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A man with a match in his hands walks towards stacks of documents in a mountainous region (Kashmir)

Erasing the record: Journalists and activists face a new normal of intimidation and censorship in Kashmir

Journalists and human rights defenders have long struggled to document violations in Kashmir. With a new pattern of arrests, intimidation and erasure of news archives after India’s revocation of the region’s special status, their work has become more difficult than ever. 

On November 22, 2021 the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s top counter-terrorism force, raided the house of activist Khurram Parvez, in Srinagar, the biggest city in Indian-administered Kashmir. The officials of the agency were accompanied by police personnel who arrived in armoured vehicles. The officials seized gadgets, phones, and books from the activist’s possession. 

While searching rigorously, they further barged inside the office of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) where he works as programme coordinator. Khurram was then asked to accompany them to the Srinagar NIA office on the pretext that he would soon be released. 

“I met him at the NIA office in Srinagar’s Church Lane a day later where officials informed  me to provide him with some clothes because he will be taken to New Delhi,” Khurram’s wife Sameena Mir, lamented. 

I am feeling traumatized. Our three-year-old daughter looks for him every morning. With each day it is getting more painful. I console her by saying he has gone out for work.

Sameena Mir, Khurram's wife

44-year-old human rights defender Khurram has been a critical voice in exposing the wrongs committed by government forces in the Himalayan Kashmir region. After launching a body of various non-funded, non-profit, campaign, research and advocacy organizations two decades ago, his organization Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) has produced extensive reports on mass graves, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and other rights issues in Kashmir.

In April 2004, he was seriously injured when his vehicle was hit by an IED explosion that led to the death of his colleague.

Following this incident, Khurram engaged with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, compelling the United Jehad Council – an amalgamation of various militant organizations operating in Indian administered Kashmir – to sign the Unilateral Declaration of Mine Ban in 2007. He was awarded the Reebok Human Rights Award for his activism in 2006.

In September 2016, officials in Dehli barred him from traveling to Geneva to attend a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council session. Upon return, he was arrested and detained under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) in the Jammu region. He was released after 76 days with no charges. And now, he is once again in custody in New Delhi, with his detention extended to allow authorities time for further investigation.

Khurram’s detention is one incident in a series of crackdowns on dissent, documentation and even communication that have occurred in the wake of the Indian government’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution. 

A contested history

Since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when India and Pakistan won independence from the British empire, both countries have claimed the contested Kashmir region in its entirety. The two rivals have fought three wars to lay claim over the territory, and at present each administers a portion of the region.

Due to a series of historical blunders and broken promises infested by a crackdown on dissent,  the conflict in Kashmir has turned into a full-blown armed rebellion. 

That Kashmir is a patchwork of a Buddhist population located in the Eastern Ladakh region, a Hindu-majority population centered within the Jammu province, and a Muslim-majority population of the Kashmir Valley in the south, and of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir in the north, has enabled powerful stakeholders to manipulate these religious differences and added to the complexity of the dispute.

In the 1980s, a series of rigged and fraudulent elections made an armed insurgency possible. With the support of arms-training and provision of logistics from neighboring Pakistan, the militancy became so intense and widespread that it rocked the entire region. In the subsequent military action tens of thousands of people have been killed in the ongoing conflict, in which India accuses Pakistan of staging a proxy war.

Unknown graves

“Between 1989-2009, the actions of India’s military and paramilitary forces in Kashmir have resulted in more than 8,000 enforced and involuntary disappearances and over 70,000 deaths, including those through extrajudicial or “fake encounters” executions, custodial brutality, and other means. Lawyers have reportedly filed 15,000 petitions since 1990, inquiring, largely unsuccessfully, into the location and health of detainees and the charges against them."

.-From the 2009 report "Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked and Mass Graves in Indian-administered Kashmir"

Two decades ago, when mass graves were found in Uri, Kupwara and Baramulla, Khurram along with members of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, blew the whistle that they were not only in northern Kashmir, but the unknown graves stretched up to Gurez, Bandipora and Tangmarg as well.

