Kashmir Reader ban: Two months on, an oppressive silence prevails

It has now been over two months since the Jammu and Kashmir government banned Kashmir Reader, a Srinagar–based English daily. But barring a few and rare voices of protest that have been audible – coming primarily from the staff at the daily itself – an oppressive silence has prevailed in most quarters. The muted, almost absent, protest at such a blatant and audacious infringement on media freedom, reveals mainstream India’s problematic attitude towards the state. This silence further tells us why large sections of Kashmiris are racked by such a deep feeling of alienation.

Tragically, even left-liberal sections of society (including political parties in opposition), have chosen to ignore the censorship of Kashmir Reader. These same people were, not so long ago, up in arms aggressively protesting the government’s eventually unsuccessful move to slap a one-day ban on NDTV India. Such double standards – even if unconscious – don’t help lessen the ‘us and them’ sentiment expressed by many Kashmiris today. If anything, the failure to raise a hue and cry over the attack on a newspaper validates many of the grievances shared by them.

 Kashmir Reader ban: Two months on, an oppressive silence prevails

Mir Hilal, a protest in solidarity with 'Kashmir Reader's' ban.

Consider the dichotomy: even before the one-day ban on NDTV India could be enforced, strident opposition, slamming the order, was mounted from within media circles (especially social media). Political parties and commentators also weighed in. Faced by such fierce criticism, perhaps coupled with back room conversations, the central government finally decided to rescind the order. In contrast, when the ban was slapped on Kashmir Reader, a popular newspaper in Jammu and Kashmir, barely any noise was made in the public sphere. On 4 December, even as the ban continues to be in effect, the police detained a reporter of the paper before releasing him in the evening.

In his report in The Indian Express, Bashaarat Masood quotes what Mohammad, a reporter with the Kashmir Reader, had to say about the post–ban situation. Underlining the aforementioned double standard, Mohammad said: “This is an attack on the freedom of the press. It has happened in other states too and in the case of NDTV.” He went on to add: “While the media from mainland India strongly backed NDTV, they have not done so in our case. When NDTV (India) was banned for a day, the Editors Guild of India issued a forceful statement but in our case, they issued a statement after a week and it was mild and balancing. I think it is because of our location and name.”

Apparently, what drew the ire of the PDP-BJP state government was the Kashmir Reader’s focussed reportage on human rights violations and its growing profile among readers. Unfortunately, political parties, particularly right–wing Hindutva parties like the BJP, have always tended to underplay human rights violations in insurgency–affected regions, particularly Kashmir. Even centrist and left parties fight shy of acknowledging the ground situation or explicitly tackling the issue of azaadi.

The government ban was based on the allegation that the material published by Kashmir Reader threatened to incite violence and disrupt peace. Even though the order has not specifically drawn attention to the published material that is inflammatory in nature. Two months after the ban, one is bound to wonder and ask aloud if the gag order helped the government to usher peace in Kashmir? Even the blind and the faithful would be hard pressed to reply in the affirmative.

The BJP government at the Centre tries to project the state of conflict as nothing but purely an issue of economic well-being and jobs. Unfortunately, this is not the case. But even if we accept that argument, we are left wondering if the government has pondered how such a prolonged ban would affect the staff of Kashmir Reader. As the article in The Indian Express informed readers: “The paper has over 50 employees on its rolls: its editorial staff consists of 20 journalists based out of Srinagar and a few reporters in the districts while another 30 people are enrolled with its marketing, circulation and design departments.”

In such a situation we could rightfully ask the BJP and PDP whether the ban – which makes journalists’ lives economically precarious and starves the public of news, has any positive contribution to make in terms of combating the suspicious attitude of Kashmiri people. Does a ban of this sort help in any way in any context?

In an article in Firstpost last month, Mir Hilal, editor of the banned newspaper had this to say: “As editor, I feel proud when a man walked into our office a couple of days ago and offered his entire saving of Rs 10,000 ‘if that can help us.’ At the same time I feel sad each time a reporter, itching to sit down in front of a computer to file his story, walks into the office and asks, once again, ‘Any development on the ban front?’”

Until the government wakes up to the counter productive nature of its actions, the least we can hope for is less silence about the issue in the mainstream discourse of the country.

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2016 10:58:27 IST