Srinagar/Baramulla/Shopian: Aside from the communications lockdown and the jailing of leaders of the non-BJP parties, a major casualty in Kashmir has been the sanctity of the news flow on account of tight surveillance.
This has come in the way of letting the country know of the stifling of the public voice, of practically all economic activity, and of the experience of people’s interface with the security forces present in fighting gear.
Thus, the unreal parades as the real — the media is crudely suppressed — both television and print. With the closure of the Internet, the social media — egregious though its contents can be — is dead.
The newspapers in the Valley, which used to be lively if somewhat partial to the Separatist aspiration, have been obliged to become the government’s voice exclusively. There is a sorry dullness and unanimity about them. The government’s spokesmen have full play. No other entity has any say.
Editorials, which reflect a newspaper’s opinion on key issues, are not written now. Long, boring articles on esoteric and arcane themes typically fill the op-ed space. District correspondents have little work to do.
Very slow Internet lines have of late been made available at district headquarters for use by people in emergencies. The same lines are also meant for the media. The process takes long. In any case, news that is fit to print does not make the cut. Hawk-eyed minor officials see to that.
Congress leader and former J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was in Baramulla about three weeks ago. Some half-a-dozen delegations called on him (several were prevented from doing so). Local journalists got their stories by talking to them, but these could not be filed, some of them told me. The unofficial censors would not let them.
The editor-in-chief of Greater Kashmir, the English-language paper with the largest circulation in the Valley, was recently called to New Delhi by the National Investigation Agency for questioning. The Kashmir correspondent of a television channel, who had shown up the discrepancy in an official claim, had to be hurriedly called to headquarters for a temporary period as a protective gesture. The message has gone down the line.
As a special dispensation, on their request, senior journalists in Srinagar were offered the restoration of broadband Internet connections in their offices (so that they may avoid the inconvenience of having to queue up to email their reports from the government’s media centre where the wait can be long), provided they signed an undertaking that they would not “misuse” the facility. Since the meaning of this term was not made clear, there were no takers.
As a consequence of the press gag, everyday happenings cannot be reported. Drawing the big picture is out of the question. Vague rumours float about. Mostly, people are kept unaware of events happening even near their homes. What they consume in dollops, though, are the national television channels, which the government chose not to interrupt when the clampdown came on August 5. These tend to be downright derogatory to the people of Kashmir and injure their pride, turning in the knife psychologically and deepening alienation.
Visiting Baramulla’s congested old city recently, I learnt that there have been frequent public protests. The papers cannot carry such news. In Srinagar, the proprietor of a successful hardware store says he has kept his establishment shut for a long time. He says there are no construction trade workers left in the Valley, not even a handful to load goods into trucks.
A government advisory issued on August 2 raised fears and drove the approximately 4.5-5 lakh workers — just under 10 per cent of the Valley’s population — from other states out of Kashmir. They were farm labourers, construction workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, motor mechanics, even shopkeepers. All fled. A transporter in Baramulla, whose business has also suffered badly on account of the policy-imposed labour constraint, confirms this.
The impact of the serious labour shortage on Kashmir’s economy is yet to be assessed. The short-sighted advisory has since been recalled. But the non-state workers, a large chunk from Bihar, have not returned. Local media reports are unable to offer an understanding of any of this. That would amount to discussing the current situation. That is out of bounds.
In Shopian, a political figure explains that Kashmir valley is mostly a “middle class” place, unlike other states. Nearly every family owns a car or two-wheeler. Sometimes these choke roads, although shops and schools and colleges are shut. The reason is that public transport is off the roads and government employees must attend office. The sick must be taken to hospital. There are social visits to make. Visuals of tight traffic have been presented on national television to suggest normality in Kashmir, and as a sign of happy acceptance of their present fate.