Srinagar: Last week, amid the rising coronavirus scare, I travelled to Sopore in north Kashmir using public transport. Despite prohibitions on inter-district travel and official instructions against ferrying more than 5 passengers, the taxi operators – left distraught and impoverished by a lockdown-ridden life – never miss a chance to flout these rules. “We have hungry children back home,” said the driver when I asked him if he was scared of police action. “Unlike the rest of India, we haven’t been under lockdown since March. Our lockdown precedes theirs and has lasted much longer.”
A year into the abrogation of Article 370 which guaranteed semi-autonomous status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and on whose original terms – eroded significantly since 1947 – its accession to India was hinged, the Union Territory finds itself pulled deeper into a quagmire of economic collapse, anxiety over demographic changes, heightened political repression, an emasculated press, declining civil liberties and intensifying militarization.
I disembarked at the main market in Sopore and walked a few hundred steps until I reached Shalpora, a languorous neighbourhood surrounded by willow trees. This is where Tahir Nazir, a government teacher who recently became the latest victim of the state’s assault on free expression, lives. The police booked him for posting “anti-national” and “seditious” content on social media last month after he vented his anger against the killing of a Srinagar man whom the police claimed had died in crossfire between militants and security forces personnel but whose family had accused the police of killing.
The incident took a grotesque turn after the police appropriated it as a public relations exercise, casting themselves as rescuers of the man’s abandoned grandson whom they photographed sitting on the dead body of his grandfather. It was Nazir’s criticism of the government over this incident that seems to have invited police action. His home is a modest two-storey building. There is an air of austerity about the house. Nazir greeted me well but refused to speak about his detention. “I don’t want to say anything,” he said curtly, citing the conditions of his bail.
Nazir is probably the seventh person in Kashmir this year to face serious criminal charges over ‘anti-national’ social media posts – a trend which seems to have accelerated after the abrogation of Article 370.
The foundations of ‘Naya Kashmir’ – a phrase used to evoke a rose-tinted view of a region “unshackled from decades of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism” – rest upon the reckless application of abusive power, the intimidation of journalists, fear amongst the general public on social media and complete control over channels of communication.
While people are still free to nurture and hold on to whatever beliefs they want, they must not affirm them or make them publicly manifest unless they are willing to face adverse legal consequences. What the authorities have done with their overzealous policing of social media is strike at the ability of ordinary Kashmiris to challenge and discredit government propaganda.
Even as I write this column, the J&K police have arrested Qazi Shibli, editor of The Kashmiriyat, under the preventive detention provisions of the CrPC (Section 107). Shibli had already served nine months in detention, part of it under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA). On Monday, the authorities began the process of dismissing around 1000 UT government employees for “promoting anti-India hatred” online. A special provision was invoked that discards the requirement of prior investigation before any such dismissal is authorised out of fear that courts might quash such dismissals because of their McCarthyite nature.
Since August 5, 2019, control over mass communication has been the leitmotif of the J&K administration. Kashmiris will commit this period to their memory as one of enforced silence, where all the avenues to voice dissent were cut off even as they found themselves surrounded by a spate of new measures that will have overarching impact on life as they know it. And that includes ownership of land, access to jobs, the right to natural resources and their franchise and thus, also, their ability to steer the process of government formation as and when free and fair elections are held.
Any opposition to these new arrangements, all of which were put in place against their consent, is automatically deemed “anti-national”. More than 3.7 lakh non-Kashmiris have already been enfranchised and conferred with residency permits. As that process deepens, what the new domicile rules mean is that the ability of Kashmiris to affirm their political beliefs, either by boycotting elections or voting in them, will slowly be reduced. Non-Kashmiri settlers, besides threatening to outnumber Kashmiris in their own land as far as business and employment opportunities go, will also then have an effective veto over their political decisions.
It is next to impossible to have rational discussions and debates on these topics as political activity is at a standstill. And what little voice people had via the media and social media is also being stifled.
