After the ‘Asian tsunami’ in 2004, India has put aside its own current Covid crisis to demonstrate the nation’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and commitment, by rushing food and medical supplies to other SAARC member-nations. Maldives is one country eternally dependent on imports for subsistence, given the size and saline nature of the available land, with the result New Delhi has since rushed all essentials to the Indian Ocean archipelago, with promises of more, as and when sought.
With all the civilian airlines barred, New Delhi took the exceptional step of rushing a high, 6.2 tonnes of medical supplies aboard an Indian Air Force (IAF) transporter. This became possible after Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid talked to his Indian counterpart S. Jaishanker, and the latter promised to rush the required pharmaceutical products.
Receiving the medicines at Male, Minister Shahid thanked India profusely and noted that India had always assisted Maldives in the times of crisis. Indian Ambassador Sunjay Sudhir, who was present, reaffirmed India’s commitment to assisting Maldives.
The current shipment and also Amb Sudhir’s reassurance followed Maldivian public concerns over the continued availability of staple foods in the aftermath of the 21-day internal shut-down announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the possible delays in transportation and shipment of the regular supplies to the archipelago nation.
The Indian mission in Male lost no time in declaring that New Delhi "will continue to maintain essential supplies to our friendly neighbour Maldives in the spirit of our long-standing bilateral partnership". The people and the Government of India will continue to stand by the people and Government of Maldives, the embassy said.
At the instance of the Maldivian government of MDP President Ibrahim Solih, India rushed a defence medical team and supplies to the country, as early as 14 March. Maldives was/is the first South Asian nation where Covid-19 stuck, and India was busy evaluating the possible impact on the nation, and the necessary steps that New Delhi had to take to check the pandemic from reaching the dangerous third, ‘community risk’ stage.
Alongside India, China, where the global covid crisis had its beginnings, too has begun sending medical supplies to Maldives (and also other South Asian nations). Chinese Ambassador Zhang Lizhong stated that their first shipment included emergency medical supplies. He described it as an exemplary instance of collaboration between the two countries.
Maldivian dependence on neighbouring India and Sri Lanka is very high. Going beyond the speciality and super-speciality medical care and portals of education, from under-graduation upwards, Maldives depends more on these two neighbours for the regular supply of daily essentials -- from staple food items like rice, wheat and all condiments to all kinds of medicines and pharmaceutical supplies.
Alive to such Maldivian dependency, the Government of India for decades now has ensured that any export ban on food and other essential supplies that are in short supply for local consumers does not affect supplies for two of its smaller neighbours, Maldives and Bhutan. Better still, New Delhi has never ever made Maldivian civilian requirements a pawn in bilateral and regional diplomatic game of chess.
As Maldivians alive to the realities of their circumstances acknowledge, every one in the country, from the highest political office-holder to the lowly commoner in a distant island eagerly look up to southern Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudy port to ship those supplies on a regular basis. From pin to notebooks, dress material and almost everything, India and Sri Lanka are the sources.
In India, the Government almost takes the moral, if not physical, responsibility. In the times of disasters, be it of the natural tsunami kind or of the not-so-natural Covid type, the Government also takes up the physical responsibility of delivering the goods and in time. Come the annual Islamic fasting month, which culminates in the Ramzan festivities, Indian supplies hit the peak.
This year round, the Ramzan month commences in the last week of April. It remains to be seen if the Covid threat and fears would have disappeared from Maldivian lands, homes and faces. That alone will determine how much supplies Indian traders engaged in the Maldivian business will have to deliver – and when.
India-Maldives civilian cooperation at the government level had got a real boost when in 1987, New Delhi rushed its Air Force personnel to restore order and democracy in the country after a group of Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries sought to overthrow the legitimate government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Code-named ‘Operation Cactus’, IAF’s daredevil landing of its large-transport aircraft in darkness on Male’s civilian airport runway that juts into the sea, is considered as adventurous as their landing of troops in the Srinagar airport, again without maps and landing aids, in the late forties.
In end-December 2004, when the Asian tsuami took South Asian nations by surprise and shock, India, which had suffered heavy losses to the Andaman group of islands and the tri-Services Command established there, rushed all relief material and persona to the other two affected neighbours, namely, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Maldives’ mainstay economic activity in resort tourism took a huge hit. India also suffered much damage along the eastern coast, especially in southern Tamil Nadu.
