Comparing Modi govt's Kashmir decision with Emergency absurd; temporary restrictions necessary to correct Valley's dystopian reality

  • Liberal angst over Kashmir could have been cute, were it not for the unintentional black humour permeating their 'serious' arguments.

  • In an article, Praveen Swami calls the restrictions placed on the media in Kashmir as the 'most ambitious exercise in censorship since the Emergency.'

  • However, Swami would know that idealism doesn’t die in government corridors alone, it is killed every day in newsrooms too.

Liberal angst over Kashmir could have been cute, were it not for the unintentional black humour permeating their "serious" arguments. Following India’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status by reading down Article 370 and bifurcating the state into two Union Territories, liberal outrage has found a new cause in forgotten Kashmir.

A spate of articles in Indian and foreign publications are appearing every day, of which this article by Praveen Swami in Firstpost is the latest. What I find amusing about these articles is that at the end of it all, the commentators manage to make it all about themselves, as if the world must fit into their ideological straitjacket or there’s no point in the planet rotating on its axis.

Elaborate statements are spun off and sweeping conclusions drawn from positions that are fallacious. It is sad to see the erudite Swami, who is my colleague, and whose writings on Pakistan and Kashmir are among the most insightful, fall into the same trap.

He calls the restrictions placed on the media in Kashmir as the “most ambitious exercise in censorship since the Emergency — one that has shut down not only swathes of the formal media and political dissent in Kashmir, but even everyday communication between one citizen and another,” and then goes on to castigate the media institutions for failing to “push back” against the government’s decision.

To take Swami’s second point first, implicit in his argument is the position that it is the media’s duty to keep reporting instead of indulging in self-censorship. Swami accuses the media of endorsing the “lockdown — and, evidently, the prime minister’s beliefs,” as if it some sort of a grave crime.

 Comparing Modi govts Kashmir decision with Emergency absurd; temporary restrictions necessary to correct Valleys dystopian reality

Kashmiri people walk past burning tyres during a protest after the scrapping of Article 370. Reuters

If it is, then Swami, a noted, veteran journalist surely knows that these lofty ideals sound awfully nice, but idealism doesn’t die in government corridors alone, it is killed every day in newsrooms too.

As someone who has earned a living for 15 years working inside newsrooms, countless anecdotes come to mind of occasions when “sensitive” stories of rioting, arson and communal violence were given a quiet burial lest it “disturbs communal harmony” in a border state where I work and live. These instances took place long before Narendra Modi became a factor in national politics and were perhaps possible because social media hadn’t become ubiquitous yet.

Swami’s target was the Press Council of India, which had taken a stand while filing an intervention application in the Supreme Court that the media curbs are in the interests of the “integrity and sovereignty of the nation”. The PCI intervention was filed as a response to the petition by Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin, who challenged the media curbs as a violation of fundamental rights.

In an interview to HuffPost, PCI chairperson Justice Chandramauli Prasad (retd) said, “It’s my stand that the Council stands by the freedom of the press and does not approve any sort of restrictions on the media, but when it comes to the issue of national interest, that issue needs to be decided by the court”, and then going on to say: “No matter how liberal one is, it has to be faced — the fact that some news is best not reported.”

The PCI chairperson has been hauled over the coals for his stand, but the amusing thing is that he has only expressed in words what the media in India habitually does. Suppressing information, highlighting one aspect of a story and willfully burying another part to fit a certain narrative are usual practices in Indian media. This hypocrisy is so rampant that it doesn’t even evoke a surprise.

For instance, consider for a moment what would have happened if the BJP had filed a police complaint against an individual for criticising the party’s stand on a topical issue. The matter would have made instant headlines in the national media and talking heads in TV studious would have burnt in righteous indignation about a “fascist” party trying to muzzle the voice of a citizen.

And yet, not many still know the name of Maridhas, a pro-Modi video blogger from Tamil Nadu against whom the DMK has filed a police complaint. The reason behind the DMK’s action is that the blogger had accused the party of "being in touch with Pakistan" due its stance on Article 370. Had it not been for social media, the DMK’s intimidatory tactics against a blogger would have gone unnoticed.

