Everybody is left in the dark. The sun is shining in the sky but the day turns dark for us.
– A youth in Bijbehara, South Kashmir, from an interview conducted by the writer in the aftermath of the assassination of Burhan Wani in 2016.
A great deal of strategising went into the execution of the move to abrogate Article 370 and the dismantling of the statehood of Jammu & Kashmir which had existed as a historical entity since 1846. Even more carefully mapped out, it seems, was the management of a potentially explosive aftermath. There were many elements to this effort to suborn the will of the people of the state to that of the Government of India, including the arrest of the mainstream political leadership in the Kashmir Valley. But its lynchpin was the combination of military force and media manipulation, both conducted on an unprecedented scale.
Already one of the most militarised zones in the world, with miles of concertina wire wrapped around it, the state – more specifically the Kashmir Valley – is believed to have some 700,000 Indian armed personnel permanently stationed on its soil, although this figure is believed to be an underestimation. In the run up to the abrogation of Article 370, an additional 35,000-38,000, according to official sources, were said to have been brought in as reinforcements.
The row upon row of military fatigues and jackboots has been effectively complemented by the premeditated control of the media through a combination of curtailment and deployment. It is this second aspect that we will now look at more closely.
The muzzled media and the unmuzzled gun have always coexisted in the dystopic landscape of Kashmir. On 5 August, however, there was a media gag so impenetrable, so sudden, so cynical, so ruthless, that an entire population was blindsided. If we piece together stray accounts of how people experienced the tightening of the vise, the picture gets clearer. By 4 August, signs of an impending crisis were already apparent, but no one had an inkling of what exactly it was to be. A little past midnight, news of the arrests of political leaders came in and journalists scrambled to file news reports on the development. Within a few minutes of this, the internet began to go on the blink. By 12.30 am, it was non-functional.
Over that long night, cable television screens were reduced to speckled grey masses of static and phone lines descended into silence. Disrupting mobile networks was an old tactic of the authorities, but landlines were usually available. Not this time. All this happened in the hours before dawn without any prior intimation or formal public orders. By daybreak, it was clear to every Kashmiri that beyond her or his capacity to physically communicate with family members and neighbours in the immediate vicinity, she or he stood isolated and alone. It also slowly became public knowledge, mostly by word of mouth, that the ground beneath their feet was shifting, that shades of the prison house were closing in. Apart from the existing Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978, under which several political activists and leaders were being detained, there was night curfew imposed in several districts, and the colonial-era law – Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code – which prohibits gatherings of over five people – came into force in Srinagar and many other parts of the state.
Left in the dark
The impact of this climate of fear and mass muting on ordinary lives can well be imagined. It recalled, for me, the words of a young Kashmiri in Bijebehara, south Kashmir, during an interview I did with him in 2016, on the impact of media shutdowns: “Everybody is left in the dark. The sun is shining in the sky but the day turns dark for us.” For journalists there was an additional consequence: the sudden death of their professional identity. New bureaucracies suddenly proliferated. Besides negotiating with the walls of security personnel lining the streets, there were curfew passes and ‘movement passes’” to be procured. Amidst it all there was the ever-present threat to life and equipment. Newspapers establishments which put together with great difficulty a couple of pages – most carrying sad advertisements about the cancellation of marriages – discovered that distribution networks were now sought to be stymied. The message was clear. Kashmir was to be completely firewalled as a discursive space and public sphere.
This held severe repercussions for “the right of the people to know about the decisions that directly impact their lives and future”, as the executive editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, argued in her recent writ petition filed before the Supreme Court of India. She was speaking for the entire media community in the state when she demanded that the Union of India “immediately relax all restrictions on mobile, internet and landline services and the strict restriction on freedom of movement of journalists and media personnel in Kashmir and some districts of Jammu in order to enable journalists to practise their profession and exercise their right to report.” An aspect flagged in the writ petition and which is key to understanding why media freedom in J & K is so vital, is the fact that the entire spectrum of the human rights of the people there, the very possibility of their retrieving some vestige of normalcy, hinges crucially on the journalist’s fundamental right to report. What New Delhi’s absolute disdain for the freedom of the media in Kashmir really demonstrates is its utter indifference to the rights and welfare of Kashmiris as a people. The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, counseled patience. In response to another writ petition, an apex court judge was quoted as saying, “The situation is such that nobody knows what exactly is happening there. Some time should be given for bringing normalcy.”
In contrast to this chokehold on independently generated journalism in the Valley, was the free flow of information, generated by the corporatised media, which supported, celebrated and eulogised the Modi government’s actions. This cynical complementarity of a shutdown of media content in J & K, and the exuberant proliferation of media content outside it, is nothing less than establishing the dominant, nationalist narrative at gunpoint. When a senior union minister was questioned by the Indian Express about the media crackdown in J & K, he replied without the slightest irony that government media were operating without any restrictions: “This is not true [that there is no media freedom]. Doordarshan is working. Akashvani is being broadcast in all languages.” His was a reply that would have done Indira Gandhi proud in the heyday of the Emergency.
