Of Curfewed Nights and Censored News

Politics

Of Curfewed Nights and Censored News

T

he city from where no news can come

Is now so visible in its curfewed nights

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That the worst is precise…”

– Agha Shahid Ali

In the wee hours of Saturday, Mir Iqbal was winding up his graveyard shift at the Greater Kashmir office. The Valley’s largest circulated newspaper is published from a printing press in Srinagar’s Rangreth area, which also prints the Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma. Iqbal was alone in his chamber at the corporate office when a night guard came rushing to report that about 15-20 policemen had arrived on the campus. They had come in three vehicles, barged into the printing press, and were harassing the employees, including the foreman who handles the press’ operations.

Iqbal, who has been a journalist for many years and has seen the rough side of the law several times, knew better than to just rush out into the dead of the night. In Kashmir, he knew, things were never the way they seemed – who knew whether a group of heavily armed men in civvies were actually the police? The first step was to inform the management, who is responsible for the wellbeing of more than 20 employees at the press.

After a brief conversation, Iqbal ventured out to assess the situation on his own. A distance of 20-30 meters separates the corporate office and the press. Outside, a dust storm had been building over the last hour. Within minutes, it began to rain torrentially. Iqbal darted across the yard to see his colleagues being terrorised by a group of men armed with weapons, pellet guns, and teargas cylinders. When the policemen stopped him, Iqbal pretended to be the night watchman in charge of looking after the equipment. But the policemen knew better. They confiscated his phone, switched it off, and asked him to leave the building.

Within ten minutes, the men had collected all 50,000 copies of the following day’s Kashmir Uzma and 5,000 Greater Kashmir copies that were still being printed. They took the metallic plates that are used for printing. They even collected the waste paper that the press ejects when the first few copies are printed. Then they left, taking with them the foreman and one of the drivers responsible for delivering the newspapers to the stands. They threatened the employees – calmly, but in no uncertain terms – to not attempt going to print.

Mir Iqbal quietly made his way home.

***

Even though the press gag technically came into force less than a week ago, in an attempt by the state government to bring “peace” to the region, the vacuum of information began soon after the protests over Burhan Wani’s killing. The lifting of the gag order, therefore, means very little. A few newspapers are back on the stands, but are slim because it is impossible to gather stories from other parts of Kashmir. As per protocol, cellphone network services have been snapped and there is no access to the internet. In the absence of reliable information, rumours rule the curfewed streets alongside the police.

Some of the rumours floating about the state in the last few days have included news of deaths of protesters in other parts of Kashmir. Another doing the rounds is that the government is planning to cut off electricity. One claimed that water supply had been snapped in parts of the Valley; another said two policemen had been set on fire by protesters in Srinagar’s Mandi. Rumours over the shortage of essential commodities have been flying thick and fast.

Governments across the world who crack down on the media fail to understand the damning role such rumours play in conflict areas. In Kashmir, anxious people assemble in groups near closed shop fronts when the curfew restrictions are eased in the afternoons. Occasionally, a person who has managed to reach another area after covering long distances and defying curfew, brings information he has heard from his area, adding a layer of paranoia to an already tense situation. An amplifying rumour, which often acquires a life of its own, could act like a match to a powder keg.

A rumour doesn’t always start in a neighbourhood – it could sometimes filter down from the corridors of power. A 2011 Tehelka report recalls an incident where a deliberate campaign of misinformation was undertaken by those in power to undermine and endanger reporters. According to the report, when the Kashmir unrest was at its peak in 2010 after a fake encounter, a journalist named Sheikh Imran Bashir received multiple calls from a Directorate of Information official. The official wanted Bashir to publish a story about supposed effigies of Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani being burnt in Srinagar’s downtown area. The catch? The incident never happened.

In the popular imagination, the most definitive image of the Emergency is the empty front page of a newspaper, with redacted articles.

“If I had carried the story,” recalls Bashir in the report, “Geelani’s side would have lynched me.” Bashir was able to get out of the sticky situation only by getting the DI’s office to believe that his report, which was never actually written, was indeed doing the rounds. For the next few days, the DI official went AWOL and refused to answer Bashir’s calls. “Can you imagine what would have happened if I had really written the story?” he told the magazine. “They would not have even answered my phone to help me.”

This is not the first time the Indian state has interfered with journalists trying to do their job. The media gag in Kashmir has an uncomfortable resonance in another national event that redefined the course of Indian history – the dark days of the Emergency, declared by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1975. In the popular imagination, the most definitive image of the Emergency is the empty front page of a newspaper, with redacted articles. That national event too, was brought down by a series of rumours.

In an excellent foreword to Media and the British Empire, a 2006 anthology of essays, veteran journalist Sir Mark Tully writes about the those days. Tully, who worked with the BBC in India and was famously barred from entering the country between 1975 and 1977, speaks of “India’s penchant for rumours”.

“[Indira Gandhi] didn’t think of the little teashops all over the country where people were gathering to pour scorn on the censored newspapers and eagerly discuss the rumours in the bazaar. But when the Emergency was over and an election was declared, she discovered the power of the rumours about her slum destruction and mass sterilisation campaigns which had filled the information vacuum, the credibility gap, left by the censored press and the tightly controlled official media. After she had been trounced in the election she said to me, ‘I have been defeated by rumours.’”

Will the current dispensation be defeated by rumours too? It barely matters. We already know that the sufferers in any battle are going to be the people of Kashmir.

Edited by Karanjeet Kaur

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