The South Asia Channel

Sharif Writes Modi a Letter; Pakistani Army to Intensify Strikes; Hagel to Defend Bergdahl Swap

India

Sharif writes Modi a letter, nudges Indo-Pak relations forward

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has written a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing satisfaction over their "meaningful exchange" in Delhi, which was delivered to the Prime Minister's Office over the weekend (IBNLive, Economic Times). In his letter, Sharif said he was looking forward to working with Modi in "harmony on all unsettled matters," and that the future of the poor in both countries was integrated with "our common economic destiny."

Sharif's letter is seen as another positive development in Indo-Pak relations, which had stalled in the past year due to incidents along the Line of Control, a military boundary between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir. Sharif, who was among the leaders from the neighboring countries to attend Modi's swearing-in on May 26, had met Modi a day later to discuss crucial bilateral issues on security and the speedy trial of the Mumbai terror attack case in Pakistan. During his visit, Modi had gifted Sharif a sari for his mother. In a reciprocal gesture, Sharif had sent a sari as a gift for Modi's mother. To read the letter's full text, click here.

Modi continues downsizing, trims cabinets

Prime Minister Narendra Modi discontinued four Standing Committees of the Cabinet, and reconstituted five crucial Cabinet Committees on Tuesday (Economic Times, NDTV, Hindustan Times). This decision aligns with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government's motto of "minimum government, maximum governance." On May 31, Modi had dissolved all groups of ministers and empowered groups of ministers set up by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to minimize decision-making processes.

A statement issued by the government on Tuesday stated that Modi has dissolved the Cabinet Committees on Prices, Management of Natural Calamities, World Trade Organization matters, and the Unique Identification Authority of India. The reconstituted Cabinet Committees deal with security, political affairs, economic affairs and parliamentary affairs and the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. According to official sources, the Cabinet Committees are "co-terminus" and it is "routine exercise" for a new government to reconstitute them.

India's biggest lender, State Bank of India, looks to consolidate five banks

Shares of the State Bank of India (SBI) and its three associate banks surged after it was reported on Wednesday that SBI plans to consolidate five associate banks in India's banking industry (Economic Times, Times Of India, Business Standard). According to the Economic Times, although the merger was initiated a few years ago, it was put on hold due to the previous government's inertia and union issues. The merger will enhance SBI's asset base, add 5,658 branches to its existing 15,143 branches, and the combined market share will rise from 19 percent to 24 percent.

SBI's associate banks are State Bank of Travancore, State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, State Bank of Mysore, State Bank of Hyderabad, and State Bank of Patiala. Of the five associate banks, State Bank of Hyderabad and State Bank of Patiala are not publicly listed.

Maharashtra Minister blames declining moral values for rape

In yet another insensitive statement on rapes, Maharashtra Home Minister R. R. Patil on Wednesday blamed the 'decline of moral values' for the increasing incidents of rape in the country, and said that even if a policeman is posted in every home, crimes against women cannot be controlled (NDTV, IBNLive, Business Standard). Patil said further that the rise in atrocities against women is due to the obscene images used in advertisements.

Patil, who was speaking in the Maharashtra legislative assembly, made the statement in response to the opposition's charge that women are feeling unsafe under the current Maharashtra government. Offering statistics to support his statement, Patil said 6.34 percent of rapes are committed by brothers and fathers, 6.65 percent of rapes are committed by close relatives, 42 percent by known persons, and 40 percent of the women are raped after being lured for marriage. The minister said the state will buy 500 vehicles to stop crime against women, a special squad of 200 women commandos will be appointed to curb chain-snatching, and rape victims will get a lawyer of their own choice.

After his comments stirred a controversy, Patil retracted his remark and said he was misquoted: "Women's safety is a top priority for our government."

-- Neeli Shah and Jameel Khan

Pakistan

Pakistan army to intensity strikes

The Pakistan Army on Wednesday decided to intensify air strikes on militant hideouts in the tribal regions in the wake of recent attacks across the country (Dawn). Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif made the decision during a meeting of the formation commanders at the general headquarters in Rawalpindi. All corps commanders and formation commanders attended the biannual meeting for a comprehensive briefing on the security situation.

The decision comes just one day after the army targeted militant compounds in the Kyber tribal district with air strikes (NYT). A military spokesman said that 25 militants had been killed in the airstrikes, but those numbers could not be independently verified.

Uzbek fighters involved in airport attack

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al Qaeda affiliate that has been based in Pakistan's tribal belt, claimed that 10 of their members were "martyred" during this week's assault on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi that killed 36 people, including the attackers (AFP). In a statement posted to a number of Taliban-linked websites, the group said: "At midnight of Monday ten brave martyrdom seeking Mujahids of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan wearing their explosive-filled vests attacked a very special section of Karachi International Airport of Pakistan." Shahidullah Shahid, the Pakistani Taliban's spokesman, confirmed that IMU members were involved in the attack, saying that the assault on the airport "was a joint operation of TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban] and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," but did not say how many of the attackers were IMU.

Afghanistan

Hagel to Defend Bergdahl Swap

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is scheduled to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday morning for a public hearing about the deal that earned the release of Bowe Bergdahl (NYT). The decision to negotiate with the Taliban for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban leaders who were being held in prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was criticized by many, particularly because the administration did not inform Congress of the exchange beforehand.  "He looks forward to having the opportunity to talk to House members, to publicly walk those members through how he came to make that decision, and why he made it the way he did," said Rear Admiral Kirby, one of the aides preparing Hagel for the hearing.

Cabbie meters out advice

If you're in Afghanistan and you catch a ride with Sara Bahai, Afghanistan's first ever female cab driver, be prepared to be lobbied on female rights (AFP). Bahai, who has been driving the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif city for 10 years, has seen many changes in Afghanistan - including improvements in the lives of women. But it's not enough for her, telling AFP: "Women should be given bigger roles, they should be given seats as ministers. And female teachers should be paid more to help female education." She says the new president, who will be elected after Saturday's run-off election, needs to move forward with reforms and she's doing her part to make sure the message is heard. Adding that: "Sometimes I argue with male passengers all the journey to convince them a woman driving a taxi isn't a bad or un-Islamic thing."

-- Emily Schneider

Edited by Peter Bergen 

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images