The South Asia Channel

Protests Continue over Telangana; Australian Troops to be Given Immunity?; Pakistan Government Demands Taliban Ceasefire

Bonus Read: "Afghan Ethnic Tensions Rise in Media and Politics," Azam Ahmed and Habib Zahori (NYT).


AP chief resigns, Telangana bill moves to upper house

Protests broke out in India's upper house of parliament on Wednesday as the body began to debate a bill that would carve a new state, Telangana, out of Andhra Pradesh (Business Standard). Members opposing the bill trooped into the well of the Rajya Sabha chamber and snatched papers from the secretary general, forcing two adjournments before lunch. Opponents also sought a resolution to condemn a blackout of television coverage that occurred as the Lok Sabha (lower house) passed the controversial bill the day before, with parliamentarian Naresh Agrawal comparing the manner in which the Telangana bill was passed to the murder of democracy. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Kiran Kumar Reddy, resigned from his post in protest and quit the ruling Congress party after the bill was approved (BBC). 

India's 29th state, Telangana would comprise 23 million people and 10 of Andhra Pradesh's 23 districts, including the city of Hyderabad. Despite the opposition, it is possible it will be created by the end of the month (Times of India).

Rajiv Gandhi killers to be freed 

The government in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu decided on Wednesday to free seven people convicted of plotting the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 (BBC, Guardian). The move comes one day after the Indian Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of three of the convicts, citing delays in deciding their mercy pleas. A cabinet meeting chaired by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha made the decision early in the morning, and Jayalalitha told the state assembly that they would send the cabinet decision to the federal government for approval. "If there is no reply within three days from the centre, the state government will release all the [sic] accordance with the powers vested with the state government," she said.

The six men and one woman were members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger rebel group. Gandhi's assassination by a female suicide bomber at an election rally in Tamil Nadu was seen as retaliation for sending Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987. Many in Tamil Nadu believe the convicts were duped into taking part in a conspiracy they knew little about.

China overtakes India as largest consumer of gold 

A 2013 World Gold Council (WGC) report has revealed that China has surpassed India as the world's largest consumer of gold, importing 1,066 tons of the precious metal over India's 935 (Mint). Chinese demand for the precious metal increased 32 percent, both in response to a slump in gold prices and fewer import restrictions in recent years, and analysts quoted by the Wall Street Journal see China's lead over India further increasing (WSJ). According to Marcus Grubb, the council's managing director of investment and strategy, China is ten years behind India in terms of demand and deregulation, leaving plenty of room for growth.

The WGC has also warned India over the rise of gold smuggling due to recent import restrictions and estimated that nearly 200 tons were smuggled into the country. Indian jewelry trade federations have sought to lower import duties and the elimination of a rule that requires 20 percent of all gold imported to be exported back out. While Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has said the government's priority was to rein in the country's soaring current account deficit, he indicated his willingness to explore curbing restrictions on gold imports on Tuesday (Mint). 

Me too, please 

In an unusual move of solidarity with Wendy Doniger, the author of The Hindus, other writers have requested that their own books be withdrawn and turned to pulp in protest (The Guardian). Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, for example, have sought this course of action in order to (in Varadarajan's words) take on "intellectual bullies" "on their own terms." Doniger's book was taken off the Penguin catalogue for fear that it might offend religious sentiments. The move prompted severe backlash, successfully adding the word ‘pulped' to the Indian news lexicon. A few self-described "avid bibliophiles" have invoked their ‘rights as readers' to denounce Penguin's decision. A statement from the group reads, "while they may both be birds, there is a world of difference between a Penguin and a chicken and the last time my clients checked, the penguin had not changed his feathers in the natural world."

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson


Australian troops could be granted immunity

Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, Afghanistan's defense minister, told reporters in Australia on Wednesday that Australian soldiers remaining in Afghanistan after 2014 could be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law (RFE/RL). Mohammadi, who was in Canberra to discuss a bilateral security agreement with Australian Defense Minister David Johnson, indicated that Afghanistan was prepared to meet one of Australia's key demands for staying in the country, saying: "International forces... will be prosecuted on their own rules of law" (Sydney Morning Herald). Australia is expected to leave around 400 troops in the country once the NATO combat mission ends in December to help mentor and train Afghanistan's security forces. 

