Journalism and “the lives and aspirations of the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir”

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The largest people-to-people group in the region, the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy has since its formation in the mid-1990s been calling for India and Pakistan to see Kashmir not as a territorial dispute but as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir, who must be involved in any dialogue about their future. That seems even further from the table now.

India considers Kashmir to be an integral part of its territory. Pakistan has always insisted it is disputed territory, an unfinished business of the 1947 Partition. Pakistan’s role in stoking the flames in this region has given India a pretext for turning Kashmir into one of the most heavily militarized areas of the world.

On 5 August, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Article 370 of the Indian Constitution had been revokedovernight, stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous character — its own constitution, flag, and hereditary rights.

This was preceded by moving in 30,000 troops, ordering tourists and religious pilgrims out, and placing the Kashmiri leadership under house arrest. Curfew was clamped down and since the day before the government’s decision, all forms of communications — mobile networks, Internet services, and landline phone connectivity — have been shut down, leaving Kashmir and some districts in Jammu isolated.

“I can’t recall a situation where there has been a total blackout of not only the two-way, multi-point communication systems that we are familiar with now – anything on the internet, WhatsApp etc – but also the one-direction communications like TV,” commented David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression.

“There’s something about this shutdown that is draconian in a way other shutdowns usually are not”, addedKaye.

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Kashmir has basically been annexed, without any input from the Kashmiris. The dominant view in India as reflected in the mainstream media is that this is a done deal that will lead to “development” in Kashmir — the narrative pushed by the ruling elite. But many are pushing back. See Statement from Concerned Citizens Condemning Abrogation of Article 370 and in Solidarity with the Peoples of Jammu & Kashmirsigned by nearly 300 eminent citizens of India.

Delhi, 7 August: Protest in support of Kashmiris rights. Photo: Altaf Qadri, AP

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties in its statement Kashmir: A Coup Against the Constitution and the Kashmirishas demanded restoration of communications and lifting of restrictions on movement, release of political and opposition leaders, withdrawal of all troops, rollback of the legislation introduced on 5 August, 2019 — (i) The Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 2019 – Presidential order CO 272, (ii) Statutory Resolution introduced in the Rajya Sabha and (iii) The Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Bill – and “undertake any action wrt to Kashmir only after consulting the Kashmiri people”.

There have also been several demonstrations around the country against this constitutional coup.

“The lack of honesty and transparency that preceded the move, along with the circumvention of democratic process are ominous for the survival of democracy and consequently for the right to freedom of expression, the right to information and for media freedom itself,” said the Network of Women in Media, India in a statement 5 August. The association of more than 500 media women across India condemned the scrapping of Article 370on the grounds that:

  • This move takes away the original promise of a special status made to the people of Jammu and Kashmir when they agreed to be part of the Indian union at the time of Independence.
  • It does this without consulting the people of the state or discussing the matter in the country’s Parliament.
  • These unilateral actions further disenfranchise an already disenchanted people.
  • The bifurcation of the state and making Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh into separate Union Territories, the latter without even a legislature, is a blatant attempt to ensure further control by the Centre, promotion of political appointees, and marginalisation of the people of Jammu and Kashmir from political matters
  • This move was made in unseemly haste and in a climate of fear sharpened by the deployment of huge numbers of troops. The past few days have also witnessed a massive clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir on democratic freedoms and civil liberties; restriction on mobility; disruption of means of communication and Internet shutdowns in particular; house arrest of politicians and crackdown on freedom of speech and expression, as well as the right to information.

People draw and write messages on a road during a protest against the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the government, in New Delhi, India, August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

NWMI called for “an urgent, wide-ranging public debate on this grave matter, which must include civil society, journalists, lawyers and concerned citizens alarmed at the apparent hijacking of the Constitution. Until such widely held consultation is undertaken in a peaceful and democratic manner, we demand that the constitutional safeguard of the rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir be restored to them forthwith”.

Executive Editor of Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal has moved the Supreme Court seeking directions to ensure that media-persons and journalists from the State are able to freely practise their profession. She also challenged the restrictions imposed through the complete shutdown on Internet and telecommunication services and severe curbs on the movement of photojournalists and reporters.

