On Censorship in Kashmir

June 27, 2021   •   By Umar Lateef Misgar

ONE OF MY MOST enduring memories of India’s pervasive censorship in Kashmir may also sound trivial. It was 2016, and India’s war machine was once again functioning on overdrive. As Kashmiris protested en masse against the killing of a revered rebel commander, the state began killing, maiming, detaining, and blinding people with increased frequency.

At the time, it was still possible for some of us to write plain truths in local newspapers, including the English dailies that enjoy wide circulation in the region. Privileged enough to write amid this war against my people, I wrote an opinion article whose content I have mostly forgotten, but I remember that it contained an anecdote concerning my grandmother. On the day of its publication, I read the piece to her, translating it from English to Kaeshur — the only language she possessed. I distinctly remember the unsettling concern and fear in her eyes. “Raettith nin mea,” she declared, meaning that she would soon be snatched away, detained by the Indian military. Nothing did happen, but for the first and perhaps only time in our relationship, I could sense my grandmother putting herself before me, worrying most about her own safety.

Censorship in Kashmir is not novel, though it has intensified and become increasingly notorious since the inception of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindu nationalist rule in India. As soon as India began forcibly consolidating its sovereignty over Kashmir in 1947, all shades of opinion other than those preapproved by India’s new rulers and their local collaborators were either suppressed or co-opted. While India was being decolonized in the mid-20th century, the country simultaneously began colonizing Kashmir and undermining popular demands for political self-determination — the politics of Azaedi, as it is known locally.

Though the goal of silencing insurgent thought is unrealized, an official diktat recently came out declaring that all government employees in Kashmir, who mostly identify as Kashmiri Muslims, will have to share information about their social media accounts with the local police. I approached multiple government employees to learn about the consequences of this order, but most of them were reluctant to be interviewed for fear of state retaliation. One of the employees, who works for the finance department in Kashmir, told me that they saw it as “representative of an imperial suspicion that the colonizer always retains for even the natives who are running its affairs within the colony.” I anonymized this employee for their safety and talked to them only through an encrypted medium, as is the case with several interviews here. “The latest directive is also, undoubtedly, related to the rescinding of Kashmir’s nominal legal autonomy and increased appropriation of land,” they believe. “The government does not want any insider opposition to its settler-colonial goals.”

Even with anonymization and encryption, there remains an omnipresent awareness of Indian surveillance and the consequences that this conversation could produce. For this employee, those consequences range from being fired to harassment and torture. But the consequences extend also to me, a journalist who is not bankrolled by India’s ruling dispensation and its corporate sponsors, for whom Kashmir has forever been an object of chauvinistic obsession.

While speaking to the constraints under which journalists in Kashmir work, I could say, generically, that the Kashmiri journalists tread a thin line between the persecution of the state and intimidation by the armed rebel groups. But overwhelming evidence and my own experience suggest that this is a poor balancing act whose purpose, nevertheless, is clear. Blaming both sides can, somehow, “save one from the potential wrath of the Indian state, that has always maintained a retributive attitude towards critical intellectuals, including the messengers of truth in Kashmir,” said a photojournalist, whose work has appeared in publications across the world. Attempts at balance may dilute the reality of state retribution. Documenting the entire list of this retribution is also impossible because much of it remains unreported.

Asif Sultan, a journalist who produced one of the best reports on Kashmir’s armed rebellion in recent times, has been incarcerated since August 2018. In “The Rise of Burhan,” the article for which he was jailed, Sultan meticulously traced how a militant commander and his associates singlehandedly revived a fledgling armed rebellion in Kashmir. I remember reading the report that July and both instantly admiring the breadth of its sources and also dreading the consequences for its reporter. Sultan had, courageously and unprecedentedly, interviewed what are known as Over Ground Workers, official-speak for civilians who assist the armed rebels with logistics. While Sultan anonymized them as any professional journalist would do, local police pressured him to reveal their names. Sultan refused and now faces charges of supporting “terrorism.”

Sultan’s family has borne the brunt of his absence. His daughter, Areeba, was only six months old when he was detained. She is now two and recognizes her father only from a worn-out press ID and the posters calling for his release. I had planned to interview Sultan’s family but learned from social media that his father recently underwent heart surgery. I could not bring myself to bother them with another repetition of the details of his incarceration and the Kafkaesque absurdities of his legal case. Meanwhile, Sultan’s wife, Sabeena Akhter, continues to wage an intimate battle against the absence of her husband. Every night, she lays out a pillow for Sultan, and at every meal, she carves out a symbolic refuge for him, filling these spaces with his memory for Areeba.

