Backstory: Revisiting the Ruins of Kashmir’s Media Ahead of the Fourth Anniversary of August 5

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The Narendra Modi government’s move to tweak its Information Technology Rules, 2021, to allow it to label media reports relating to the government as “false” has created a great deal of public outrage and judicial scrutiny.

Yet this experiment in state censorship is not new. On June 2, 2020, the administration of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir introduced a “media policy” that allowed it to examine the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national content” and order its take down.

It is for good reason they say that if the security apparatus in Kashmir sneezes today, the rest of the country will get a cold later.

Understanding the experiments – and I will confine myself to those involving the media – being conducted in that laboratory called Kashmir, where the lab technicians wear jackboots, is exceedingly important if we are to have a better sense of  the trajectories that are generally favoured by the Modi government. 

The present juncture is particularly apposite to revisit this theme. India will soon be marking the fifth anniversary of the reading down of Article 370, and the Supreme Court is finally sitting down to hear petitions challenging the constitutionality of the move (‘Article 370: SC to Disregard Union Govt’s Fresh Affidavit, Draws Roadmap for Hearing Challenges’, July 11) after snubbing the government’s attempt in filing a fresh affidavit with the apparent intent to divert attention from the core issue of constitutionalism (‘Article 370: SC Rebuffs Modi Government in a Case of Great Significance to National Politics’, July 11).

The management of the media was one of the central planks of the Modi government’s policy-making on Kashmir.

Remember those fraught days just before and after the reading down four years ago? A combination of media manipulation and military mobilisation marked those early days. As additional reinforcements of security forces were marched in to complement the estimated 700,000 Indian armed personnel permanently stationed in Kashmir (and this may be a gross underestimation), there was a media gag so impenetrable, so sudden, so cynical, so ruthless, that the entire region was blindsided.

Late on August 4, 2019, news of the arrests of political leaders came in and as local journalists scrambled to file news reports on this, the internet started fading out and by 12.30 am, according to local accounts, was non-functional.

Soon, television screens yielded little but static and phone lines, including that old faithful – the landline – went dead. As I had written in a piece at that 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.”

For journalists, this also meant the sudden death of their professional identity. They were now running around for curfew passes and ‘movement passes’.  Newspapers that had somehow scrambled up a couple of pages – most carrying sad advertisements about the cancellation of marriages – discovered that hurdles were being placed on their distribution networks. The message was clear. Kashmir was to be completely fire-walled as a discursive space and public sphere.

In her recent book, A Dismantled State The Story of Kashmir After Article 370, Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of The Kashmir Times, put it succinctly, “What 5 August 2019 did was to freeze the media by insulating Kashmir inside out. Both journalists and journalism disappeared.” She goes on to say that soon summons to journalists and their repeated harassment and interrogation by the police became routine. “There is no exact count of the journalists who have faced the wrath of the police at the counter-insurgency centre ‘Cargo’, but at least three dozen cases have come to light. The numbers may be higher but no one wants to admit publicly.”

The singular attempt of the Indian state was to dominate the narrative on Kashmir. Initially it was about suppressing any information on public anger and resistance to the Union government’s move, even as reports generated by the national media, supported, celebrated and eulogised the Modi government’s actions. The celebratory ‘Kashmir-is-ours’ trope manifested itself in prime time coverage and social media posts as #370goes went viral. 

The government denied outright that the media in the state was being gagged. When Prakash Javadekar, the then Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, was questioned by the Indian Express about the lack of media freedom in J&K, he replied, “This is not true. Doordarshan is working. Akashvani is being broadcast in all languages.” 

All efforts were now made to promote the idea that Kashmir was “peaceful” and that the whole exercise in reading down Article 370 was a resounding success. A little tour National Security Advisor A. S. Doval took through a “militancy prone” area in the state was prominently showcased on national media as evidence of this. Meanwhile, the newly declared Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir was under what became the world’s longest internet blackout that lasted from August 2019 to January 2020. 

