Chaining the Kashmir Narrative – Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

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The offices of leading English newspapers published from Kashmir, Kashmir Times and others were raided.
The offices of leading English newspapers published from Kashmir, Kashmir Times and others were raided.

Successive governments, both in Jammu and Kashmir and at the Center, have looked upon local media as deadly missiles that need to be kept under check and control, not as sources of information that government itself can rely on for feedback about both the day to day needs of the people as well as their oppression, anger and political aspirations. It pushes rumor mongering to the margins, because despite the biases of the media houses they are guided by certain professional ethics. A free media can provide a vital link between the public and the government which rulers in their ivory towers feel is undesirable

ANURADHA BHASIN JAMWAL

By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.—Adolph Hitler

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]itler’s Nazi regime ruled the German public with two main weapons – propaganda and censorship – ensuring that they had the public in their grip as they bombarded them on a daily basis with glorification of Hitler, convincing them about the better prospects of their lives but ensured complete and blanket silence over the gory stories of holocaust and concentration camps. The stories eventually did come out – in form of narratives, fictions, diaries and reports.

There is no way one can keep a lid on facts forever. Narratives, tucked away and hidden, will resurrect to be told and heard.

Then amidst one of the worst violent crisis that Kashmir is presently facing, what is it that the Jammu and Kashmir government was trying to achieve by banning newspapers and doing so in a brazen and rash manner of clamping down on newspaper offices by conducting raids and arresting staffers in the dead of the night? Was it trying to stop them from reporting and commenting?

Was it trying to block all channels of information and keep people ignorant? As yet, the PDP led coalition government remains unsure and indecisive on the issues and came out with different versions to justify, even take ownership of, the ban or distance itself from the move till chief minister Mehbooba Mufti decided to break her enigmatic silence before which a cop was made a scapegoat. How did a ban exist on ground for 6 days without involvement at the very top echelons?

Which of the PDP version of the story is true? The newspapers hit the stands again after six days on July 21, following an assurance from chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. That should not be treated as the end of the story.

Important questions need to be asked. A week long ban on newspapers, a belated response of the government necessitated probably by the unusual solidarity from sections of Indian journalists and intellectuals, was not without design. It was nothing but ill-advised. Who was the brain-child behind the move may eventually become a footnote, though it is no less significant and would need some elaboration. But first, what is more important is why this was done?

Any logic of bans stems from the necessity to hide. The internet connections and mobile phones have already been partially snapped since July 9. In the worst affected areas, the landline phones have also been disconnected. Newspapers have not been circulated properly due to curfew restrictions. All this has made the information from the public to media and vice versa filtered and restricted as it is. The government’s worry is not that if these filtered bits and pieces of information find their way to print they would provoke more violence than there already exists. In a day and age of internet and gizmos, that job was being managed partially despite the ban on newspapers who continued to maintain and update their websites and circulate whatever they could through digital applications, even though it was reaching fewer people.

The government’s anxiety is with the printed word becoming an authentic piece of documentation with a longer shelf life. The national television channels were switched on 24X7 and national print media was not subjected to any kind of similar ban. The ban thus highlights the vast gap between the perspectives in the regional press and the national press with respect to Kashmir.

While the former is inspired by an ultra-nationalist narrative, the latter give ample space to voices of the common masses suffering due to the conflict. The local newspapers fill in the gaps left by the silence or jingoism of the national press.

In recent days, despite the hurdles of getting information amidst curfew bound streets and crackdown on communication systems, the local newspapers have been managing to get some information about the massive atrocities of the people, chilling stories about how people got killed and about the injured recuperating in the hospitals, about the pellet guns playing havoc with people’s lives, impairing them physically of, the over 130 blindings by pellet guns, mostly children and teenagers. Such stories, that rarely make it to the pages of major national mainstream newspapers, are a major challenge for the State peddling its lies about what is happening in Kashmir.

This is not the first time that attempts have been made to muzzle the press. Earlier in 2010 and 2013, the newspapers were unable to publish newspapers and circulate because of excessive curfew restrictions and the denial of the government to give them curfew passes and disallowing them from stepping out. In striking contrast, while the Valley was forced to remain without newspapers. Commercial television crews who flew in from Delhi were provided escorts to move across the Valley and offer a point of view that suited the government.