The United States has sought similar immunization for American troops in its own bilateral security agreement, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly refused to sign.

U.S. using all options to free Bergdahl 

After news broke on Monday that the United States is considering a possible prisoner swap with the Taliban to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner of war, spokesmen for the White House and Defense Department confirmed that the government is pursuing all available options to his ensure his freedom. Speaking at his daily news conference on Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We can't discuss all the details of our efforts, but there should be no doubt that we work every day, using our military, our intelligence and our diplomatic tools, to see Sergeant Bergdahl returned home safely" (Pajhwok). Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said similar things to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). However, both men added that the United States is not currently involved in active negotiations with the Taliban, and that Bergdahl's release would be discussed should those talks resume.

Bergdahl, who disappeared from Afghanistan in 2009, is believed to be held by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network in Pakistan, which has assured the U.S. military "of every possible cooperation" in finding the missing soldier (Dawn). According to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, met recently with several senior Pakistani defense and military officials and sought their help in locating Bergdahl before any military operation was launched against militants in North Waziristan. Austin also said Pakistan would have full U.S. military assistance in tracking down Taliban fighters fleeing into Afghanistan. 

Karzai, Taliban condemn killing of former Taliban minister 

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Taliban rivals both condemned the recent killing of Maulavi Abdul Raqib, a former Taliban minister who was shot and killed in Peshawar on Monday (RFE/RL, TOLO News). In a written statement released on Tuesday, Karzai said Raqib had been "supportive of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. He embraced martyrdom on return from Dubai, where he had participated in a meeting convened by Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim," a former finance minister for the Taliban (Pajhwok). While the Taliban denounced the killing, they also said on Wednesday that they had not participated in last week's meeting in Dubai and that Mutasim did not represent the movement (Pajhwok). 

Raqib, who served as the Taliban's minister of refugees, was buried in Afghanistan's Takhar province on Tuesday. No one has claimed responsibility for his death. 


Government demands ceasefire before resuming talks 

While the Pakistani government halted its reconciliation efforts with the Taliban on Tuesday, after a militant faction said on Sunday that it had killed 23 soldiers in their custody, reports emerged on Wednesday that the peace talks could resume, but only if a ceasefire is announced by the organization (ET, RFE/RL). The two groups were close to finalizing such an agreement when the Pakistani Taliban's Mohmand affiliate announced the soldiers' deaths. Both sides condemned the killings and said that they have not yet given up on the peace efforts, but there has been no contact between the two negotiating committees since Monday. According to RFE/RL, some 60 people have died in Islamist-related violence since Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the talks on Jan. 29. Bonus read: "Not Knowing The Worst Thing For Kin Of Slain Pakistani Soldiers," Shah Nawaz Khan and Frud Bezhan (RFE/RL). 

FO: Iran should respect Pakistan's border

Pakistan's foreign office released a statement on Tuesday calling on Iran to respect its borders, one day after Tehran said it might send troops into Pakistan to free five border guards who were kidnapped on Feb. 6 (ET, RFE/RL). On Monday, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said the guards were seized in the country's Sistan-Baluchistan province by Jaih-ul Adl, a little-known Sunni militant group, and taken into Pakistan. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry disputed this claim, however, saying that: "Pakistan has already informed the Iranian authorities that its Frontier Corps teams have intensively combed the entire region but could not verify the entry or presence of the abducted Iranian border guards on its territory." The statement went on to say that Iranian forces had no authority to cross Pakistani borders, and any attempts to do so would be in violation of international law.

Broken record, again 

Over 29,000 Pakistani students gathered at the Punjab Youth Festival in Lahore last Saturday to break the world record for the largest human flag (NDTV, The News). Holding green and white placards, the students braved rainstorms to gather in the city's National Hockey Stadium and reclaimed a title they had first won in 2012. In that attempt, more than 24,200 people formed the Pakistani flag, but they later lost the record to Bangladesh, after 27,170 people formed the national flag in Dhaka. A witness team from the Guinness Book of World Records was on hand to validate the attempt.

-- Bailey Cahall

Edited by Peter Bergen.