File Photo. Security personnel stand guard on a street during restrictions imposed in the wake of the first anniversary of the Article 370 move, in Srinagar, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo: PTI

Once “peace” was supposedly established, the next phase demanded hyping up the perception of “normalcy”. The effort carries on to the present day. When delegates gathered at Srinagar for the 3rd G20 Tourism Working Group Meeting this May, so anxious were the authorities to present an idyllic “normalcy” in the state,  that police outposts were covered by boards that welcomed delegates and shopkeepers were made to keep their establishments open beyond working hours.  

The government’s recent affidavit in the Supreme Court indicates how important this projection of “normalcy” is for the government’s strategy in Kashmir. It claimed that protests; bandhs, stone pelting incidents, no longer take place; that schools and universities are functioning normally, with students participating in large numbers in sporting activities.

 There is a particularly significant observation also made: “Resolute anti-terror actions have resulted in the dismantling of the terror eco-system which is reflected in a significant drop in terrorist recruitment from 199 in the year 2018 to 12 in the year 2023 till date.”

Managing the media, it appears, is part of what the government terms are “resolute anti-terror actions”. The J&K administration has undertaken various measures designed to intimidate the media, including the widespread use of terror laws to incarcerate journalists and the forcibly takeover of the Srinagar Press Club. 

If normalcy is defined as the choking of all independent information flows; of gagging media outlets; terrorising people into silence through threats, surveillance and random arrests; suspending the internet at will (in 2022, the internet went on the blink in J&K no less than 24 times) and failure to conduct elections for years on end, then normalcy has indeed been established in Kashmir. 

Question though is whether such “normalcy” can be classified as democracy.


The vulnerability of Pakistan’s journalists

Late on the night of July 8, senior Pakistani journalist, Syed Muhammad Askari, working for the Karachi-based Daily Jang, was spirited away by police accompanied by plainclothes personnel, from a location near the Qayyumabad KPT Interchange on the city’s Korangi Road. 

His disappearance sent alarm bells ringing, not just in Pakistan but across south Asia, because stories of such disappearances have sometimes ended very badly. In May 2011, there was the tragic case of Saleem Shahzad, who worked for Asia Times, a Hong Kong-based online portal. Two days later, his corpse surfaced on the bank of a canal and it bore visible signs of torture, indicative of the fact that Shahzad had made some powerful enemies in the top echelons of the Inter-Service Intelligence. He had evidently broken an unspoken rule – attack the government all you want, but never attack the military apparatus. One of his stories had evidently revealed the involvement of a group of naval officers with the al Qaeda and he paid the price for it with his life.

More recently, there was the case of Arshad Sharif. The 49-year-old was known for his investigative reportage, but he was also an experienced broadcaster, having worked for prominent Pakistani news channels like Dawn News, AAJNews and ARY TV. Sharif was shot dead last October in Nairobi, Kenya, to where he had fled to in a bid to save his life. He too had a string of exposes of corruption in the highest echelons of the military establishment to his credit. He too was said to be brutally tortured before being shot dead.

Pakistan has a well-deserved reputation of being a dangerous place to practice journalism. In fact, the International Federation of Journalists rates it as the fifth most deadly in the world and the treatment accorded to them range from enforced disappearances and kidnappings to  imprisonment and torture.

The point to note here is that even fleeing to another country cannot guarantee protection. As another journalist, Taha Siddiqui, who has presently taken refuge in France, explained in a searing piece he wrote in 2019 for The Washington Post. It began: “On Jan. 10, 2018, I survived an abduction and possible assassination attempt by armed men who stopped my taxi in the middle of a highway in Islamabad…Luckily, I escaped. I believe the attack was orchestrated by the Pakistani army, which has been threatening me for years over my journalistic work on military abuses in Pakistan.”

This forced Siddiqui to flee but he has been advised that should he continue exposing the ways of the Pakistan Army, they will continue to come for him: “Even in exile, I feel unsafe,” he revealed.