Throughout these years, the human rights defenders documenting the Kashmir conflict have repeatedly accused the government forces of staging gun battles to hide mass killings and disappearances. There have been at least 2,000 unmarked mass graves discovered in border areas as of 2017.

To add to this history of cover-ups and confusion, a new level of censorship is being experienced by reporters and human rights defenders who have tried to document what is occurring in the region.

Silence and Censorship: A New Norm

A deafening silence in the Himalayan Kashmir region has become the new normal, following the unilateral decision taken by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to downgrade the special status of the Kashmir region by turning the erstwhile state in the two union territories in August 2019. 

In a speech following the move, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that “Article 370 was the main obstacle” to fully integrate the region with rest of the union. According to him, to uproot “militancy” and “bring forth development and investment” the scrapping of these sections of the Indian constitution was mandatory.

Since then, a series of systematic repressive measures have appeared in the form of a communication blackouts, censorship, mass arrests, torture and harassment. The level of the fear psychosis is so overwhelming that most of the critical voices are encircled, profiled or silenced using coercive measures.

The majority of Kashmir-based newspapers find themselves heavily censored. Journalists are summoned while their houses are raided by the police with the support of the military apparatus. 

Context dissapears

Particularly troubling has been the disappearance of articles from news archives,  such as news stories that are critical of the government and particularly ones discussing the gross human rights violations linked to Indian armed forces including sexual violence, torture, killings, disappearances of civilians. 

In April 2010, three laborers – Mohammad Shafi Lone, Shahzad Ahmad Khan and Riyaz Ahmad Lone – were first abducted and killed in northern Kashmir’s Kupwara. The news report giving context that refutes the claim made by armed forces that “three foreign militants from Pakistan have been killed” have been removed from many newspapers including the daily Kashmir Reader

This incident was one of the triggers of the 2010 mass uprising that lasted for three months and resulted in the killings of over 120 young  street protesters. Similarly, a number of other reports that mention the name of the state officials involved in the killings of hundreds of civilians have also been taken down by the daily newspaper Greater Kashmir

The systematic pattern to which the state government began cracking down on newspapers in Kashmir started with the choking of revenue sources such as government advertisements, use of anti-terror cases, financial irregularities, and harassment in the form of regular summons of editors and reporters.

"Steer clear of controversy"

Several political editors have been sacked due to their critical work following August 2019. Majid Maqbool, a senior journalist is one such example who was terminated without any prior notice by the employer at the leading newspaper where he has been working for several years.

Most of my long reads are untraceable online. There was a time when a full-fledged page was dedicated to human rights articles, not anymore.

-Majid Maqbool, journalist

“So much has changed in these few years. Unless you toe the line of the establishment you’ll be pressured to quit,” Majid, who recently won The Laddli and RedInk Awards 2021 for ground-breaking reporting on Kashmir, added.

A number of other reporters admitted that at the time of summons police officials have given them “friendly advice” to refrain from reporting on security, politics or conflict. 

One reporter recounts he was advised by a police official to do sports journalism, “that way you'll steer clear of any controversy or police summons.”

Communication blackout

According to locals, the months preceding August 2019 remain the darkest days in Kashmir’s recent history. Masses collectively were forced to “navigate” amidst a communication blackout, internet shutdown, curfew-like restrictions and regressive measures that were strictly imposed to restrict any sort of dissent against New Delhi’s announcement.

With the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35 (A) that granted special status, the imposition of a complete communication ban that persisted for at least 17 months, along with mass arrests of adolescents and political actors, subsequent torture of locals, and the ongoing public harassment have become common sights.

Kashmiris based within and outside India complained how they found it impossible to hear about the plight of their families for several weeks during the communication blackout. One of the most striking feelings most Kashmiris went through at this time was fear of the unknown, and living in a state of perpetual trauma.

One researcher, Haris Amin, based in the Netherlands, admitted calling his friends based in New Delhi to try to connect on a single landline in his locality in uptown Srinagar.

