Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Indian constitution. But a day before Indian Independence Day, a fact-finding mission was not allowed to screen its videos or photos after returning from the restive Kashmir valley.
Since India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), unilaterally scrapped Article 370 of the Indian Constitution - a law that gave Kashmir semi-autonomous status - the Himalayan region has been on the edge.
On August 5, as the Modi government broke the state up into two federal territories, New Delhi cut telecommunications and imposed a strict curfew in the valley. A move that has evoked widespread condemnation.
It's a paradox that as India celebrates Independence Day, Jammu & Kashmir continue to be subjected to a lockdown. If India's PM Modi believes that his decisions regarding J&K have the support of the people of India, then he must immediately lift the communications blackout.— Amnesty International (@amnesty) August 15, 2019
As news spread far and wide, many sections of the international and national media rushed for coverage. But amidst this unprecedented communication blockade, local journalists are finding it extremely difficult and frustrating to file their stories and reports.
With this information black hole, different narratives are coming to the fore regarding the situation on the ground, with some toeing the government line by claiming that things are ‘calm’ and others saying that things are ‘everything but not normal’.
To access the reality on the ground, a four-member team comprised of civil rights activists Kavita Krishnan, Maimoona Mollah, Vimal Bhai and noted economist Jean Dreze went on a five-day fact-finding mission to Kashmir between August 9 and 13.
The group travelled extensively - from North to South Kashmir - and compiled a report accompanied by photos and video documentation.
They observed “intense and virtually unanimous anger” in response to the government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and are calling for the withdrawal of the government's move to revoke the special status of disputed Kashmir.
“We were able to go to villages as well as small towns. So the situation there is absolutely not normal. If some people of the media are saying all is well… the only thing we could think of saying was all is hell is a better description," said Krishnan while addressing media at the Press Club of India (PCI).
The group were reportedly denied permission by the PCI to screen photos and videos documenting “realities of Jammu and Kashmir” after the abrogation of Article 370 including a 10-minute short film titled Kashmir Caged, which was later released on YouTube.
“I do not wish to attribute any motives or make any personal comments against individual office bearers of the Press Club, but I can confirm that we were told that we cannot show the videos and photographs because there was a lot of pressure from the government,” Krishnan told Outlook.
The group compiled several videos of their trip showing deserted streets, bereft of people even on the festive day of Eid al Adha. They claim that Kashmir has become an “open jail” and that the narrative presented by authorities was different to what they had seen in Kashmir.
"There is a sense of imprisonment. There is a sense of being in prison. And people are not being allowed to speak and the situation is extremely grim over there," said Krishnan.
Shooting the messenger?
Located in the heart of Lutyens in New Delhi, the hub of activities for journalists, the Press Club of India (PCI) was set up in 1958. An independent journalist body, it’s been a hot spot for scribes holding press briefings, talks, and underlining the importance of free and fair media in India and beyond.
So, did the PCI buckle under pressure?
Since its controversial measure to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its autonomy, the government has been clamping down on dissent with an iron fist. And this could very well have been the reason behind PCI censoring Kashmir Caged.
“It is very disturbing that at a point when there is a shutdown in the valley and no news is forthcoming, the press club chose to pre-censor a press conference. In a democracy, plurality of views are mandated by the constitution of the country. It is extremely demoralising that the press club that is meant to facilitate such discussions, plays the obstructor,” Rana Ayyub, an independent journalist, told TRT World.
However, a Press Club office-bearer, who did not wish to be named told online publication ThePrint that the team was given permission to conduct a press conference. “Now, if they are alleging they were denied permission to show footage, it must be because of some technical glitch or limitations. As long as everything is in accordance with the law, there is no censorship at the Press Club,” the office-bearer said.
A concerted effort has also been made to smear foreign and national media outlets that put out videos and photographs of protesting mobs in Kashmir being dispersed by security personnel through the use of pellet guns as anti-India.
One of India’s top TV channels, Times Now, ran a discussion on its social media page titled #IndiaRejectPropaganda.
There have been arbitrary detentions and the axe has also fallen on many pro-India Kashmiri politicians. First it was Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief ministers who are under arrest, and now Shah Faesal, a former Indian civil servant and pro-India politician who has been placed in preventive detention.
Faesal, was barred from leaving the country at Delhi airport and sent back to Srinagar where he has been detained. Reports suggest that he has been questioned by the authorities regarding an interview he gave to the BBC HARDtalk on August 13.
“Mr. Faesal spoke to his wife around 4.30 am and told her that had been questioned by the authorities at the airport regarding an interview he gave to the BBC on Tuesday.” https://t.co/3qC3WZs7vv— Shivam Vij (@DilliDurAst) August 15, 2019
Faesal, President of the J&K Peoples Movement, who was somehow able to bypass the clampdown on the internet in Kashmir was quite active on Twitter, making bold statements.
On Sunday, the day before Eid, Faesal tweeted that there would be no Eid festivities until “everything that has been stolen and snatched since 1947 is returned back”.
He wrote: “There is no Eid. Kashmiris across the world are mourning the illegal annexation of their land. There shall be no Eid till everything that has been stolen and snatched since 1947 is returned back. No Eid till the last bit of insult is avenged and undone.”