If Indian media fails to speak out against the silencing of Kashmir, it risks losing its own voice in the future

  • For weeks now, India has looked on the most ambitious exercise in censorship since the Emergency

  • There has, significantly, been little push back from media institutions

  • Kashmir, today, is the crucible in which the idea of free speech, and other foundational elements of democracy, are being tested

Tearing free of the leash customarily placed on his inner thoughts, the prime minister's rage tore across the room, and snarled at his distinguished foreign visitor. "Some say we are suppressing the press," the prime minister said. But, he went on, "You see the press here, how it functions".

"Terrible, something terrible," he said of Indian journalism, "And we found it did little good." Therefore, he said, "We put an end to it."

 If Indian media fails to speak out against the silencing of Kashmir, it risks losing its own voice in the future

Representational image. AFP

For weeks now, India has looked on 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. There has, significantly, been little push back from media institutions. Last week, the Press Council of India, mandated to "preserve the freedom of the press", intervened in litigation filed to challenging the communications blackout in Kashmir — but only to claim these restrictions necessary "in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation".

Even  the arrest of Srinagar doctor Omar Salim, for no crime other than telling journalists how communications restrictions were endangering his critically-ill patients, hasn’t stirred outrage.

The Supreme Court has on Wednesday said it will hear newspaper editor Anuradha Bhasin's challenge of the government's lockdown in Kashmir, in her view an abuse of state power. For the most part, though, it appears India's media has endorsed the lockdown — and, evidently, the prime minister's beliefs.

But the prime minister who spoke those words above wasn't Narendra Modi: It was Jawaharlal Nehru. His angry outburst, delivered in 1951, is key to understanding where we are, and how we got here.

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First up, there's this: Zero evidence exists to support the government's claim, peddled by journalists who ought to know better, that the communication blackout in Kashmir is saving lives. In 2008 and 2010, tens of thousands participated in large-scale street violence and dozens were shot dead; when the internet had only a marginal presence in Kashmir. In 2016, three months of sweeping communications shutdowns did nothing to still the fires set off by the killing of jihadist Burhan Wani.

Through 2017 and 2018, authorities in Kashmir shut down internet and phone communications on more than 40 occasions — with no evident impact on either the intensity or tempo of Islamist-led street violence.

the work of the scholar Jan Rydzak, among others, we know past restrictions on the internet have done nothing to contain the spread of violence in India. "Rumours and disinformation continue to spread with or without access to digital communication networks," the study established. Indeed, Rydzak's work has shown, shutting down digital communications appears to fuel violence — not tamp it down.

"We cannot say with confidence why violent collective action rises in the wake of a shutdown while surges in non-violent action lose their momentum," Rydzak notes, "We can say, however, that the relationship exists."

Figures released by the government on street violence in Kashmir bear out his case. In 2017 and 2018, years where there were substantial communications lockdowns, incidents of street violence were far in excess of 2011 and 2012, when no restrictions were in place.

Long curfews, the record also shows, haven't served to ensure public order, either. The record 51-day continuous curfew in 2016, the 175 days of curfew from January to May, 1990, the 72 days of curfew seen in 1986 did nothing, self-evidently, to bring about a durable peace.

The infinitely complex thing we've come to call the 'Kashmir conflict' can be distilled to a not-so-complex thing: Large swathes of the state's Muslims have long feared that Hindu-majority India will, one day, extinguish their identity, even their existence. "There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur," Kashmir’s political patriarch, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah once said, "Some of these had been Muslim-majority states." Kashmiri Muslims, he went on, "are afraid that the same fate lies ahead for them as well".

Little genius is needed to understand the way forward: India needs to to persuade Kashmiris, paranoiac or otherwise, that the liberal-democratic foundations of the republic are a better guarantee of their rights and freedoms than the macabre dystopia that Islamists hope to create. Instead of repairing the damage done by rigged elections, corruption and sometimes-savage State violence, though, India now seems to have taken the wrecking ball to its own values. From former Kashmir governor Jagmohan Malhotra to chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti: Indian leaders have spoken out about this.

Behind the embedding of this illiberal impulse in India's political culture, lies a reflexive fear of ideas. In 1950, the Supreme Court shot down the Government of Madras' ban on the left-wing weekly, Crossroads. Then, the Court stopped the Delhi government from pre-censoring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's magazine, Organiser.

The high courts followed soon followed. In Bihar, Shaila Bala Devi was allowed to publish a leaflet  proclaiming: "I am the blood-thirsty goddess Kali who lives and moves about in the cremation ground. I am thirsty. I want blood. I want revolution, I want faith in the struggle. Tear, tear the chain of wrongs." Implausible as it might seem that this kind of undergraduate-angst poetry would incite national insurrection, Nehru, cheered on by then home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, responded by amending the Constitution to restrict free speech.

In the years that followed, Nehru's liberal republic systematically strengthened colonial-era restrictions on speech — a story superbly told by the legal scholar Abhinav Chandrachud.

Everything from the savage censorship of the Emergency, to former law minister Kapil Sibal's use of police terror to stamp out social media mockery of Sonia Gandhi, stems from the deep insecurities of the Indian State. The late Arun Jaitley argued against Nehru's subversion of free speech in a 2018 article — but never sought to reverse it, repulsed by the idea of conceding these rights to secessionists.

In the mirror, Nehru's most bitter opponents had found themselves staring at his visage.

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In 425 BCE, with the great city of Athens locked in the savage, grinding Peloponnesian Wars, its citizens gathered for the Dionysia, the second-most important festival of the year, marked by theatrical performances. The highlight that year was a play by the young radical playright, Aristophanes, then not yet 20. The hero of the play, The Acharnians, isn’t Lamachus, the general, who is injured fighting Sparta It is the peasant Dicaeopolis, who staggers back supported by two girls playing flutes, having negotiated his own private peace treaty with the enemy.

"Everybody has freedom but that does not mean that you raise slogans to weaken the country," Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju once said. That's just what Aristophanes did — and no-one locked him up.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

For the most part, India's media has shied away from the kind of confrontation which would make such an intellectual climate possible. Proprietors have long been dependent on official advertising and subsidies; the long list of editors who have served in government positions tells its own story. In the midst of gargantuan contestations over identity and ideology, of which Kashmir is just one part, India desperately needs to hear and engage voices that are challenging its most cherished ideas about itself. Hindu nationalist lynch mobs to jihadists, Left-authoritarians and caste armies cannot be defeated by censorship: Their ideas need to be engaged, and defeated.

But our everyday culture, broadcast on television or performed by mobs on the streets, has shown itself incapable of enabling something creative to emerge from the contestation. The media hasn’t even shown itself capable of defending free speech. In 1984, the legal scholar Rajiv Dhawan had warned that the "press cannot justify its work on the basis of the consequentialist argument that what it does justifies its demands for special status". He added, "It needs to legitimise these demands by establishing mechanisms that demonstrate it works [in a] fair, equal and just manner."

Kashmir, today, is the crucible in which the idea of free speech, and other foundational elements of democracy, are being tested. India's media needs to take Kashmir's free speech challenge seriously — or risk losing its own freedoms.

Following the curtain call at the first performance of The Acharnians, the Athenians received an education on why we should listen to voices we might not wish to hear. Inside four years, Cleon and his Spartan counterpart, Brasidas, had fallen in battle. Tired of war, and bankrupted, Athens signed the peace deal Aristophanes had called for. It was too little, too late: Athens had begun walking down a road that would lead, inexorably, to its destruction.

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 10:39:48 IST