Let’s stop lying to ourselves about Kashmir

Would we accept it if the government shut down the media in Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru? Yes, but only if soldiers regularly opened fire to kill and maim protesters in those cities


An injured being treated at SMHS hospital in Srinagar. Photo: PTI
An injured being treated at SMHS hospital in Srinagar. Photo: PTI

Who is in control in Kashmir? The answer seems to be nobody. As the violence has continued and the list of those killed has increased, we read stories of legislators too terrified to visit their people and a chief minister stunned into inaction. What are we to make of it?

The Union home minister’s analysis of events is that whatever is happening is completely Pakistan-sponsored and therefore “outdated”. But also that “Kashmiris are our own people. We will bring them on the right path...We will make them aware of the reality.” The right path, of course, that we have chosen for them. And the awareness of reality, no doubt, that Kashmiri Muslims are receiving down the barrel of guns.

The first thing that strikes me, as someone no longer young, is the parallel to Punjab in the 1980s. This sort of rubbish was passed off by the then government too to mould public opinion.

This time, we are told these events are totally the doing of Pakistan, which is evil, etc. We are blemishless. And if at all we have inadvertently made some error, we will correct it. But for now, and this remains unsaid, we will continue to shoot Indians.

It is formulaic and has a certain third-world charm. It works when the state controls television and radio. It cannot work when survivors and victims have access to social media and can reach out to the world directly.

The troubles of Punjab weren’t that long ago and it is embarrassing for me to think that these sorts of childish explanations and defence of unjustified force was acceptable then. Are we as naive today as the people then were? I hope not. We were pretty innocent then and I have firm memories from that period.

There were phrases introduced into the public discourse for the first time, like “anti national” has been now. Then it was asamajik tatva, (“anti-social element”), used regularly by Doordarshan. That is a phrase we don’t hear any longer. Or perhaps DD News still uses it and the other TV stations feel embarrassed about inserting such a blatantly propagandist category. If this is so, it is a change, and a good one I suppose.

This time, I was struck also by how lightly it was reported, and how easily it had been digested, that newspapers were banned in Kashmir. Business Standard wrote that the papers “claimed that their printing plates were confiscated by state police. These actions were not, reportedly, accompanied by any legal documentation—the newspapers’ editors said that the police neither registered a case, nor disclosed any particular reason for seizing copies.”

Would we accept that in Mumbai or Bengaluru? Representatives of the state with no paperwork being sent to shut down newspapers? No. Actually, make that yes. If soldiers regularly opened fire to kill and maim protesters in those cities, I assure you its journalists would not defy orders not to print.

The bravery of journalists, and all the bombast about protecting our freedoms, comes from the knowledge that we will not be manhandled in the manner India has the Kashmiris for decades.

Talk of newspapers printing under oppression reminds me of something. The Emergency (our crises always necessitating capital letters). It was the worst time and our darkest hour, according to the Prime Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s L.K. Advani. What had happened then to the media? Newspapers were asked to get their papers censored. All papers submitted to this, though some resisted in part. Both The Indian Express and The Statesman published a blank space rather than an editorial. For this they were valorized, and rightly so.

How should we respond today to Indian papers being refused the right to publish and distribute? Something we only imagine as happening in dictatorships? I think all of us editors, former and current, should hold a dharna in Srinagar. Arun Shourie, Shekhar Gupta, M.J. Akbar, Dileep Padgaonkar, Pritish Nandy, the assorted non-English press and—why not?—television and Web editors—Barkha Dutt, Ravish Kumar, Prannoy Roy, Rajdeep Sardesai, Arnab Goswami, Naresh Fernandes, Siddharth Varadarajan and the rest. That would show real solidarity for the cause, for integrity. And for the absolute rejection of the censoring of journalists.

The least we can do is to say no to propaganda, which continues to dominate the narrative.

No amount of slandering through nomenclature—jihadist, Pakistan supporter, terrorist, separatist—will make the murder of children by Indian forces acceptable to me.

I notice many here in government have begun to use the words of Pakistani politics. Such-and-such is a “sensitive issue” and because of that we must tiptoe around it. I cannot abide by this. I have no interest in letting this or any other government lecture me on what national interest is. I totally reject the idea that opposition to a state that is reckless and violent is wrong in any way.

For too long we have been silent about the manner in which the Indian state has conducted itself in Kashmir, the North-East and the Adivasi belt.

It is 2016 and it is embarrassing to lie about it to myself any longer.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

Also Read: Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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