Upon connecting, his friend would then place the two different mobile phones in close proximity so that he and his family could speak to each other using two smartphones.

"A sustained narrative"

A number of legislative amendments have also followed from the center government in New Delhi, including domicile laws and land policies. The authorities even announced a new Media Policy 2020, which, they described, “will create a sustained narrative in the media about the functioning of the government.”

One of the main objectives of the media policy is “to thwart mis-information, fake news and be alert to any attempts to use media to incite communal passions, preach violence, or to propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India."

The policy stresses that the government advertisements in newspapers, journals and magazines will be suspended if they violate any given guidelines. Besides, it grants access to authorities to define who is a journalist, and carry out the mandatory background checks prior to granting them accreditation. The presence of these vague terms gives officials power to repress any journalist on mere suspicion, the attempt seen by most journalists as main agenda to throttle the news of media outlets.

 

Arrested for a tweet

On February 4, the editor of media outlet Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah was arrested for allegedly glorifying “terrorist’s activities” through a tweet. Police said in their statement that “he was involved in spreading fake news and was uploading anti-national content on social media with a criminal intention to provoke the public to disturb law and order.”

However, for activists and international human rights bodies, the accusations are “politically motivated charges” and the 33-year-old Fahad’s arrest has triggered widespread condemnations. 

“This arrest is a disturbing sign and confirms that independent journalism is in the process of disappearing in Indian-administered Kashmir. We call on the territory’s authorities to release him immediately,” wrote press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, who has nominated Fahad for their Prize for Courage in 2020.

Prior to Fahad’s arrest, another trainee reporter Sajjad Gul was arrested for covering human rights stories that were critical of the armed forces. On January 5, Sajjad was booked under a conspiracy case despite the court granting him conditional bail in northern Kashmir. He was again slapped with a new case and booked under the Public Safety Act and then shifted to Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.  

The repeated incidents of arrests and nocturnal raids carried out by the authorities has spiked the level of fear and uncertainty in the disputed Himalayan region. Human Rights Watch (HRW) stressed in a report that the arrest spree has led to more fear and anxiety, and comes amidst increasing harassment, threats, and prosecutions of journalists and human rights activists in Jammu and Kashmir.

"The authorities have not ensured accountability for extrajudicial killings and other grave abuses by security forces in Kashmir but have instead arrested those who speak out for justice and human rights."

Human Rights Watch

“During my police summon in south Kashmir the officials threatened to exert their absolute power for silencing all those who didn’t toe the state position. The officials verbally abused me, shouting they will not hesitate from killing me or imprisoning me for five-long years, if I didn’t stop reporting critically of the establishment,” a 27-year photojournalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told Unbias the News.

At least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting since New Delhi downgraded the state into two union territories in August 2019. Besides that, dozens more have been placed on no–fly lists preventing them from leaving the country.

Kashmir press club "ceases to exist"

This January, the authorities dramatically took over Srinagar city’s only independent press club. The regional administration led by Lt General Manoj Sinha claimed the independent civil society group was “deregistered as a society and (therefore) ceased to exist”.

The space extended institutional support to journalists facing the strict scrutiny from the state. During its brief tenure, the Press Club had been releasing critical statements, questioning the conduct of the Indian government while rejecting the use of force to muzzle critical reporting.

Despite the unprecedented surveillance and repeated communication blockage, the club was the only independent space existing in the region wherein journalists, especially freelancers and trainee reporters would work freely and express solidarity with their colleagues working under extreme pressure.

 

Raids and Scrutiny

On September 9, the residence of the four senior journalists Hilal Mir, Showkat Motta, Azhar Qadri, Shah Abbas were raided, their mobiles and the digital gadgets from their places were confiscated. The raid had a terrifying effect on the entire media fraternity. The police raid parties were accompanied by the contingent of the Central Reserve Police Forces that led the cordon while the police officials conducted the rigorous searches.

Such a raid is not an isolated incident. Since 2019, over 45 journalists have either been called upon by the police for background checking, profiled after questioning and asked to reveal their sources and explain their social conduct which the establishment considers is a plausible factor to have anti-state tendencies.