The magazine in which Akhter talked about her suffering and hope is called The Kashmir Walla, literally “Of Kashmir.” The English-language magazine, published since 2011, has slowly established itself as one of the handful of publications that dare speak truth to power in a place where that act always invites repressive consequences from the state. Kept afloat by its subscriber base and intermittent grants from media advocacy bodies, such as Reporters Without Borders, the magazine’s staff, including Editor-in-Chief Fahad Shah, has been repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and detained by the Indian police and paramilitary forces. “I was [once] detained from a highway [in Kashmir] at gunpoint,” Shah told me. Officials have often pressured him to either take down stories or tone them down; he has also been threatened with jail and death.

According to Shah, journalism and dissent have been “criminalized” and a pervasive sense of fear instilled into Kashmir’s media community. “There are attempts not just to censor the media but kill it forever,” Shah said. For the young editor, who also doubles as a journalist, the constant harassment for doing his job has taken a heavy toll on his well-being. “My health has deteriorated over the last two years massively, and that worries my colleagues and family. Disturbed mental health manifests into physical issues,” Shah revealed. But he does not harbor any regrets:

My job, my team’s job, is to report the facts, and we will continue doing so no matter what’s the cost. One should never worry about the cost of telling the truth if you have promised to tell the people’s story, and in Kashmir, that story is mainly of trauma, loss, and death.

Recently, in an attempt to further choke on-the-ground journalism in Kashmir, the head of the local police revealed that media will no longer be allowed to cover firefights between Indian military and armed rebels. During these gunfights, which are mostly fought in dense residential areas, the Indian military has allegedly engaged in abuses such as using human shields, plundering and blowing up homes, and killing civilians. Calling it “distressful,” the Journalist Federation of Kashmir stated that this latest edict by the police was an “attack on press freedom and journalism.” Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), seconded these concerns: “The government and police officials are trying to intimidate journalists into reporting only what the government wants them to. That is not how journalism works,” Iftikhar said. “Statements like these, especially when made by a police official, have a chilling effect on the media community.” When I asked her about the CPJ’s overall assessment of the Indian government’s attitude toward journalism in Kashmir, Iftikhar told me that the region’s journalists and independent media remain under an “existential threat.”

The Indian state’s focus on controlling the narratives emanating from Kashmir also manifests itself in self-censorship. For fear of state persecution, Kashmiris often have to grudgingly censor certain expressions while replacing them with words that, to paraphrase George Orwell, choose the meaning rather than the other way around. Kashmiri journalists, writers, and poets frequently worry about the ambiguity of censorship. “There is no defined playbook, and the state keeps us in a constant state of confusion about what speech it considers problematic,” a college student said. “This results in an ever-increased form of self-censorship.” Imagine the turmoil of being a critical writer or poet amid this stifling of language. Despite risking their personal safety, one Kashmiri writer worried that “we are often unable to tell the story of Kashmir to the world the way we would really want to.”

Academia has also faced numerous attempts at repression and co-option. During a recent speech at one of Kashmir’s premier universities, a high-ranking police official reportedly urged teachers to play the “role of social control mechanism” in lieu of a police force — which means suppressing the people’s political demands for self-determination or other concerns about human and civil rights abuses. In March, Assistant Professor of Geography Dr. Abdul Bari Naik was charged with terrorism offenses for revealing government acts of corruption, land grab, and extortion. Naik has been accused of “sympathizing with the terrorists of the area” and threatening India’s “national integrity.” Booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a legal provision that enables detention without trial for six months, Naik, if convicted, could be imprisoned for years.

The BJP government has also announced plans to alter Kashmir’s school curriculum, particularly the study of history. Schools already omit the history of feudal repression that continued up until the mid-20th century and Kashmir’s successful mobilization against this feudatory extraction. However, now the goal is to bring the history further in line with the revisionist aims of BJP’s Hindu nationalist project.

As I wrote this litany of censorship in Kashmir, a video started circulating on social media in which an Indian paramilitary officer can be seen kicking a local photojournalist and ordering all the journalists to run away from the scene of a gunfight. This video succinctly captures the nature of the Indian state’s censorship in Kashmir, but it also reveals the overall essence of its rule in the region: patronizingly violent and, at the same time, deeply insecure about plain truths.

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Umar Lateef Misgar is a freelance journalist and a PhD researcher at the University of Westminster. Follow him on Twitter @misgarr.

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Featured image: “Untitled” by Kashmir Global is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Banner image: “Indian soldiers, Kashmir” by flowcomm is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.