It is therefore tough to expect objectivity from a media which has never been objective about its role in the first place. Moreover, regardless of what the PCI chief may think, reporting from Kashmir hasn’t stopped. It is obviously not easy for journalists to ferret out information from a state still largely in lockdown, but since when has reporting been easy from conflict zones?

It is not as if there has been a clampdown on the media from authorities in Kashmir. The Valley-based newspapers are still getting printed and resourceful journalists from India and all parts of the world have been incessantly reporting from the Valley.

Swami’s angst is, therefore, inexplicable. But his first point, comparing the Emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and the Modi government’s move to read down Article 370 is inexplicable. It is unclear how Swami finds a parallel between the suspension of civil and democratic rights in India by Gandhi and the decision taken by the Modi government to abrogate a contentious and temporary constitutional provision that discriminated between Indian citizens.

The comparison is downright fallacious because Jammu and Kashmir cannot be compared to a Gujarat, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal or Assam. It is not a “normal” place where all hell has broken loose only after the abrogation of the contentious provision. It is both the stage of a proxy war and the cause of three wars — it is a place where we have been fighting an asymmetric war imposed on us by Pakistan for the last 30 years.

Kashmir is also the culmination of the collective folly of India’s political right from the time of Independence. The conflict in the region is a gangrenous, cancerous wound on the nation’s body politic that needed a gamble, a step of such magnitude as was taken on 5 August, 2019, for a reasonable shot at a permanent solution.

Given this context, it is churlish to compare Kashmir and the abrogation of Article 370 with Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency on an unsuspecting nation — a time when all of India’s public institutions and the pillars of democracy, including the judiciary, were under threat from a dictatorial leader.

Swami must also consider that as a consequence of the war imposed on us by Pakistan — which formed the Pakistan army’s raison-d-etre for its outsized role in Pakistan’s polity — the relentless conflict not only threw a challenge to India’s sovereignty, it also cost countless lives. And this decades-old conflict had given rise to a conflict economy and conflict profiteering that both Pakistan and the Valley-based political dynasties benefitted from. Abrogation is a gamble, but it is a gamble that needed to be taken to completely rewrite the script that had so far resulted in numerous deaths, alienation and the prospect of global, pan-Islamist fundamentalism reaching our doorstep.

Despite the notion that the lockdown of a state and restrictions on day-to-day living have severely affected the quality of life, despite the understanding that the communication blackout and restrictions on movement of people and goods have increased anxiety and fear, the fact remains that these preemptive steps have saved lives, regardless of what theorists propound, or not.

In a report from 1989, when Pakistan was pumping foreign terrorists inside Kashmir to fuel and cash in on the angst of Kashmiris who felt deprived of their democratic rights by a manipulative Centre, India Today magazine drew parallel with August 1953 “...when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested and jailed on subversion charges, and hundreds of people were killed or incarcerated as valley-wide protests erupted, has Kashmir seen such an outburst of separatist frenzy.”

Speaking to the media in his first news conference after the abrogation of Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik said on Wednesday that the restrictions, though onerous, have ensured that “not a single person has died so far in police action in the state. In the 2008 agitation, over 50 people died. In the 2010 agitation, over 100 people had died and in 2016 agitation, over 80 people had died… Every life is precious. Is this not a singular achievement?”

There’s no point in making theoretical assumptions — the plain truth is that Kashmir has degenerated into the latest stage for a fight between pro-Pakistan and pro-Caliphate terrorists for the jihadi space, as Aarti Tikoo writes in The Times of India. It required a step of this enormity to overturn the narrative and wrest back the initiative.

If there are lockdowns and curbs over communication network still in place, the government has promised that these shall be withdrawn in phases. One doesn’t see why the government cannot be given the necessary space and time to complete its task. Signs of phased restoration of essential services are already underway.

The dystopian reality of Kashmir — which was becoming the stage for a protracted battle between Pakistan’s “non-state actors” and “Islamist Caliphate warriors” (remember Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who wanted to set up a Caliphate, not azaadi from India) — needed to be challenged and changed. The Indian State needed to reestablish its writ. If, in the process, certain civil liberties suffer temporary suspension, that should be seen as an inevitable collateral of an enormously complex task. Ideological breast-beating about provisions that are in any case temporary serves no other purpose than addressing the inevitable liberal weakness — the desire to feel good about oneself. After all, the world is as I see it.

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 17:23:38 IST