There is a definite pattern in which the media and government relations operate. In this game of muzzling media, it is the Center that seeks to reap the rich harvest of demonizing people’s resistance, dwarfing their victimization and creating the typical hype of ultra-nationalism which comes as a natural appendage in much of national media’s reportage on Kashmir. The present gag having been inspired from Delhi cannot be ruled out, exercised through its cronies within the police and administration. The state government, ignorant or otherwise, cannot be condoned neither for its ineffectiveness, nor for signing on the dotted line without thinking how such an ill-advised move can back-fire.

It is all about chaining and imprisoning a narrative, disallowing it from coming out by controlling it and imposing it with a manufactured narrative of ultra-nationalism, of ‘paid agents’, of ‘jihadi terror’, of ‘things under control’, of an enemy called Pakistan and of normalcy and happy pictures of tourism. What bigger proof does one need of India’s moral defeat in Kashmir than this reality of employing weaponry of lies and propaganda to hide the ugliness of bullets, blinded children, torture and brutality.

The narrative, as it is, has been controlled. In the history of 26 years of insurgency, media has been tamed and silenced through use of many devices. In the beginning of the nineties, caught between the gun of the militants and the security forces, intimidation, physical attacks, even murders and curfews, though newspapers continued to be published, writing more insightful and detailed stories almost amounted to committing a suicide. Many newspapers even went without the editorial content to play safe.

When media gradually began to evolve, freeing itself from the clutches of ‘anti-movement’ and ‘Indian nationalistic’ discourse, the government cracked down with fresh arm twisting methods – squeezing the financial flow of the newspapers by stopping their government advertisements particularly the central DAVP advertisements, the main source of revenue for newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2010, the advertisements to several Kashmir based newspapers were stopped following a letter from union home ministry, which gave no explanations. The order was dutifully followed. In subsequent years, while advertisements of most newspapers have been restored (arbitrarily or otherwise), Kashmir Times has been singled out and kept starved.

Shockingly, the interlocutors appointed by the Indian government after the 2010 killings to look into the grievances of the people in one of their recommendations suggested that there was need to publish national papers out of Srinagar as the local newspapers were “unreliable”. In 2010, the state government also banned the local cable television channels in Srinagar from screening news based programs on the pretext that these channels were not duly registered. However, in Jammu, similarly un-registered channels continue to operate without any hindrance.

The media, thus, was already in chains. In a curfewed situation, the media is further imprisoned by the lack of information and the crackdown on communication systems. So what makes the present gag order unique? What purpose was aimed to be achieved?

In a way it is just another link in the sequence; yet in another way it reflects the growing and increasing penchant of the government for absolute control, exercised deliberately through power of the brute force of khakhi, in brazen violation of law, ethics and democratic principles itself.

Successive governments, both in the state and at the Center, have looked upon local media as deadly missiles that need to be kept under check and control, not as sources of information that government itself can rely on for feedback about both the day to day needs of the people as well as their oppression, anger and political aspirations. It pushes rumor mongering to the margins, because despite the biases of the media houses they are guided by certain professional ethics.

A free media can provide a vital link between the public and the government which rulers in their ivory towers feel is undesirable. Perhaps, Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year gave vent to this arrogance in the most telling way when he snubbed the then chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed batting for dialogue with this remark, “we don’t need any advice from anybody on Kashmir”.

It is this mindset that inspires men in power to not just crush a population brutally but also crush the voices speaking for them. The aim is to make the narrative invisible.

As history reveals and as human mind is known to work, sooner or later the narratives will emerge – emerge to haunt, often with a dash of bitterness and sometimes peppered with rumors that cannot be verified, sometimes dangerously so.

In January 1990, during the infamous days of strict curfew and black-outs in the wake of Jagmohan taking over as Governor, the information flow remained limited making the reportage of both the flight of Kashmiri Pandits and the slew of massacres starting from Gawkadal that Kashmir witnessed rather sketchy and flimsy. In subsequent years, those stories have been told and re-told, though sometimes one does not know where to sift fact from fiction as the stories emerged with contradicting perspectives that just do not match.

The missing truth about those dark days continues to play a role in shaping the communal divide within Kashmir. In present times, when gory stories of boys dragged out of their homes and shot at point-blank, random arrests, crackdowns and molestations and children blinded by pellet guns go missing, it is another divide that gets widened – at the other end of which are the mighty rulers.

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