In relatively recent times, India rushed large quantities of drinking water when the desalination plants of capital Male got burnt in December 2014. However, signs of strains began to show up in bilateral relations, when then President Abdulla Yameen began identifying with his new international friend in China. Yameen became the first Maldivian President to visit China, preceded by China’s Xi Jinping doing so earlier.
With the Covid threat still looming large, the Solih Government has toughened curfew conditions, to try and minimise the pandemic impact. Resort-tourism being a major contributor to the government revenue, business prospects and family incomes, the government is already under pressure to take remedial steps – but they all will have to wait until after the pandemic-threat is behind the nation. Without mincing words, the nation’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) has said that the nation is ‘still at risk’ on the corona-centred health front.
With the mainline tourism sector anticipated to lose $ 450 m this year, Maldives has become to the 20th of 78 member-nations to seek Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) $ 5 b corona-centric aid package, for the first 18 months. The government has also sought $ 50 m from the International Investment Corporation (IIC) and $ 30 m from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The World Bank has approved a $ 7.3 m package and had also let Maldives spend $ 10-m disaster risk fund, signed in 2019, to be utilised now.
If the Covid situation does not reverse and dramatically so over a short term, India may have to re-double its current efforts and also increase supplies. More importantly, the two nations may have to discuss financial payments and arrangements, as they can be strained over the medium term for the government’s State Trading Organisation’ (STO).
Already, the Tourism Employees Association-Maldives (TEAM) has taken up the issue of resorts and other employers in the sector suspending salary payments in the aftermath of Covid-centric cancellation of room bookings, impacting on family incomes. The Tourism Ministry has warned that it would penalise employers who harass their employees, post-covid. In an incident possibly unconnected with the employees, robbers broke open a steel safe in a resort and decamped with 57 passports and some cash.
Meanwhile, unfazed by the current situation, the nation’s Parliament met online, with 71 of the total 87 MPs participating in the discussions on the covid-threat and the ways to face the situation. The Speaker, Mohammed Nasheed, a former President, denied rumours that he has developed Covid symptoms following a short visit to the UK.
The mundane imagery of politics largely invokes scepticism and suspicion in the public imagination. And such cynical perception of everyday politics is probably based upon a legit premise of perpetually witnessing the perversion of the political discourse. And political trajectory in India is also not immune to such an insidious decay and hence a vitiated public opinion of politics has almost turned banal.
When such a fatalistic assessment of the irreversible erosion of politics became a commonplace in Indian politics riding on the perils of communalism, corruption, nepotism, majoritarianism, calumny, vilification and deception, the outbreak of a gargantuan health crisis in the form of COVID 19 seems to have interrupted the monotony of dysfunctional and polarized politics, albeit in a very limited way. Notwithstanding the temporariness and urgency of this extraordinary situation, the multi-layered political communication from all levels of the Indian leadership makes this moment worth noting in two fundamental ways.
First, the outbreak of the pandemic has witnessed the rise of the regional leaders in the respective States as primary communicators in order to prevail upon the emergency situation and take stock of the bludgeoning health crisis, especially as the health remains in the jurisdiction of the State list. Second, the unfolding of a crisis which is not only mammoth in its magnitude but also is completely unprecedented in nature, demanded a message underlining a conciliatory and united response between centre and the states which has been in display to some extent as of now.
The constitutional setting that puts the jurisdiction of healthcare in the hand of the States and the practical imperative of localised response to the crisis, made the political communication at the regional level extremely important. The regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Uddhav Thackrey in Maharashtra, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and other State leaders seemed to have sprung into action in which their political communication became extremely crucial on two levels.
First, their constant communication with the people through regular press conferences in which they were found taking upon the role of an educator by touching upon crucial issues like making the people aware of newly introduced (for many) terms as social distancing and quarantine in lucid language and giving demonstrations on how to remain safe during the epidemic. Mamata Banerjee’s visits to the markets in Kolkata in order to give in-person demonstrations of practicing social distancing to the vegetable vendors are a case in point.