Apart from the courageous reportage of a handful of journalists within the country keen on presenting the unvarnished and inconvenient truths about the Kashmir situation, sometimes at great personal risk, and a fact-finding report of a group of civil-society activists, news from most of the corporate media in the rest of northern India fell into three broad categories. First was the celebratory ‘Kashmir-is-ours’ trope. The meaning of a word like freedom, ‘azaadi’ – a long held slogan to express popular demand for freedom in the Valley – was upended. The author of popular novels, Chetan Bhagat tweeted: “August 5, 2019. Kashmir is finally free. Free to grow, free to make a future. #Article370 goes.” A lot of initial coverage in mainstream media dwelt upon the bursting of firecrackers and the distribution of sweets. This was to be followed a few days later by public claims being made on the spoils of conquest. If a Mukesh Ambani pledged investments in the newly formed union territories, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar made a promise of “Kashmiri brides” to his young male constituents, in a snide, lascivious, tangential comment. Songs about Kashmiri “dulhaniya” (brides) blessed by “Chacha [uncle] Modi” are going viral on social media, cementing a political constituency for the ruling party.
The second type of coverage was the ‘Kashmir-is-peaceful’ trope. All the coercive arms of the state, including the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), whose brutal methods in Kashmir have been well-documented, were quick to take to Twitter to counter “baseless” reporting. The attempt was to assert that the Article 370 manoeuvre had met with unalloyed success. “Happiness” was the flavour of the hour. The little choreographed walks that National Security Advisor A S Doval took in “militancy prone” pockets of the state, and which were widely shown on national media as evidence of “normalcy”, was old fashioned agitprop that fooled very few. A few days later, one of the “ordinary Kashmiris” seen interacting with him in the frame, angrily claimed that he was tricked into being part of the video. There was arm twisting behind-the-scenes as well. The government issued take-down orders to Twitter against material deemed as “objectionable and malicious”.
There were also pieces which sought to soothe and convince. Mohammed Wajihuddin, in ‘An open letter to Kashmiris’ in The Times of India, cajoled his Kashmiri readers thus: “An independent Kashmir is a chimera, an illusion. It is time to be realistic.”
The third type of coverage was linked to the second, and focused simply on denying reportage conducted by international media that went against the government’s all-is-well template – the ‘how dare you say Kashmir is not peaceful’ trope. Such coverage also included framing anyone questioning the abrogation move as “Pakistani agents” and carriers of “negativity”.
India’s Union Ministry of Home (MHA) turned into a media house and took to relaying its own news to counter international reportage that reported on the fallout of its actions in Kashmir. One such MHA bulletin of 10 August decried a Reuters report that said 10,000 people in Srinagar had come out in protest. According to the MHA, “this is completely fabricated & incorrect. There have been a few stray protests in Srinagar/Baramula and none involved a crowd of more than 20 ppl.” No explanations were forthcoming on the brick fragments and stones on the streets, or patients – some of them young children – bearing pellet-injuries in public hospitals, suggesting a brutal reality.
Three days later, the MHA had to retract its earlier statement. It now admitted to “widespread unrest” having taken place in the Soura region of Srinagar. A day later, on 14 August, it was the J & K Police’s turn to eat its words. It confessed to “A few pellet injuries”, while insisting that there were “no major injuries”. You destroy a child’s future and you claim nothing “major” happened. This is classic doublespeak which foretells of many more skeletons tumbling out of many more cupboards in the future.
The Modi government has demonstrated, time and again, its capacity to achieve electoral victories, based on the shrewd management of public perception. Today, it hopes to have ensured the smooth takeover and pacification of a region that has enjoyed special protections historically, through perception control combined with military muscle in keeping with its own majoritarian agenda. The bad faith and bare-faced instrumentality of the exercise becomes obvious when one recalls the deal the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had struck with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015 for a coalition government in J & K. It was to be run on a common minimum programme that – along with promises to conform to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s claim of “Insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat aur Jamhooriyat” (humanity, Kashmiri-ness and democracy) and to re-examine the use of force in the “disturbed areas” of the state – also recognised Article 370.
We know what these developments mean for the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir and its media. But what does it mean for the Republic of India and its media? Does this not presage the likely dismantling of the idea of a union of states that comprise the Republic and hollow out federalism? Does it not bring to an end the media conversations from the middle ground, leaving only the narratives of a Hindu authoritarian state to be pitted against that of the militant? Does it not suggest that the Emergency of the mid-1970s – which the Indian media imagines they have left behind forever – could make a reappearance in an even more malevolent and ferocious avatar?
Anything is possible. We are entering the territory of the Orwellian script: “You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”
Read more from our extensive coverage of Jammu and Kashmir.