Access to credible information and honest news has always been difficult in Kashmir, and now during the pandemic, the state has brought in even more stringent measures to control information
Mudabbir Ahmad Tak | Clarion India
SO MUCH has happened during this pandemic. So much so that it looks as though the world has tumbled down in a seemingly bottomless pit of absurdities.
From ignorant presidents prescribing medicines to common people, to arrogant prime ministers asking people to bang pots and pans for incomprehensible reasons, from clueless news anchors suggesting that a particular community was responsible for this pandemic, to military generals making warplanes shower flower petals on hospitals while poor labourers getting run over by trains, we have seen it all.
And yet, despite so much happening around the world and around them, for Kashmiris, it seems as if the world has come to a standstill, turned upside down, lost its hinges and shattered to incongruous bits not since this pandemic began, but since August last year. As people around the world battle isolation and its psychological, social and economic repercussions, Kashmiris have become used to isolation.
After all, we have been living isolated lives not just from our friends and family, but also from the virtual community as well ever since the Indian state abrogated whatever little autonomy Kashmir had and imposed direct federal rule in August last year after shutting down all communications and imposing a strict lockdown.
By this time, everyone knows that since August 2019, there has been an internet shutdown in Kashmir, with limited access on mobile phones and only fixed-line internet connections working at full speeds that only few people have access to. So, we are used to living isolated lives, with little or no access to information neither about our own people, nor about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only last week, the Indian State shut down calling and internet services in Kashmir after the killing of a local militant commander, fearing protests by local people. They were restored four days later, only to be shut down again after state forces shot dead the son of a local police officer because he allegedly jumped a check-post. The family of the boy says that the forces shot him at point-blank range. The bloodshed continues.
How conveniently the state can sever the means of communication in times of pandemic in a society such as Kashmir where heavy military presence among the civilian spheres is already considered to have a debilitating effect on the psyche of people, is astonishing. Come to think of it, it is not that astonishing, considering how casually the Indian media, the Indian judiciary and the Indian society at large have been dismissing calls to restore means of communication here since August 2019.
In a petition filed in the Indian Supreme Court in the first week of April, the Court accepted the fact that slowed down speeds of the internet were causing problems for Kashmiris especially in the time of the pandemic only last week. It took almost a whole month for them to realise that. The next day the internet was shut again. A few days later, the Court pronounced its ‘judgement’ – that the same officials who have been issuing orders for curtailing internet speeds during the few days that it is restored in Kashmir, will form a committee to look into the reasons for shutting down internet.
The judiciary ordered the executive to look into why the executive was doing precisely what the petitioners had questioned and challenged the executive for. Think about that for a moment.
The state claims that the low-speed internet (2G Internet) causes no problems in coping with the pandemic, neither for the common Kashmiri nor for healthcare workers. This is contrary not only to the realities on ground, but confounding to common sense as well. In fact, after rather hesitantly accepting that right to internet is a fundamental right of every citizen, many in India are now arguing that only right to internet, and not proper internet speed is a fundamental right.
Access to credible information and honest news has always been difficult in Kashmir, and now during the pandemic, the state has brought in even more stringent measures to control information, with doctors being threatened with ‘strict action’ if they essentially say anything against the response to the pandemic by the state, which has been largely militaristic.
The state officials routinely spell out the number of cases registered, the number of vehicles and the number of shops seized by the police against people who were found violating the lockdown (this one because of the pandemic) imposed since March 2020. It seems as if the officials are trying to scare the virus away with these numbers.
But all that has been reported and documented well – on Twitter. Newspapers, these days, are wary of reporting news that does not toe the official line, even news related to the pandemic. And that is also something that Kashmiris have gotten used to now. It seems as if this society has become so removed from reality, one in which repressive measures can be conveniently justified, that this pandemic is not a healthcare crisis, but has become just another of the many social and political crisis that Kashmiris have faced over the years.
I say social and political because the response to the pandemic by the state has been largely executed within those frameworks, with healthcare being relegated to secondary consideration or even complete immateriality.
So, this is how the COVID-19 pandemic is being dealt with in Kashmir – bureaucrats keep tweeting – mostly to no one because the internet is shut down and Kashmiris cannot read those tweets. Those tweets make tall claims and newspapers duly report these claims.
To follow-up these claims to check whether the measures these tweets claim to take have actually been implemented on the ground, is religiously ignored. No one blinks an eye. Announcements are made, newspapers report, announcements are not implemented, newspapers do not report, officials keep tweeting, people keep getting shut from the outside world, officials tweet some more. It is all routine. It is all fine in Kashmir.
Mudabbir Ahmad Tak is a J&K based freelance journalist, and currently he is doing his PhD from the state university in film studies. The views expressed here are author’s personal and Clarion India does not necessarily subscribe to them.