Moreover, the constant assurances given by the respective State leaders regarding the availability of essential commodities and the announcement of the protection and welfare measures for the poor and vulnerable affected by the contingency, has also appeared to be a succour to the people. Second, the Chief Ministers’ repeated communication with the lower echelons of the administration as well as hospital authorities for constant and speedy mobilisation of the resources and assistance is also instrumental in keeping up the morale of the people who are spearheading the struggle against the crisis at many levels.
Also, the unusual alacrity with which the State governments have responded in checking the excesses committed by their police in order to forcibly enforce the lockdown, is also something beyond the idel conduct of everyday politics. Lastly, a slew of welfare measures for the vulnerable and marginalized, especially for the homeless and jobless migrant workers struck in the middle of the lockdown is also unprecedented and unbecoming of the usually indifferent demeanour that the administration have towards the socially and economically oppressed lot.
However, this is not to argue that such an extraordinarily rapid response and communication from the State leadership is bereft of hiccups and limitations. And, one should also be caution in order to wait and see how much of such an impression of preparedness would actually percolate at the ground level and make real impact, given the limited public health care infrastructure, the Indian states (with relative variations) have.
Coming close to the heels of the response of the State governments in respective provinces, the central leadership and the Prime Minister has taken up the role of a coordinator of overall assessment and a moral support giver in the light of the pandemic. In a rare occasion of displaying the spirit of shared responsibility and cooperative federal arrangement, the Centre and the States are constantly coordinating with each other and working in tandem to face the crisis in an effective way.
It is true that some States have complained regarding Union Government’s lack of rapid response in channelising medical kits, relief packages and other amenities, such grievances have been addressed in a formal policy framework of technical assistance and has received minimum politicisation from both the Centre and the States. Prime Minister Modi, who is usually known for his predilection towards taking the centre stage in the light of all other national issues, have been uncharacteristically seen as limiting his role in according a moral support for just galvanising the national solidarity in battling the crisis apart from announcing the nation-wide lockdown and by coordinating the crisis management by playing a guiding and supervisory role with the States by complimenting their responses and asking suggestion from them to tackle the crisis.
However, the Central Government’s role in general and the Prime Minister’s role in particular in battling the crisis has been criticised for the lack of or delayed substantive welfare measures. Moreover, the PM who is otherwise seen to be a vivid communicator addressed the nation during the crisis in the nature which has largely been seen as high on symbolism and bereft of substantive assurances of relief. Innovative political interventions that can support the weaker states to commensurately deal with the crisis by being at par with the more resourceful States, is the need of the hour that the national leadership must most seriously ponder over.
However, on one hand, it is an absolute no brainer to understand that the political response to the crisis should have been and has to be far more assuring and effective on ground in order to mitigate the contingency in real terms at all levels. However, on the other hand, as one usually lingers in the perennial despondency of vitiated discourse of everyday politics, any ray of hope that gives an opportunity to reinforce the reparative potential of politics must be registered, albeit with adequate caution.
It is not to argue that such a symbolic show of energised and nuanced communication on the part of the regional leaders and the restrained demeanour of the central leadership, is a harbinger of some utopian spasm of ‘good politics’. But this unique hiatus of thoughtful political communication, free from usual apathy or mud sling, can be perceived as the slightest reminder of the potential of the political dispensation that a contingency can bring about to the surface, even if only for the sake of political expediency and imprimatur.
On 2 April 2020, the process of releasing 100 Taliban prisoners in exchange of 20 Afghan security personnel began, as reported by a senior official from the office of President Ghani, as well as a representative of the Taliban. While the Taliban prisoners will be released at the Bagram military base situated north of Kabul, the site for release of the security forces is yet to be announce. The exchange is being touted as a confidence building measure for both sides that will lead to the release of 6000 insurgents and security forces from captivity, strengthen intra-Afghan talks and the peace process.
The World Bank has approved a $100.4 million grant for the Afghanistan COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project in an effort to help Afghanistan fight the pandemic and strengthen healthcare systems. The aid package will cover all 34 provinces and reinforce the provision of all medical services to curb the impact of the virus. The plan will be implemented by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and supported by United Nations (UN) agencies and service providers working under the ‘Sehatmandi Project’.