This year, the Modi government extended its arsenal and went beyond the ‘usual’ routine of intimidating reporters, withdrawing advertisements to newspapers and summoning editors through investigative agencies. In what has become an institutionalised form of press censorship, the J&K administration enacted a new Media Policy that empowers state organs to punish “fake” and “anti-national” reporting by striking off newspapers from official empanelment and also proceeding with legal action in case the reports question the “security and integrity” of India.
The policy, of which there is no example in any other Indian state, is downright Orwellian. Its potential for misuse in Kashmir is already a foregone conclusion. In April, the J&K police booked two Kashmiri journalists, Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra, under provisions of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act “for glorifying terrorism” and promoting activities “prejudicial to the sovereignty” of India. The sections of this act are so vague and sweeping that any journalistic writing can fall foul of them for provoking “disaffection” against the country. Previously, the police had also summoned Naseer Ganai who writes for Outlook magazine for publishing news about JKLF’s strike call.
Acting in concert with this multi-pronged official assault on press freedom is the inquisition by a section of the Indian press against Kashmiri users on social media. Last month, CNN News 18, aired a news segment where the anchor recklessly accused a small fraternity of millennial Kashmiri twitter users, who normally tweet erudite commentary on current affairs, food and Netflix, of being sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI. The provenance of this accusation was unspecified. “Young Kashmiris are more attuned to reality and have strong arguments with which to mute even seasoned Indian journalists,” Gowhar Geelani told The Wire. “When the Indian press doesn’t have reasonable counter-arguments in return, they resort to slander. But the most distressing part is that such slander can bring bona fide young Kashmiri social media users under suspicion of state agencies.”
The Modi government has already been detaining Kashmiri users for “anti-national” posts on social media. Earlier this year, the police arrested a 17-year-old teenager from Ganderbal and slapped stringent charges under the UAPA. Some days later, police bundled Imtiyaz Kawa, a cab driver in Kupwara, into their van and took him away. He was accused of “misusing” social media and charged with uploading a “provocative” Facebook post that decried an alleged incident of the security forces going on a rampage in a village. In the same week, the police also booked a minor from Handwara in north Kashmir. He was accused of “promoting hate through social media platforms”. In an interview with the press, the teen’s mother broke down in abject surrender, promising never to let her son “use a mobile phone again”. In the same month, the police also detained two members of the domestic staff of Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani leader because it suspected their involvement in circulating videos where he appeared to be on the verge of death – a scene that could have aroused high emotions among Kashmiris given that Geelani commands massive popularity.
It is nearly impossible for the Indian government to honour its constitutional commitment to democracy, civil liberties and press freedom while at the same time using the military and police – who enjoy outsized powers and operate beyond legal oversight – to hold Kashmir through force. It’s been more than two years since Kashmir had an elected government. The only elected administration that Kashmir will now likely have will be the one bolstered by the votes of fresh domiciles and new MLAs brought to power through meticulous gerrymandering engineered via delimitation. If there’s going to be a government that will guarantee “lasting integration” of Jammu and Kashmir with India – the stated goal of those who abolished Article 370 and 35A last year – it will be one based on the effective disempowerment of the Kashmiri people.
The former chief minister of J&K, Syed Mir Qasim, wrote in his memoir published in 1992 that if “free and fair” elections were ever held in Kashmir, the victory of a party seeking secession from India “was a foregone conclusion.” This may or may not be correct; certainly the authorities will contest Qasim’s claim. But will they ever risk disproving the prediction?
When people in the Valley wrap their minds around the new realities of changing domicile rules, residency permits and delimitation, the fraud enacted during the 1987 elections that spurred the rise of militancy in the region feels like a minor provocation in comparison. This reality is not lost on Kashmiris, nor are they fully coming to terms with it yet. But when they start experiencing the real consequences of this new power configuration that effectively disenfranchises them, restrains their free expression, blunts them politically, endangers their land and, on the top of that, erodes their footing on the bargaining table, an unmitigated sense of loss will surely seize them – one which will surely become a catalyst for anger and violence.