Despite these manifest dangers, either de facto or de jure, from those who rule, Pakistan has seen a flourishing of independent journalism. Towering figures like the poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, have left their stamp on its legacy. Faiz helped to establish The Pakistan Times in the turbulent period before the country got independence. After he took over as its editor, Faiz found himself behind bars for allegedly plotting a coup. The case came to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, and it meant that the revered poet ended up spending four years in different jails in the country and living under the threat of being executed.

One of the poems he wrote from prison, ‘A Prison Evening’, reflects the spirit that kept him going through that experience:  

“This thought keeps consoling me
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed…” 

Syed Muhammad Askari – with whom we began this short note – fortunately was allowed to return after over a day. He was courageous enough to go public with his experiences. Speaking to a television channel, he explained how he was first blindfolded, had his head covered and transferred to another vehicle that seemed to go around in circles. Finally he found himself incarcerated in a small room. Who his abductors were are not known, neither was the reason for why he was abducted or indeed why he was released.

Was it a case of mistaken identity or just a plain, old-fashioned way to intimidate the independent journalist in him?


Want to play?

The Wire has a reputation for being on the more serious side of the aisle so I like it when it lets its more playful aspect make it to its columns.

Delighted, therefore, to note the new entrant, ‘Questionable’ (‘Questionable’: A Quiz by The Wire, July 6, 2023 Edition). Of course, being The Wire, the quiz is not entirely random fun stuff – it is about news and, yes (the serious part) it seeks to fight misinformation.

I tried the quiz (strictly because it was multi-choice and not too taxing on the grey cells) and am pleased to declare that I fared fairly well (without cheating too much). As I went through the questionnaire, I realised the wisdom of Umberto Eco’s observation that his generation knew pretty well what happened 50 years before its birth. But that’s all changed now. He said he followed quiz programmes because they were a paramount example of the span of memory of the young generation: “They are able to remember everything that happened in their life but not before.” 

Today I wouldn’t vouch for India’s GenX being familiar with everything that happened in their lifetime. In fact, I seriously doubt whether they are acquainted with anything that has not already appeared on Insta! 


Readers write in…

Why is The Wire promoting Narendra Modi?

Leo Levy from Brussels has a suggestion…

“I make it a point to skip all media images that showcase dictators. So my question is why should The Wire not make an active effort to avoid all photographs that show Narendra Modi? When I go to your website I cannot but notice the plethora of images of the present prime minister, no matter what the theme of the story is, no matter the occasion. By constantly playing up the Modi image, The Wire is participating willy nilly in extending the everlasting electoral campaign that the BJP runs. Making a polytheist party’s god invisible might be a symbolic gesture of resistance!


Doubt if the Khalistan Tiger Force even existed

Priya Chacko wants to know the source of a claim made in the columns of The Wire:

The Wire’s coverage of the Khalistan movement repeats other Indian media outlets’ claim that Hardeep Singh Nijjar was the chief of the Khalistan Tiger Force (‘Hardeep Nijjar is Third Pro-Khalistani Activist to Die Abroad in 45 Days, Canada Probing Motive’, June 21). What is the source of this information apart from the Indian government? I don’t think this is something Nijjar ever claimed and there seems to be little public evidence that this group even exists.”


Do the laws of chemistry apply to media toxicity?

Dunu Roy is a Chemical Engineer by training, a social scientist by compulsion and political ecologist by choice. This is his take on hate news (‘Backstory: The Virality of Hate in India’s New Media Landscape and The Forces Behind it’, July 1):

“According to the principle of (occupational) safety, there are two ways to address toxicity: either one administers an anti-toxicant to counter the symptoms of toxicity; or one tracks the roots of the toxic substance and eliminates it. I wonder how this principle would apply to the media?”

My response: “I think perhaps a more rooted approach would be appropriate…Dunu Roy, who set up the Delhi-based Hazards Centre, certainly brings a new dimension to perceiving toxic news and we thank him!


I will be taking a break for a few weeks. The column will be back by September end.

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