Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. Last week, we brought you our top 10 charts that explained the trends shaping the region in 2019. This week, we’ll look back at some of our best articles in the year gone by.
But first, a quick tour of the region. South Asia is home to as much as a quarter of the earth’s population, so it is fair to say that the politics of the region are the politics of the world. In 2019, those politics were momentous.
Afghanistan saw on-again-off-again peace talks between the United States and the Taliban; an inconclusive September presidential election, the results of which are yet to be announced; and the release of the “Afghanistan Papers” by the Washington Post, which detailed successive U.S. administrations’ efforts to mislead the public about the progress of the U.S. war effort there.
Whatever happens next, one thing seems clear: All signs point to Washington reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan in 2020, “with or without” a peace agreement, as U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier this month.
Bangladesh, long thought to be one of the least developed countries in the region, posted some of the strongest economic growth figures in the world, even leaping ahead of Pakistan in GDP per capita in recent years. At the same time, it struggled to deal humanely with the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar on its soil—one of the largest refugee populations in the world. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina continues her third consecutive term in 2020, her government will need to keep an eye on what is one of the largest budget deficits in Asia.
Next door in India, 2019 was the year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won marathon general elections in May as opposition parties failed to put up a viable united front. Modi promised to improve the country’s flagging economy, whipped up anti-Pakistani nationalism (particularly after the two countries were tangled in a dogfight over the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir), and pledged to revoke some of Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomies.
While Modi could only watch as the economy worsened, and there was no real change in relations with Pakistan, he did change Kashmir’s status in August, fulfilling a key campaign promise even though it came along with a communications blackout in the region and harsh criticism from the West. The decision provoked large-scale protests, as did the BJP’s move this month to introduce a new citizenship law, which would provide fast-track citizenship for Hindu, Christian, Jain, and other religious minority migrants from neighboring countries—but not to Muslims.
The BJP has steadily ticked off pro-Hindu items on its campaign manifesto, but a key question for 2020 will be whether those moves will distract from the country’s economic performance. GDP growth hit a dismal 4.5 percent in the last quarter, a slowdown that threatens to further affect unemployment and investment in the country.
Nepal made news this year for its efforts to regulate climbers on Mount Everest, where trails have become overcrowded and increasingly dangerous. Early this year, the country, which is known in South Asia for its progressive legislation, also introduced a bill to forbid chhaupadi—the centuries-old practice of banishing menstruating women to special huts during their periods, which has caused unsafe conditions and deaths.
Pakistan was rocked by waves of protest this year. First, a human rights movement from rural Waziristan picked up steam as Pakistanis across the country came out to protest discrimination against tribal people, ongoing Taliban violence, and military collusion with the civilian government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan, for his part, tried to deflect attention away from his own country’s problems by spending much of the year stirring international criticism of Modi, especially after the Kashmir decision. But he once more faced huge protests in November, as tens of thousands of Pakistanis marched on Islamabad demanding his resignation. In 2020, Khan will likely stay in power—but only if he retains the military’s support. And that may depend on other factors, such as the health of the economy—now on its 22nd bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Finally, Sri Lanka saw its own share of turmoil in 2019. In April, Islamist terrorists struck three churches and three hotels in Colombo on Easter Sunday, raising fears of reprisal violence against Muslims. Although the communities largely maintained the peace, national security became a key issue in the November presidential elections that brought to power Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Army general accused of human rights violations against Muslims during the Sri Lankan civil war who is seen as allied with the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority. Expect Rajapaksa to push for legislative elections in 2020, further strengthening his grip on power.
Top 10 Stories of the Year
With so much news from the region this year, we’ve picked FP’s top 10 stories on South Asia over the past 12 months. Each of them remains essential reading to understand the region’s trajectory.
1. In Nepal, Tradition Is Killing Women by Sophie Cousins, Jan. 6: The Hindu practice of chhaupadi is dangerous and deadly, but legislation is not enough to stop it.
2. Poor Nation, Rich Army by Taha Siddiqui, March 21: This Republic Day, Pakistan should consider why it remains underdeveloped as its military booms.
3. India Has a Mindset Problem by Ravi Agrawal, April 6: Jugaad once symbolized immense potential, but the endless shortcuts are now holding the country back.
4. Afghanistan’s Air Is Deadlier Than Its War by Ivan Flores, May 26: Every winter, Kabul’s skies turn black—and children die.
5. In Afghanistan and Kashmir, It’s the 1980s All Over Again by Arif Rafiq, Aug. 29: Decades of violence and terrorism were set in motion back then. Here’s how to avoid that from happening this time around.
6. India’s Narendra Modi Isn’t a Game-Changer by Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Sept. 24: “Howdy, Modi” was just one indication that the prime minister’s foreign policy has more similarities to his rivals’ than differences.
7. All Are Stateless. Some Are Hopeless. by Amruta Byatnal, Sept. 26: Hindus left stateless in Assam think Modi will save them. Muslims fear the worst.
8. Bangladesh’s Child Marriage Problem Is the World’s Human Trafficking Crisis by Corinne Redfern, Nov. 8: Why fixing the second issue isn’t possible without addressing the first.
9. Modi Was Right. India Isn’t Ready for Free Trade. by Harsh V. Pant and Nandini Sarma, Nov. 19: Until the country can address its own economic problems, agreements like the RCEP may do more harm than good.
10. The Rajapaksas Will Ruin Sri Lanka’s Economy by Amita Arudpragasam, Nov. 27: Virulent ethnic nationalism and hateful rhetoric toward minorities might win votes, but it will lead the country to economic ruin.
That’s it for this week.