Attempting to control the spread of Covid 19 pandemic, the government has decided to extend the shutdown until 11 April. Earlier, the government had imposed ten days of shutdown of workplaces and offices effective from 26 March to 4 April. Around 56 people have already tested positive in Bangladesh until this report is filed.
The readymade garment (RMG) manufacturing industry is likely to face $ 6 billion worth of revenue loss following the cancellation of orders following the outbreak of the Covid 19. Officials of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), one of the two influential industrial body, informed that more than $3 billion have been lost due to the crisis because most the orders until July have been either cancelled or suspended. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) claimed that orders for over 900 million garments worth $2.9 billion had already been cancelled or were being held up. The cancellation of orders could affect livelihood of 2 million involved in the industry. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of RMG in the world and it comprises 84 percent of the country’s exports.
Chinese envoy Li Jiming has expressed his country’s commitment to support Bangladesh to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. In an open letter released by the Chinese embassy, the envoy informed that his country has given necessary medical and safety kits to Bangladesh to fight the pandemic. China donated 40500 test reagents, 15000 surgical N95masks, 300000 medical masks, 10000 protective gowns and 1000 infrared thermometers to Bangladesh for medical worker and others who need it.
A fourth COVID-19 case, second infection of Bhutanese, was detected on 29 March, when a female student, who was under quarantine, was also detected positive. The first case of Bhutanese infection the 3rd case of Covid in the nation) was detected on 26 March after a female student, also in quarantine after she came back from the UK, tested positive. Health Ministry officials said that Bhutan is adopting the gold standard of testing, testing even primary contacts even if there is no symptoms. It also said there is no evidence yet of community transmission.
The Mangdechhu project has completed the estimation of rectification and maintenance of cracks developed in Kuengarabten following complaints last year by local residents of cracks on their homes and roads last year. The locals had blamed these cracks on the blasting of rocks for creating tunnels. The project officials from the geology and mines department conducted an investigation which found that the cracks were not because of the project. However, the project authority agreed to help the affected households with compensation.
In a third address to the nation on the continuing Covid crisis, Prime Minister Narandra Modi urged the people to make a symbolic demonstration of the nation’s collective will and solidarity to fight the danger together by lighting candles, lamps and torches of mobile phones for nine minutes from 9 pm on 5 April. He shared his concern for the poor and needy who are in a most vulnerable situation and cautioned the people to strictly continue to maintain social distancing and remain indoors during the lockdown. Opposition leaders have strongly criticized the Prime Minister for not mentioning anything regarding the substantive measures that the government needs to take to fight the health crisis and to arrest the economic slide due owing to the lockdown.
The Government has recently released the domicile rule of the newly carved out Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. This new rule is crucial as it defines the eligibility criteria for becoming permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir as well as regarding the reservation of jobs for the locals after the centre has diluted Article 370 and bifurcated the state into two union territories on 5 August last year. The new rule on domicile has reportedly raised the concerns of the political circles in Jammu and Kashmir, including the local BJP leadership, as it expands the criteria for claiming domicile in the union territory as well as confines the reservation of jobs for the locals only in the lower level jobs.
With the mainline tourism sector anticipated to lose $ 450 m this year, Maldives has become to the 20th of 78 member-nations to seek Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) $ 5 b corona-centric aid package, for the first 18 months. The Government has also sought $ 50 m from the International Investment Corporation (IIC) and $ 30 m from IMF. The World Bank has approved a $ 7.3 m package and had also let Maldives spend $ 10-m disaster risk fund, signed in 2019, to be utilised now.
With the nation setting a precedent in South Asia for on-line Parliament session, the Government is moving two Bills to indefinitely postpone the nation-wide local council elections owing to “the unlikelihood of being able to hold the election on April 18, given the state of public health emergency in effect”. The bills aim at amending the Constitution and also the elections law in this regard. The LG election was scheduled for 4 April and the Election Commission (EC), postponed it to 18 April, under the law. Further extension required either a court order or a new legislation – and the Government chose the latter course.
