Before embarking on the mission of nullifying the semi-autonomous status of the disputed region, India arm-twisted its local press, forcing publishers to gag their leading opinion writers and columnists.
In September, there appeared in Kashmir’s largest circulated English daily, Greater Kashmir, a passage from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which occupied about three-quarters of the editorial page. An essay on another of his masterpieces, The Trial, filled the rest of the page. A newspaper dedicating an entire page to the works of a dead European writer resulted in two sets of opinions in the local media circles.
For one side, it was a low point in the paper’s eventful history. Publishing passages from a modern classic in a newspaper seemed criminal at a time when the people of Kashmir needed views about a catastrophic situation that had befallen them. The edit page had been comprehensively depoliticised.
For the other— the sympathetic—set, this appeared to be a cryptic SOS from the paper’s opinion editors. Effectively, this group argued, the newspaper was expressing its helplessness before the unbridled state hegemony. And what better way to express it than by invoking a literature that presciently foretold the authoritarian horrors and other pathologies of the 20th Century.
The space Kafka’s immortal works dominated that day had been the domain of newspaper’s regular columnists, many of whom had been first asked to soften their writings and then told to stop writing altogether in the run up to August 5, when Kashmir was stripped of its autonomy and “fully merged” into the Indian Union with sheer military might.
Deprived of their beloved newspaper space, the lamentations of many of these columnists tend to be symbolic. Many made direct references to the media gag only on the promise of anonymity.
“I feel like a man lost in a desert and chasing a mirage,” said H, who had stopped writing in February after the opinions editor repeatedly requested him to write on ‘other subjects’ besides politics. In December last year, an Urdu weekly, part of Greater Kashmir Private Limited, had stopped publishing his columns for the reasons he did not disclose.
“I told him I would prefer to not write than modulate my writing to the whims and tastes of the regime,” H told TRT World at a restaurant in one of India-held Kashmir's rural towns. He was reluctant to speak on the phone and requested I drive down to his hometown, about 80 kilometres from Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital. He spends his time reading and tending to a recently groomed plot of farmland.
Another columnist, Dr Javed Iqbal, describes himself as “a fish without water” and “an unquiet mind". Without a newspaper column in Greater Kashmir for about a year now, Iqbal said his medical practice keeps him busy but “nothing seems to fill a deep sense of emptiness”, especially when the “goalpost has been moved”.
His friend and fellow columnist G has been feeling even worse. He was the most prolific of the lot, writing two columns and an editorial every week for the past 17 years without a break. During his stint in the bureaucracy, he had contributed pieces under a pseudonym. His association with the newspaper, therefore, spans a total of 22-25 years. Minus his writing, he said he has been rendered a “slab of inertia”.
Lately, his columns were being found “Kashmir-heavy”, even the one on the cultural history of the place. In March, he was told to stop writing for the newspaper.
“I spent these four months like a hermit at home,” he said while visiting his favourite bookshop in Srinagar for the first time since August 5.
“I read a lot and listen to ghazals. I am too old for travel. I was reading this book on Kashmiri freedom struggle and found an interesting detail and immediately called Dr Iqbal. It was about the beating his father and uncle had received at the hands of the state forces in 1947. This is what I had been doing. Reading and writing. Now it is reading only,” he added.
Only a miniscule number of regular columnists in Greater Kashmir had been professional journalists. The majority comprised retired or in-service government officials and academics, whose association with the state by default worked as a moderating factor even though some had been bitterly critical of its oppressive policies. The journalistic grapevine always cribbed about the quality of the opinion pieces in the newspaper. These days the newspaper, which has produced a heroic body of journalism in the past, does not even publish editorials, not to speak of opinion pieces. The longest-running Sunday column by one of the opinion editors has also been put on hold.
Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader were the two newspapers that were deprived of government advertisements in February this year. The owners of both were investigated by India’s National Investigation Agency. It is widely believed in Kashmir that both measures were aimed at silencing two vocal media voices, as well as sending a message to others in Kashmir, before embarking on the bigger mission of imposing a military curfew in the disputed region and unilaterally nullifying Article 370, altering its semi-autonomous political landscape.
S has encountered this gradual silencing of the media first hand. His last column was to appear the same day Kashmir lost its autonomy in an Urdu daily published by one of Greater Kashmir's subsidiaries. He hasn’t read that day’s newspaper yet.
“Watching this unfold before your eyes feels like watching somebody getting killed before your eyes,” said S.
“You see pieces on Franz Kafka but not Article 370. And why should I be complaining about missing opinion when news itself has been throttled?” he asked, adding that he channels his frustrations into fiction writing. S had been out of Kashmir for about two months and hence had an opportunity to read the reportage and opinion on the Kashmir situation in the international media. This had been a cathartic experience for him.
But without internet, H is “condemned to enduring reading” his beloved but quiet newspaper only to “hear scorn poured into my ears by a horde of disgusted readers”. His face would light up each time I mentioned some of the best pieces written about Kashmir during the past five months.
Sighing, he said: “What does a conscientious writer do on these occasions? He gives hope to a hapless people.”
Even AB, whose columns were largely humour and satire, describes the situation as frightening.
“One of the commonest nightmares experienced by mankind is a sudden inability to speak when you desperately want to say something. I have the same feeling,” he said. AB’s great ambition in life is to write a novel. The column kept the ambition alive.
“The column was like a starter. I always felt the main course would come one day,” he said.
Maroof Shah, a longtime Greater Kashmir columnist, has been the luckiest of the lot. He was asked to resume his column a fortnight ago. He writes on mystical, literary and philosophical subjects.
“We are all seeking something. It feels like a mother finding her lost child,” he said.
(NOTE: H, S and AB are Kashmiri newspaper columnists who wished to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals from the Indian government).