications are routinely suspended in response to unrest, as well as the killings of eight journalists in 2013, as the cause of India's low ranking. According to the report, police and security forces, as well as criminal groups, demonstrators, and political party supporters, have also threatened and physically harmed journalists in India.

The report came as Penguin India, a subsidiary of publishing giant Penguin Random House and one of India's largest publishing houses, decided to withdraw the 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, as part of a settlement with Hindu group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan (AFP, Reuters, BBC, NDTV, The Hindu, The Telegraph, Indian Express). The organization had sought legal action against the book, claiming it contains factual errors and misrepresents Hindu mythology. The author, American scholar Wendy Doniger, said she was "angry and disappointed" at the book's removal. "I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate," Doniger said in a statement Tuesday. Writers and public figures widely criticized Penguin's decision to settle with the group rather than seek to appeal the lower court ruling (Times of India). The mutual agreement between the publisher and the activist group would not prevent other Indian publishers from publishing the book in the future, lawyers said.

Italy petitions U.N. over trial of marines

Italy has reportedly petitioned the United Nations over the issue of its marines being tried in India for the murder of two fishermen in Indian coastal waters (Economic Times, Mint). Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino announced that Italy has "initiated contact" with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights over "the lack of charges" and the "restriction of freedom" since the marines' arrests in February 2012. According to Italian news agency ANSA, the high commissioner has agreed to go over the request.

Bonino's comments come shortly after Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta strongly suggested that Italy and the European Union would "react" to India's "unacceptable" move to try the marines under its strict anti-piracy laws. Diplomatic sources have also warned that Italy will put a number of treaties being negotiated with India on hold. The union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has also commented on the issue, saying a "strong message" needed to be sent to India, as there are "huge implications" for Europe's fight against piracy. While India has said it will not impose a death penalty on the marines, they could face up to 10 years in jail. 

No nudes is good nudes for BJP

Meghna Patel, an Indian model found an unusual way to show her support for BJP leader Narendra Modi's prime ministerial campaign by posing semi-nude, American Beauty-style, on a bed of lotus flowers, which happen to be the party's election symbol (Guardian). While Patel's campaign became quite popular online (visitors to her site are met with the familiar "bandwidth exceeded" message), the culturally conservative party has distanced itself from the move. "There are other ways to support Modi," BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari told reporters, "like attending his rallies."

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson 

Pakistan

Family members killed in Peshawar attack

At least nine people were killed in Peshawar on Wednesday when unidentified attackers threw hand grenades into the home of a local anti-Taliban lashkar leader, though it is unclear if the leader was killed in the attack or during an earlier gun battle with militants (AP, ET, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). While each news report had a slightly different description of who was in the home, all of them agreed that they were members of the same family. While no one has claimed responsibility for the incident, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper suggested that it was retribution for the death of a local militant who was killed by the lashkar earlier this month (Dawn). According to the reports, between 25 and 40 attackers surrounded the house, launching the grenades and then firing upon people as they left the building. 

The assault came hours after a similar grenade attack at the city's Shama Cinema that killed at least 13 people and wounded nearly 20 others (AJE, ET, NYT). It was the second such attack on a movie theater in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province this month, prompting the provincial government to create a special security plan for the area's cinema houses. According to Dawn, owners have been directed to install closed-circuit television cameras in the theaters, place metal and explosive detectors at their entrances, and deploy uniformed and plain-clothes police officers throughout the buildings (Dawn). The plan also includes imposing a complete ban on parking vehicles on theater grounds. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Pakistani Taliban denied that they were involved (WSJ).

Progress being made in peace talks

The peace committees for both the Pakistani government and the Taliban met in Islamabad on Tuesday in a surprise second meeting, and announced that they "have made significant headway" in the talks (ET). A member of the government's four-person committee told Pakistan's Express Tribune that the Taliban have almost agreed to the government's framework for talks and never said that they don't recognize the Pakistani constitution -- one of the government's key conditions. Both sides also discussed a possible ceasefire and "said practical steps for this purpose would be taken before the next round of talks." Maulana Samiul Haq, a negotiator for the Taliban, confirmed that both sides wanted a truce and denounced the attack on the Shama Cinema, blaming "some enemies" who wanted to derail the peace process. While it is unclear when the two committees will meet again, Haq has called for a meeting of religious clerics on Feb. 15 to discuss the ongoing negotiations (ET).

Afghanistan 

Clapper: Karzai won't sign BSA

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he does not believe Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States (Pajhwok, RFE/RL, VOA). The most senior U.S. official to express such doubt publicly, Clapper told the senators that the opinion was his own and did not necessarily reflect that of the White House. Karzai has long refused to sign the security pact -- which will determine the size and scope of any post-2014 U.S. troop presence -- but some have speculated that he is waiting until after Afghanistan's presidential elections in April.

When asked by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, if it would be better for the United States to finalize the document with Karzai's successor, Clapper said that would be a policy decision not up to him, but could "have a salutary effect" (Dawn). 

The tension between Kabul and Washington is likely to continue this week as Afghan officials prepare to release 65 prisoners deemed "dangerous insurgents" by U.S. forces from the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram Airfield (LAT). While American officials first objected to the announcement that 88 prisoners would be released from the facility in January, they reissued their complaints on Monday when the Afghan Attorney General's office said nearly 75 percent of them could be released this week (TOLO News). Afghans reviewing the men's cases have repeatedly argued that there isn't enough evidence to keep them in prison, but U.S. officials maintain that they have submitted materials that prove the detainees were engaged in militant activities and, at times, directly responsible for coalition and Afghan casualties. The New York Times notes that: "The contentious releases, and the unusually public campaign being waged against them by the American military, are indications that the two countries have concluded that they cannot quietly resolve their major differences over the issue" (NYT).

U.S., E.U. criticize pending Afghan law on domestic violence

A week after Human Rights Watch raised concerns about a new Afghan law that would strip Afghan women of legal protections designed to shield them from domestic abuse and forced marriages, U.S. and European Union officials blasted the law, calling it a "backward step" for the country (RFE/RL, WSJ). According to Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Washington is "extremely concerned" about the law and has raised its objections with the Afghan parliament; all groups have called for amended language in the law. If signed, the bill would prohibit relatives of a person accused of violence from testifying against them, making it much more difficult for victims to bring domestic abuse cases to court. 

New film highlights plight of Afghan interpreters

Inbetween Worlds, a new film highlighting the problems faced by local Afghan interpreters who have helped coalition forces, made its debut on Tuesday at the Berlin International Film Festival (AP). A competition entry from Feo Aladag, an Austrian-born director, the drama focuses on the efforts of a German army captain to connect with locals via his interpreter. While Aladag said she didn't set out to make judgments about German deployments, "she was motivated by a lack of films about modern German troops in combat situations -- a relative novelty for post-World War II Germany -- and by a feeling that local helpers... are getting ‘unfair' treatment from politicians at home." The film is competing for the festival's main Golden Bear honor, which will be awarded on Saturday.

-- Bailey Cahall 

Edited by Peter Bergen.

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