Myanmar, like the entire world, is facing not only an unprecedented health crisis, but an unprecedented economic crisis as well. Myanmar's economy has already been severely hit by disruptions in global trade and tourism. Thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of people - including migrant workers - are already suffering the consequences. With the spread of the coronavirus and necessary lockdowns the situation could become ten times worse. The stimulus package is a way of meeting this crisis. When this crisis is over, Myanmar should emerge more ready to compete in the global economy, and more ready to create an economy that's good for all its citizens.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 3 April warned that authorities will prosecute people engaged in hoarding food, as well as those who evade quarantine.The Myanmar leader said these people violate the existing regulations the government instituted in a bid to fight the deadly COVID-19 global pandemic that has already infected over 1 million people across 180 countries and killed over 50,000. Myanmar has suspended international commercial flights from landing and stopped issuing all types of visas as part of its measures to prevent the disease.
One of the worst affected groups of people with the corona virus lockdown has been the daily labourers or the wage earners. Given this situation, the Supreme Court of Nepal has given instructions to the government for providing relief to such people with basic necessities like food. In this regard, the federal government shall coordinate with the local and provincial governments to identify such people and make the arrangements accordingly.
There are innumerable migrant labourers from India and Nepal who are stuck in either the two countries-India and Nepal- or the no man’s land. However, the border has been sealed until the lockdown period. In this circumstance, the governments of both the countries have decided to provide all the basic care required for the people, so that they are safe in ‘quarantine’. An agreement was also reached to contain demonstrations which were being hosted by the migrants. Only cargo movement is going on across the border.
Sindh High Court (SHC) overturned the death sentence of Omer Saeed Shiekh, the main accused in the murder of Daniel Pearl – reporter of Wall Street Journal. Daniel Pearl was abducted in Karachi in 2002 Omer Shiekh and three others while writing a story on religious extremism. The SHC, while delivering the verdict, found Omer guilty of lesser charges and was sentenced for seven years. The other three were who were given life imprisonments earlier were acquitted. Coming down heavily on the verdict, the US State Department termed the same as “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere”. Under the US pressure, police once again detained all the four accused within hours after their acquittal by SHC.
Notwithstanding the rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered a specific relief package for the resumption of construction work under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The relief package unveiled on 03 April aimed to facilitate better coordination between provinces and the centre not only to combat COVID-19, but also to restart construction work in CPEC projects and food security. Furthermore, Imran also stressed that Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should be devised for that purpose and expressed satisfaction over the efforts to combat the pandemic.
All the eight member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) participated in the first video conference on coronavirus was initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pakistan used the virtual meeting to raise the Kashmir issue and has since made deliberate attempts to sabotage the initiative. However, as the cases of coronavirus has multiplied all over the SAARC nations and Pakistan in particular, Islamabad has now proposed a video conference of South Asia’s health ministers.
The Government has lifted the nation-wide curfew, imposed in the light of the Covid pandemic, in all districts except five. The curfew will continue in capital Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Puttalam, Kandy and Jaffna districts, according to a statement from the President’s Media Division. The statement also said that in order to strengthen the efforts of the Government to prevent spread of covid-19 virus in the country, the duration from April 6-10 had also been declared as a 'work from home' period. It said this will apply to all State, semi-government and private sector entities except which are categorised as essential services.
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Sajad Abedi and Mathew Crosston, “Truce by Trial and Error: The Tangled US, Taliban, Afghan Triangle”, Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2 April 2020
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Kyaw Phyo Tha, “As COVID-19 Arrives in Myanmar, Individual Responsibility, Competent Leadership Needed”, The Irrawaddy, 31 March 2020
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Asha’ar Rehamn, “A soap called ‘animal farm’”, Dawn, 03 April 2020
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Dawn, Bailing out industry, 03 April 2020.
Dawn, IHK domicile law, 03 April 2020.
Dawn, Limiting the spread, 02 April 2020.
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The Express Tribune, Inclusive approach, 03 April 2020
Kelum Bandara, “Constitutional conundrum in conducting polls”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 April 2020
Ravi Nagahawatte, “Politics during crisis: Can Covid-19 change this system?”, Daily Mirror Online, 2 April 2020
N Sathiya Moorthy, “Pardon, Mr President, Sir”, Colombo Gazette, 31 March 2020
Easwaran Rutnam, “Priority in Sri Lanka to contain further spread”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 April 2020
Daily Mirror Online, “We can survive and with a lot less!”, 3 April 2020
Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey
Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale
India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee
Nepal: Sohini Nayak
Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani
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