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Innovation for Change - South Asia

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Summary of organization

I4C South Asia Hub is a platform for civil society organizations, Human Rights Defenders, journalists, activists, and art-ivists across the region of South Asia to come together in solving issues facing civic spaces.

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Detail description of organization

Over the past decades, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have become important actors for delivery of social services and implementation of development programs, as a complement to government action. From poverty reduction initiatives to women empowerment and protection of children, from defending human rights to promoting new and alternative technologies, from watchdog functions that include election monitoring to monitoring abuses in public decision making, from linking with the corporate sector to promote socially responsible business to strengthening and capacity building of grassroots organisations: their contribution to social, political, cultural and economic development has been significant

Yet, across the globe, and especially in South Asia, governments are becoming increasingly opposed to the contribution of civil societies. Their raison d’etre—bringing citizens together to give voice to the marginalised, providing alternative policies and narratives, and monitoring the functioning of governments—is now being perceived as a threat. As a corollary, governments have been tightening their control over CSOs and suffocating the democratic civic spaces in countries of South Asia.

The increased scrutiny, bureaucratic hurdles, selective application of laws and often draconian legislations, are damaging the vibrancy of civil societies. At times, heinous attacks in the form of unlawful detention, custodial deaths and extra-judicial killings have also been reported. There are cases as well of assassinations by proxy non-state actors and the government’s complicity through a culture of impunity. A climate of suffocation and fear is enveloping civil societies of South Asia, though their forms vary across national borders.

Challenges to Civil Society in South Asia

The challenges faced by civil societies may be different in form but they are common to many if not all of South Asian nations. Indeed, one could argue that South Asian governments are learning from each other and replicating methods to crackdown on CSOs.

Freedom of Expression, which is considered to be one of the pillars of a healthy civil society, has come under threat across South Asia. In Bangladesh, it takes the form of violent and fatal attacks by Islamist fundamentalists on bloggers for professing their secular, atheist, or rationalist views. Although the government is cognizant, its narrative is couched in the defence of people’s religious sentiments.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, (and for the past many years in Sri Lanka) the assault on free speech presents a different challenge, as large areas of each country remain engulfed in security operations and conflict. Journalists are often forced to practise self-censorship in fear of retribution as increasing incidents of violence towards their profession are recorded. Many South Asian countries have in place draconian laws with very abusive provisions to censor and control all types of media freedoms.

Even in India, the world’s largest democracy, freedom of expression is, alarmingly enough, being monitored and controlled. Books have been banned, students and intellectuals charged with sedition and a Muslim man lynched allegedly for his choice of food, while the government silently condones this trend through its inaction and impunity. In Sri Lanka, rabble-rousing speeches by Sinhalese nationalists on the apparent threat to Buddhism, are represented by some as being patriotic.

Freedom of Association and Assembly is also under severe strain across South Asian countries. Successive Indian governments have imposed controls to bury alternative narratives of development. The attack on civil society has been most evident in the blatant condemnation of NGOs. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a regressive law regulating grants from foreign donors, has been used as a tool by the Indian government to manage any form of dissent.

In Sri Lanka, similar controls—with the most extreme being the Prevention of Terrorism Act, imposed in the past decades to silence any opposition—have yet to be fully rescinded.  Although much has changed since 2015, the securitisation discourse continues to remain an impediment to civil society empowerment.

The Maldives presents a vastly different scenario, reminiscent of what existed in Sri Lanka during the previous regime. Instead of defending the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, the judiciary collaborated with the government to subvert constitutionalism and get rid of opposition. The judiciary bypassed the basic tenets of jurisprudence to imprison the former head of State, Mohammed Nasheed. The slide towards authoritarianism in the Maldives, poses serious threats to the fundamental tenets and the work of civil society.

Increasingly South Asian governments are evoking the spectre of national security to restrict civil society. Anti-liberalism, cultural fundamentalism and tyranny of the majority are sweeping across the region in epidemic proportions, rapidly eroding the democratic values of freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly. The backlash for going against official discourse has become a reality in almost all the countries of the region.