Kashmir is back in the headlines once again. This time some anonymous kids on Facebook made it happen when they allegedly threatened Kashmir’s only all-girl rock band-Pragaash. The girls had performed well in a paramilitary CRPF-organized contest. But as soon as the news of virtual threats appeared in Delhi-based media, the J&K CM Omar Abdullah chose to react, this time again, through his twitter account. Bet Omar is the only politician in the world who is available to people less on the ground and more on twitter. “Shame on those who claim freedom of speech via social media and then use that freedom to threaten girls who have the right to choose to sing,” he wrote.
Everyone has the right to do what he/she likes. No saner person would advocate the intimidation of girls’ rock band. It is highly unacceptable. And worth investigation! It’s another case that various investigations are going on against armed forces( since god-knows-from-when) who are enjoying rights under special powers act and can ‘sexually assault’ a Kashmiri or North East women and it’ll be for New Delhi to decide whether to grant sanction for prosecution or not. But, as a Kashmiri, I was shocked to see how Omar promptly touted the freedom of speech on twitter and his selective defense of the freedom of speech.
It happens under his regime. Free speech is trampled, smothered, and suffocated by the state machinery in Kashmir. The freedom to opine has been replied by state’s freedom to gag over those who exercise it. Fear has been widely employed to silence the free thinking. If I say free speech has become a crime in Kashmir, it won’t be wrong.
Working as a journalist from past six years, I have found Omar’s embargo on free speech comes from the fear of free media. He considers it the biggest threat to his rule. In fact, he considers it as a threat to peace, hurdle in governing, development. You make friends with the police officers and they will tell you what Omar tells them in meetings. In the past four years, it has been Omar-led government’s hallmark to find ways and means to stop dissent. He silenced and punished the local media, social media, and people on other forums who dared to highlight the pain or brought the “other side” of the story out.
Particularly in the aftermath of 2010 civil uprising, unlike, Indian mainstream media, the local media covered the stories of human sufferings and the state harassment widely. Individual stories of pain and sufferings of the families of young Kashmiri boys, and mothers who lost their sons during the violence perpetrated by the state machinery was the common content. Media remained highly critical of the handling of unarmed, peaceful or violent protesters by the police that used, what the state believes, non-lethal weapons. When did non-lethal weapons kill people? In Kashmir they did. Over 126 people, mostly youth, were shot dead. Over 3000 were badly injured. And after every death, Omar’s trusted Minister Nasir Sogami would visit families to pay Rs 5 Lakh check. Wamiq Farooq—a school boy and son of a street vendor—was one of the victims. You talk to his mother Firdausa, you’ll find her saying that she is ready to pay Rs 10 Lakh as compensation and take away Omar’s two sons. I would love to see how Omar will react on twitter on this deal. In short, the stories questioned Omar-led government on moral grounds.
However, the free thinking, critical analyses, defending the defenseless did not augur well with the CM. Leave aside iron fist hand, the administration devised plans to strangulate the press which carried such stories, making sure that the industry dies under its own weight slowly. Separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani brought peace in Kashmir. The TV news anchors right from Barkha Dutt of NDTV to Rajdeep Sardesia of CNN-IBN insisted that Kashmir was burning and Geelani must ask youth to give peace a chance. Geelani was released from the jail. He played into the state’s gallery and asked youth to stop protesting. Since the youth listen to Geelani, they stopped being violent. The TV anchors managed to bring peace. The peace of graveyard has always welcomed Kashmiris. But they want permanent solution. It’s like a child is dying of cancer and you are giving him drugs that cures headache.
But as the volatile situation started pacifying at the end of 2010, Omar declared an unannounced war on the media. Newspapers rely mostly on the government advertisements in the absence of private ones. So whatever agency, Omar found critical or had reported the human misery painting his government in a bad picture, the ads were stopped through its state information department. The freedom to publish was curbed. It’s another story how staffers of these newspapers began losing jobs. His government also recommended to New Delhi to stop the DAVP advertisements to the newspapers he deemed were publishing ‘anti-establishment’ news. On the other hand, many local newspapers, that sided with the government narrative on the events, even though they’re least read, were provided advertisements. These papers, even now, hardly publish 500 copies a day yet they manage to survive.
Then Omar turned his attention towards the cable TV channels by blocking their daily news content. Interestingly government officials cited non-registration as the reason. The owners of these channels were told to run films and songs but not news and current affairs. This government’s reason wasn’t invoked when the local cable channels gave 24-hour airtime to even a lesser-known politician in 2008 polls. Even these channels also played into the government’s gallery. This, however, didn’t happen in Jammu where cable networks continue to air whatever they like. “They want us to show red roses, Mughal gardens, Dal Lake and government’s achievement when streets are seething with anger,” an anchor of a local cable TV lamented once.
But Omar was unstoppable. The government soon banned SMS’s. The ban was later removed for post paid SIM holders—who’re either government employees or well known figures. The government continues to employ its strength even now. Police continues to monitor and punish the dissenters’, especially political ones. The larger idea has been to muffle the free thinking from wherever it comes. Even to punish the person who generates the free thought or a parallel narrative. No one from professors to students to netizens, who have expressed opinions or attempted to inculcate critical thinking among others, is spared.
