Srinagar: On the evening of August 24, 2019, the Media Facilitation Centre at Srinagar’s multi-starred R.K. Sarovar Portico was astir as Rohit Kansal, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s spokesperson sat in front of around a hundred journalists. The latter, it was understood, would largely be hearing the daily press briefing.
Kansal is perpetually in a space of ‘I didn’t say that‘. If ‘A’ equals ‘B’ and ‘B’ equals ‘C’, then ‘A’ equals ‘C’ is something he ‘didn’t say.’
“Why was the opposition delegation sent back from Srinagar airport?” Yusuf Jameel, one of the Kashmir’s seniormost journalists, asked.
“We have inputs of cross-border threats…and we need to maintain the law and order situation,” Kansal replied.
The yawns in the room spoke for themselves on the effect Kansal’s reply had.
“Are these leaders a threat to peace?”Jameel countered.
From his seat on the raised podium, with the tricolour behind him, Kansal laughed, glanced at his script for a moment and said, “I didn’t say that.”
Over 190 primary schools to open 2mrw: Govt
Relaxations provided in 50 police stations as against 35 police stations on Sat; duration in relaxation increased from 6 hrs to 8 hrs
— DIPR-J&K (@diprjk) August 18, 2019
As I write this, the ‘unilateral’ daily press briefings have already completed two weeks. But how it started and also how this MFC came into existence in the first place would be pertinent to lookg at, considering the situation.
On the morning of August 5, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition of the National Democratic Alliance bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories – Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh. With this move, the right-wing government also revoked the special status of the state – cited under the Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution.
Since then, all means of communication and news dissemination – other than satellite TV sets and radios – have been shut.
Journalists tried to get the word out – some handed over thumb drives at Srinagar International Airport while others attempted to log on to hidden internet connected. Once the news crossed the borders of the Valley and reached the country, many said it was “only one side of the story.”
Aakash Hassan, News18’s Kashmir correspondent had an answer as to why it may appear as such. “Due to the communication blackout, we can neither confirm any news, nor contact our sources,” he says.
Like Hassan, the government, meanwhile, attempted to answer the same question with these daily press briefings at the RK Sarovar Portico. The briefings by the Department of Information and Public Relation (DIPR) may have kickstarted a functioning media facilitation centre, but are largely useless.
A government running out of answers is not a new sight for the veteran Jameel. “Whenever there is a crisis – that’s how they behave,” he says. “There have been times when they try to suppress the information, but we are used to it now.”
But the problem remains. The only official source journalists have these days are a bunch of government representatives sitting high above on a podium.
These representatives are mostly Kansal and the very recently appointed director of Department of Information and Public Relation, Syed Sehrish Asgar. Other officials accompany them depending on the context of the content of the briefing. But their roles are mostly unknown.
For example, on August 27, Mohammed Younis Malik, the Director of School Education, sat to Asgar’s left, speaking how the government has been doing fine in terms of managing schools. “Teachers have come to class,” he said, “The government is trying its best to make sure that students turn up. Situation is gradually improving.”
“Sir, can you give us any specific school’s name where the situation is normal and the students have turned up?” asked a local Kashmiri journalist.
“We have opened schools in the areas…” he continued.
“A name, sir. Any name. A specific name?” insisted the scribe.
Paying no heed to the scribe, he proceeded with reading the ‘script’. The hall burst into muffled laughter. He heard them. Nervousness took over the podium as he saw journalists laughing to his face.
“Sir, I understand,” the journalist said. “I’m asking for a name. Do you have that?”
Jameel says that journalists cannot force the government to answer. “Our job is to ask questions,” he says.“If they don’t answer, we cannot do anything about it.”
This demand for a “specific name” is a veritable administrative ghost that haunts the government. A few days ago, when in the same hall Kansal was asked to give the total number of detentions, ‘including minor cases,’ he replied rudely, “It is easy to say hundreds have been detained, thousands have been detained. Give me a specific case.” There was great weight on the word ‘specific’.
A female journalist did open her notepad, ready with details. Kansal either did not hear her or brushed her off, and moved on.
The international wire, AFP, reported that at least 4,000 people have been detained and held under the Public Safety Act (PSA). A Jammu and Kashmir police official, requesting anonymity, told AFP that around “6,000 were medically examined in various places around Srinagar.”
No matter how ‘routine’ these briefings, this one question on the “number of detention cases” keeps being repeated daily.
“We’ll take only one or two questions,” the spokesperson would say daily – while the scribes would end up asking at least seven or eight. None would be answered.
Then again, they were representing Delhi in Kashmir. Like Delhi’s unprecedented decision to remove the special status and lock down eight million people, the daily briefings served the capital more and Kashmir less. Kansal walks in daily, he reads the scripted answers and performs a façade of taking up questions and walks out, seemingly believing that he handled the press quite well.
“Sir, when you can cite the number of people who offered prayers in different parts of Kashmir on Eid, why can’t the government say how many people have been detained?” questioned a Kashmir-based journalist who writes for a reputed American publication. The journalists standing around him cheered.
“Haha! Everyone has a viewpoint. I cannot comment on that,” said Kansal, and joined the hall in laughing out loud.
Rohit Kansal, J&K Principal Secretary (Planning Commission): Over 5000 devotees offered prayers at the Eidgah in Jammu. We’ve reports of the successful conclusion of Eid prayers from the Kashmir valley in Baramulla, Ramban, Anantnag, Shopian, Awantipora, Srinagar & other places. pic.twitter.com/FFTVk3chm5
— ANI (@ANI) August 12, 2019
Later, while talking to me, this journalist who has 16 years of experience in the field, says, “It is clear how non-serious they are regarding the situation. They don’t have answers – and they are trying to hide things for sure.”
He says he expects nothing more than the government, and has learnt to rely on ground reporting. “We have the families of the detainees speaking on record,” he says, adding as an aside that the government has been managing the crisis and information flow very “chaotically and poorly.”
In the meantime, the number of journalists – who on day one stood eagerly with notepads and recorders in hand – has decreased drastically at the media centre. Empty chairs greet you where one would have struggled to stand. The briefings are no longer daily in nature. “These days, it’s up to the mood of the representatives,” say journalists.
Another press briefing ended on August 27 with no questions answered. This time the laughter too was muted. As Kashmir sulks under the blackout, a bunch of journalists would have found solace in at least being able to pose questions.
“This press conference is such a waste of time,” said one such scribe, loud enough for the representatives who were walking out of the hall, to hear.
If the duo, Kansal and Asgar, are representing the government (which is a safe fact to assume), and if the government’s spokesperson walks in and walks out every day, without giving an answer, one can say it out loud: in Kashmir, the state has no answers.
Yashraj Sharma is an assistant editor at The Kashmir Walla.