Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India gears up to host the annual G-20 summit this weekend, a British report broadcasts major allegations about Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, and communal unrest flares in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region.
New Delhi hosts the annual G-20 summit this weekend, providing an opportunity to take stock of India’s performance as this year’s chair of the powerful global economic forum. India has successfully used the post to help advance its foreign-policy goals and some domestic imperatives. But its biggest challenge awaits at the summit, where New Delhi will try to lead a divided membership to a consensus that has so far proved elusive.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India seeks to prove that it can shine on the global stage, pushing back against criticism—both foreign and domestic—that it punches below its weight diplomatically. Its year as G-20 president has helped its case: This week, Indian Information Minister Anurag Thakur said the country has hosted more than 200 meetings in more than 60 cities since taking the mantle from Indonesia last year.
India also aims to leverage its growing global footprint to serve as a bridge between wealthy economies and the global south. The G-20 is an ideal platform, and New Delhi has put some of the global south’s most pressing challenges—food insecurity, climate change, debt—at the top of G-20 meeting agendas this year. In January, New Delhi hosted the Voice of Global South Summit, incorporating perspectives from various governments, and it has called for the African Union to receive G-20 membership.
Of course, India also sees its G-20 presidency as a public relations tool to project its global influence and to distract from the country’s domestic problems. Again, New Delhi has been successful. In May, it hosted a G-20 tourism summit in disputed Kashmir, aiming to convey a sense of normalcy in the region, despite state repression. (Several G-20 members stayed away in protest.)
India’s G-20 duties have also conveniently allowed the government to direct the attention of fellow members away from ethnic violence in the northeastern state of Manipur this summer, as well as recent communal unrest near New Delhi—including in the city of Gurugram, home to the offices of dozens of Fortune 500 companies.
The true success of New Delhi’s G-20 presidency, which ends in December, will be judged by the outcome of the summit this weekend and whether it produces a joint statement from the membership. India prides itself on its capacity to manage relations with rival states, such as the United States and Russia. But with the G-20 creaking under the weight of great-power competition, getting all G-20 members to sign on to a statement will be a tall order.
France says it won’t sign a document at the summit that doesn’t condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Russia won’t endorse a document that does. The absences of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will make the chances of consensus even slimmer. Their stand-ins lack the authority to make such compromises or concessions. More to the point, no key G-20 events held under India’s leadership have reached a consensus.
India’s best hope for the summit is a joint statement that coalesces around less controversial topics—such as supporting membership for the African Union, committing to strengthening global food security, and endorsing the diffusion of clean-energy technologies—while using the caveat “most members” to flag areas of disagreement, as happened with last year’s statement in Bali, Indonesia.
The worst-case scenario—a failure to produce a joint statement—would be a blow to India, and especially to Modi, who has invested extensive political capital in India’s G-20 presidency. The prime minister’s likeness and the symbol of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, a lotus, have adorned India’s G-20 publicity—linking the summit to his own personal brand. With so much at stake for India and for Modi, failure may not be an option, but success won’t come easy.
Explosive allegations in Sri Lanka. A British report broadcast on Tuesday includes stunning allegations that Sri Lanka’s intelligence community was complicit in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed 269 people. A source interviewed by Channel 4, Azad Maulana, said he arranged a meeting between a local group inspired by the Islamic State and a senior intelligence official to plan an attack that would provoke unrest and help Gotabaya Rajapaksa win the presidential election in November 2019.
An Islamic State-inspired group later claimed responsibility for the 2019 attacks. Sri Lanka’s government said it will launch a parliamentary investigation into the allegations made in the Channel 4 report. Maulana was a onetime member of a splinter faction of the Tamil Tigers, the separatist group that fought the Sri Lankan government in a nearly 26-year civil war that ended in 2009; the faction eventually cooperated with the government to defeat the Tamil Tigers.
Celebrities back Muhammad Yunus. Bangladesh microfinance pioneer and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus faces new charges, filed last month, of violating labor laws and worker mistreatment at one of his companies, as well as an anti-corruption case. In response, more than 170 global celebrities—Nobel laureates, prominent scholars, and political figures, including former U.S. President Barack Obama—have signed open letters calling for Bangladesh to suspend legal proceedings against the Grameen Bank founder.
There is history between Yunus and Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party. Yunus founded a short-lived political party in 2007, when a military-backed caretaker government was in power; Awami League leaders interpreted it as an attempt to undermine their party and align himself with the military. Given the current climate, with the Awami League cracking down on dissent ahead of elections in January, observers see the legal proceedings as another case of the state trying to sideline its critics.
U.N. announces food aid cuts to Afghanistan. The World Food Programme (WFP) announced it will cut food aid to 2 million Afghans later this month, citing a “massive funding shortfall.” The decision follows a move to cut off food aid to 8 million people in the country earlier this year. With the cuts, just 3 million Afghans will receive aid from the WFP each month; more than one-third of the country’s population of 40 million is food insecure.
Various factors contribute to the lack of funding for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, including broad donor fatigue, the reallocation of resources to Ukraine, and donor concerns about sending assistance to a Taliban-led Afghanistan, with the group under international sanctions. To make matters worse, Taliban bans on women working for U.N. agencies have made it difficult for aid workers to deliver assistance directly.
Reports of unrest have emerged from the sensitive region of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is administered by Pakistan but also claimed by India. Although details are sketchy, the trouble apparently escalated on Sept. 1, after two prominent Muslim clerics from different schools of thought made inflammatory comments about each other’s communities. Protests began in the city of Gilgit but have since spread to other areas.
Last weekend, the U.S., U.K., and Canadian embassies in Pakistan issued travel advisories urging citizens to avoid the region. Gilgit-Baltistan has a history of sectarian violence, especially terrorist attacks against the Shiite Muslim community. In 1988, Sunni-Shiite tensions led to a massacre that killed nearly 400 Shiites. The region has stabilized in recent years, but the current turmoil seems ominous.
On Monday, a former chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, a member of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, survived an attack by unknown assailants. On Wednesday, the Pakistani Taliban announced it had sent fighters into Chitral, a district in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Gilgit-Baltistan.