While scores of other freelance journalists have complained of being threatened directly or overtly by the police officials of harsh consequences.

 

“Besides the physical torture, mental harassment and anxiety, the reporters are going through navigating state scrutiny. The raids of the senior journalists have added to the level of desperation,”

a senior journalist who wished to remain anonymous, told Unbias The News.

“We not only fear for ourselves in a helpless situation but the establishment doesn’t spare our family or our minor children. Since August 2018, Asif Sultan has been behind bars. Can you imagine what this reporter has gone through? Asif has a three-month daughter,” the journalist, who has worked for local dailies for almost two decades, informed Unbias the News anonymously.

The 34 year-old journalist Sultan was released on April 5th, only to be shortly thereafter re-arrested under the Public Safety Act. 

27-year-old freelance journalist Quratulain Rehbar is among the small group of female journalists who continue to work against the odds. She complains that the routine police scrutiny of freelance journalists on the pretext of profiling or verifications defines the new variety of slow-down pressure tactics, which means after a given point, the journalists start ignoring phone calls from different police officials, that is until they start calling their family members and relatives.

“My mother informed me a few weeks ago that some army officials were looking for me and I needed to visit some camp. When I heard that I started shivering.

- Journalist Quratulain Rehbar

Erasing Collective Memory

Some researchers see a pattern amidst the agenda of subjecting a person to enforced disappearance so as to erase a certain crime record. The way the newspaper reports are disappearing, it appears that the authorities want to erase the collective memory of a particular time. 

“This will have long-term ramifications for upcoming researchers, as newspapers are one of the major tools of archives that solidifies researchers’ arguments to debunk the state narrative with peoples’ versions of sequences of incidents,” a Delhi-based Kashmiri researcher, wishing anonymity, told Unbias the News.

For many others, the selective scrubbing out of digital archives raises obstacles for those who want to challenge the state’s narrative. “Locally the vanishing of readymade online newspaper material will hamper the researchers and writers from developing stories in the recent past. However, this may not entirely help the Indian state internationally as different international institutes and agencies have their own mechanism of documentation,” author of the book Kashmir: Palestine in the Making, Showkat Hussain, said.    

Cartoonist Mir Suhail, who is currently based in New York, reiterated that the Indian state wants Kashmiri people to forget about their lived experiences. The government thinks that by deleting online archives people will let go of their history.

“I have been documenting common lives relying upon my drawing for over 13 years for local newspapers. Everything I have drawn has been removed, it seems I never existed and I never lived in Kashmir,” the 32-year-old cartoonist told Unbias the News .

“Recently, I was searching for a few cartoons. I was so depressed when I found nothing. Imagine what we are going through, despite working for so long, and despite toiling so hard to document a segment of lived experiences. I have no work to be acknowledged,” Mir lamented.

A existential threat

The paradigm under which the regional media has to operate has to fall under the policy lines: “there shall be no release of advertisements to any media which incite or intend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of India or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behavior,” notes the Media-Policy 2020.

According to the executive editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, the prevalent situation is so difficult for journalists to operate amidst the atmosphere of surveillance, mistrust and different methods of harassment it has become almost impossible to work.

“While Modi’s government is claiming to integrate Kashmir, it is effectively only making India an extension of Kashmir… the question of land and domicile rules have invoked anxieties of demographic influx with deleterious social and economic impact, across the erstwhile state.” Anuradha said. 

Dozens of local reporters are feeling apprehensive that the situation of fear and censorship imposed on the state of journalism, which for them appears that the state’s attempt is not only about censoring the state media but making it vanish it forever. “There is an existential threat to the independent media and the region’s journalists,” admitted Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

Continuing outcry from international organizations shows that attempts to silence what is happening in Kashmir have not been entirely successful. As New Delhi tries its best to sabotage dissent and critical voices by continuing its onslaught on media personnel and activists it is casting a dark shadow on its democratic credentials internationally.

Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian administered Kashmir. He is a graduate from Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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