The government took this fight to academic institutions, including universities. Police brazenly intervened in the academic sphere by blocking criticism or debate over the ongoing conflict, particularly on the idea of stone-pelting. Noor Mohammed Bhat, a Kashmir University (KU) professor, was detained by the police for setting ‘anti-establishment’ questions in an English test for Bachelor of Science students in 2011. Before he was shifted to Central Jail, Srinagar, in an interview he said he had posed questions that were “open-ended”. “I never advocated that stone-pelters are heroes. I wanted students to come up with their own views about it. I wanted to see what educated youth think about it,” he said.
As modes of free expression were strangulated, the government turned its fight to the virtual world. People already suffocated by blanket bans, turned towards social media to express their thoughts and discontent over the sorry state of affairs in Kashmir. In 90’s this wasn’t the case when people, wary of conflict sought refuge in masjids and shrines, the state term changed for them: ‘Islamic radicalization’. The recent government survey proves more temples came up in Jammu than Masjids in Kashmir valley during the past 23 years. Yet the national media continues to play up the Islamic bogey. There are exceptions, however. Some news organisations have refused to toe the official discourse on Kashmir but they aren’t in majority.
The Mumbai event was deplorable. The metropolis saw the arrest of two young women over their Facebook post recently. The national media campaigned in support. But back in 2010, an 18-year-old student from Srinagar, Faizan Samad, became the first person to be arrested for posting pro-Azadi slogans on Facebook. Police’s special cyber monitoring cell had been following him for long. With this also followed countless warning calls from police to all those who in its opinion posted “objectionable content” on social networking sites. In 2012 alone, in a major crackdown, the police detained 16 persons in connection with organizing political protests on social networking sites. They were detained under 66 IT Act. Many of those youth who happen to be students were called and many alleged they were threatened and in few cases even physically tortured. The penalization of netizens still continues unabated. But 66 IT Act has been invoked even against the whistleblowers who recently leaked a video showing cops beating two children with belts and bamboos inside a police station even as top cops enjoyed the beating.
The government, that credits itself for bringing peace to Kashmir, has actually brought a strange peace nurtured by fear and intimidation. A place where justice is a far-fetched dream, a system has been laid to crush or make people tired of getting it by engaging them in a protracted legal struggle. Here a simple FIR, if it concerns with war against the state is enough to ruin your life forever. It means that you won’t get a government job. The police won’t clear you for the passport. In short Kashmir has become an open jail where every now and then freedoms are torpedoed.
It might sound strange, but it is true. Anticipating people might come down to protests at Srinagar’s Press colony, the state administration has a kept an entire company of police to check such attempts. Leave aside police, sleuths in plain clothes too are permanently stationed who often inform higher-ups even before they get a whiff of such gatherings. Irrespective of the nature of protests, of opinions, of expressions, they are rarely allowed to gather. And if they do, the large posse of police carrying guns, lathis and shields rarely allow them to proceed beyond the press colony. We saw it happen recently when the religious procession on Prophet’s birthday was blocked and targeted by the police. Omar is talking about freedom to sing. But everything has been done to interfere in the freedom to take out religious processions. Same happened to Shia processionists. But when a top government bureaucrat openly leads a procession of a particular sect of Muslims, the police is seen protecting that rally.
While the trend to smother the local media still continues, it’s only the government’s press releases that are found hogging the front pages. Even photographs, mostly showing Omar, are preferred over other items. The issues of importance, sufferings, pain, and stories of repression are either buried in the inside pages or not carried at all. The critical pieces almost find no space in opinion pages, or if these articles do, they would always be diluted. The local media, that once championed the cause of local Kashmiris, is fast losing its credibility among the politically-awakened masses who are eyewitness to the daily repressive tactics of the state. For the local media, credibility is less significant than existence. The local editors feel it is better to exist in these tough circumstances than to get decimated by the ruthless state machinery.
The girls have a right to sing and have Omar’s backing. But Omar didn’t utter a word when MC Kash—a popular rapper—was intimidated. His studio was raided. Indirect intimidations followed too. The CM didn’t invoke his new ‘Freedom to Sing’ one-liner. Omar even chose to remain silent when recently, Zahida, in her 20’s with a serious leg injury, was arrested by the police on charges of “rioting with deadly weapons, attempt to murder and assault in 2010 uprising”. The lady was watching the funeral protest of a youth in 2010 who died after being chased by the police. During the incident, the police fired upon mourners leaving two more boys dead. The lady got a bullet in her thigh. Following the public furor on her arrest the police dropped the charges. Omar’s frequent twitter uproars didn’t find a mention of this woman. But Zahida spoke. “The state targets us deliberately to create fear psychosis,” she told a young reporter recently in an interview.
Nobody questioned why was she arrested or what she was framed for. The jingoistic media didn’t question Omar’s police. No national channel or newspaper ran a campaign or series on the issue. This time people who matter remained silent. The story of Kashmir was aptly described in an article of Jammu-based local daily Kashmir Times, which wrote “It is clear that the establishment has scant regard for free speech and free ideas”.
George Orwell’s in his famous novel ‘1984’, writes: free thinking itself is becoming a crime. But in Kashmir, individuals and groups are targeted for even ‘thinking’.
Wasim Khalid is a senior journalist in Kashmir. He writes on defense, human rights and environment and can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own.