“The information blackout set in motion is a direct and grave violation of the right of the people to know about the decisions that directly impact their lives and their future. The Internet and telecommunication shutdown also means that the media cannot report on the aforesaid developments, and the residents of Kashmir thus don’t get access to information that is otherwise publicly available to the rest of India.”

Meanwhile, Congress leader Tehseen Poonawalla’s petitionbefore the Supreme Court seeking an urgent hearing to review the situation and restore freedom of media and movement has been placed for hearing in due course.

In solidarity with Anuradha’s petition, Mumbai-based senior journalist Meena Menon created an online signature campaign Lift the curbs on the press in Jammu and Kashmir. Meena, author of Reporting Pakistan (2017), was The Hindu’s last correspondent in Islamabad. She had to leave the country in May 2014 along with the Press Trust of India correspondent when Pakistan refused to extend their visas apparently on the basis of ‘reciprocity’ – India was not giving visas to Pakistani correspondents.

When journalists are stopped from doing their job, the information blackout leads to silence and exaggeration, writes Readers’ Editor, The Hindu, A. S. Panneerselvan. He quotes a famous post-World War I comment by German sociologist Max Weber,

“Not everyone realises that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar.

“This is particularly true when we recollect that it has to be written on the spot, to order, and that it must create an immediate effect, even though it is produced under completely different conditions from that of scholarly research.

“It is generally overlooked that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.”

The conspicuous absence of reporting from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) last week helped realise the full import of Weber’s observation, comments Panneer.

Journalism performs many tasks. British journalist George Brock has mandated four irreducible core tasks: verification, bearing witness, sense making, and investigation. However, following the Union Government’s dramatic move to alter the political structure of J&K, Indian journalism was forced to temporarily abandon its ‘bearing-witness’ role and had to resort only to its ‘sense-making’ task.

There are several commentaries in the Indian media, including this strongly worded editorial in The Hindu, “Scrapping J&K’s special status is the wrong way to an end”, besides several lead and oped articles. A significant piece was this data story which debunked the claims of Home Minister Amit Shah that Article 370 hindered development. Panneer classifies these pieces within the rubric of ‘sense-making’ journalism.

Although rigorous and insightful, they had a “sense of incompleteness” because there were no ground reports from Kashmir. The Hindu’s Srinagar correspondent Peerzada Ashiq documented the blackout in his “Diary of a Kashmir correspondent”.

His last despatch prior to the blackout was a report on the house arrest of former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and other leaders on August 4. Then, there was a complete silence for three days. What emerged clearly from Ms. Bhasin’s petition and the Mr. Ashiq’s diary is that we know very little about the opinion of the people directly affected by the government’s decision.

There are ethical and democratic angles to the task of ‘bearing witness’. Academics Richard Stupart and Katherine Furman explained how we rely on a division of labour to gain knowledge. They contended that no one person can know everything worth knowing; hence we divide the knowledge-producing tasks. “Journalists who venture into sites of conflict and suffering form an important part of our collective knowledge production, and one which [is] important to the rest of us as moral agents,” they argued.

American journalist Roger Cohen’s reflections on the ‘bearing-witness’ task brought out its stupendous role in informing and sensitising people. In A Journalist’s ‘Actual Responsibility’(2009) Cohen writes:

“In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness… To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.”

But the Indian government seems to believe that information blackout will lead to a political consensus. Unhampered journalism facilitates informed dialogue and provides a meaningful insight into people’s aspirations. The alternative is, as Panneer says “either a deafening silence or an enervating exaggeration”.

Pakistan’s “solidarity” with the Kashmiri people is unlikely to be helpful given its earlier role in creating this situation, and its own ongoing deplorable track record on human rights and censorship. Is it a coincidence that Delhi’s move came so soon after Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s meeting with Trump? Islamabad’s response is not likely to help improve the situation either — downgrading diplomatic ties with India, sending Indian diplomats back, withdrawing its own envoy from Delhi, suspending bilateral trade as well as bus and train services between both countries benefits no one, least of all the Kashmiri people.

One Response

  1. Very informative and insightful. Thank you, Beena.

    Like

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