Srinagar / Jammu: As the crisis over the Amarnath shrine pilgrimage snowballed in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) over the last few weeks, thousands of young men in both parts of the state, armed with little more than a mobile phone with a camera, have shot pictures and videos of both demonstrations and curfew and uploaded them on the Internet.
J&K has always been a reporter’s paradise, but the use of new media such as the Internet, blogs and SMS (short messaging system), besides news broadcasts on local cable networks, have been imaginatively used by people on both sides of the communal divide to get their message on the recent crisis out to the rest of the world.
YouTube and Google videos have become a favourite space for hundreds of videos, whether it is about the 11 August march across the Line of Control to Muzaffarabad, large gatherings such as the one at the Idgah grounds in Srinagar on 22 August, or people defying security forces across the valley during curfew.
Kashmiri voice: The Idgah rally called by separatist group Hurriyat Conference on 22 August. YouTube and Google videos have become a favourite space for images of the volatile events in Jammu and Kashmir. Photograph: S Irfan / PTI
Meanwhile, local cable networks, both in Jammu and in the Kashmir valley, have been broadcasting “inflammatory” news, provoking the government to take action against some of them.
Site Entertainment Network (SEN), a cable operator in the Kashmir valley, was taken off the air on 24 August, ostensibly because it ran an hour-long interview with militant Kashmiri leader Syed Salahuddin, who lives in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
According to Srinagar district magistrate Asfandyar Khan, SEN was taken off the air because it violated the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, which prohibits any transmission of news, or advertisements against the Constitution of India and “tends to incite people to crime, cause disorder, or violence, or breach of law”. The Salahuddin interview on SEN apparently contained an exhortation to Kashmiris to hold district-by-district discussions in the valley and stage a referendum that would declare independence from India.
SEN retaliated by taking all national and international news channels, including BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, which go through its cable network, off the air. SEN executive director Mir Amjad said his channel was being discriminated against by the state authorities, which had not acted similarly against networks in Jammu. “Jammu cable networks like JK were taken off only for 8 hours, while we have already been banned for six days. They are still showing news bulletins and inflaming protests, why should they be allowed to do that? If the situation is bad in Kashmir, it is also bad in Jammu.”
JK, owned by land dealer Subhash Chowdhury, has been instrumental in pushing the cause of Leela Karan Sharma and his Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti, which is demanding control over the use of land for Hindu pilgrims to the Shaivite Amarnath shrine in the Kashmir mountains.
Chowdhury denied his channel broadcasts news, although this reporter watched several bulletins in Jammu, including an interview with Sharma, who admitted to an old association with JK.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Jammu-based Kashmir Times, said the saturation coverage given by JK to the Amarnath agitation was “so venomous that it had a huge impact on the religious-minded population, especially in the rural areas, which had not even protested over issues related to the international border nearby... The subtle message repeatedly broadcast was that the Muslims have taken away the land belonging to the Hindus.”
Vicious SMSs did the rounds in Jammu, especially in the early part of the agitation in June. State Congress president Mangat Ram Sharma was called “Mullah Mangat Ram” when he sought to balance the Jammu versus Srinagar divide, while divisional commissioner Sudhanshu Pandey was accused of “swimming in the club while the city burnt”.
The state authorities quickly banned SMSes within the state. The ban was extended by the Supreme Court last week.
By now, in the Kashmir Valley, as protests and demonstrations were infused by a sense of separation anxiety caused by Jammu’s economic blockade, thousands of young men came out in the streets, holding mobile phones with cameras in their hands.
“It is so easy to post on YouTube these days,” said Aijaz, shooting a moving video of the Idgah rally. “This is a part of our history and nobody else seems to be interested.” It is common to hear Kashmiris say mainstream journalists no longer report Kashmir with the passion and commitment it deserves.
“Although there is a lot of coverage about Kashmir in the mainstream media, the voices of the people are not coming through. So you have to go to the blogs, or the videos,” says media analyst Sevanti Ninan. “Perhaps Kashmiris feel their voices are not being heard.”