Media blackout keeps Jammu & Kashmir from India

The official narrative on why Article 370 had to go is fairly simple (and actually simplistic) -- this is the article that stood in the way of the full and proper integration of Jammu & Kashmir with India. Now that the deed is done, and 370 is no more in force, what we must not refuse to see is that Kashmir stands more separated than ever from the rest of India, at least for now. The separation is in fact so sharp that we might as well be talking of a land far, far away from India in terms of how the administration is run, how the people are treated and how everyday laws operate. There was the scar of the Emergency but it united the country as one in the battle against the authoritarianism. Now suddenly, all of this is happening in India, except that parts of India are gloating while the people of Jammu & Kashmir are under siege.

It is now more than a week that no newspapers have been allowed to publish from J & K, and there is almost no protest, let alone any activism or anger from national bodies on how and why the media has been muzzled in the State. Telephone lines are cut, internet services snapped and there is no independent, credible voice telling us what is happening in the State. In this scenario, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval goes around on a publicity mission claiming to break bread with the ordinary people of J&K, as the effect of a complete clampdown is seen clearly in the frame backdrop. The level of thinking, analyses and planning of this government must surely be questioned when anyone in authority thinks this is the sort of activity that generates credibility, and that too at the highest policy making level. It suggests that some very ham-handed people are in charge, working with hardline positions that will be ramrodded through, whatever the cost.

With J&K leaders behind bars, the people locked up in their houses, schools, colleges, institutions closed, and some voices from the other States celebrating this kind of action and incarceration, do we really think we are making progress with the integration of Kashmir into the rest of India? If the answer is yes, then we must accept that democracy is not our grain; we celebrate the muzzling of voices as and when it suits the sections that may hold power and find it convenient to shut out liberties. If the NSA team or the Home ministry thought that information will not flow out, they need a crash course in the basics of how media blackouts work. Already, there is an account available of the troubles and harassment of ordinary people on the way to the airport and hospitals. We now have a video of large-scale violence after Friday prayers and the sound of gunfire heard in the background.

Official sources have denied any case of police firing but doubts remain on any story put out by the government media. There is a video on Twitter by a police official claiming that things are normal on the eve of Eid. But if this is so, then why the blackout? Over time, we can expect more stories to emerge from the people and while they may be as coloured, unofficial accounts tend to get believed because they are smuggled out from beneath the nose of an administration that does not want precisely this kind of information to flow out.

The lesson should have been learned well enough during Operation Blue Star, which was considered a disaster with hundreds of fatalities and damage to the Golden Temple, all of which was achieved amidst a media blackout and the worst fears being entertained in the absence of a credible flow of information. Roads were blocked, trains cancelled and movement was restricted, all of which added to the speculation and the fears of the worst having happened. This is often contrasted with Operation Black Thunder, which was conducted under a full media glare, allowing the message to be shaped and to enable a more credible flow of information from all sides. When there is a clampdown on the media, even the security machinery tends to act in a manner different from when media cameras may be snatching pictures of errant behaviour. And if the situation is so sensitive that basic liberties must be taken away, then surely the move does not have even limited support of the local people and should have been better thought through.

But allowing information flow and building credibility so that there is a correct picture of the ground reality is just one aspect of the concern here. The fact that a government can push through such a major change with very little debate, and in record time, with methods that are questionable and raise important constitutional issues is a red flag in itself. If such a change can be introduced forcefully, what next might we expect from the government with as brute a majority as this one enjoys? The constitutionality of the action, which is already in question and has been challenged, will of course be tested at an appropriate time in the courts. But whatever the courts opine, the real test is the test on the ground, among the people and in the hearts and minds of the ordinary people of Kashmir. That is a battle that India was anyway not winning. But with the present set of difficulties heaped on the State, winning over people will become almost an impossible task.

The anxiety of ordinary people can only be imagined. The population has been given no time frame, no assurances and no guidelines on when they will be able to come out safely, let alone go about their business. The State’s economy will meanwhile collapse, ordinary people will be the worst sufferers and the conditions are thus ripe for full blown militancy that we may continue to fight with even more brute force on the pretense of maintaining law & order, and preserving unity and integrity. But the fact is that the action itself is one that has threatened peace and made the nation more vulnerable while pushing the enemies of the State to unite in their hatred against India. The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal. Syndicate: The Billion Press

- Jagdish Rattanani

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