Monday, September 1, 2008

Kashmir without media

Naseer A Ganai
Srinagar (Kashmir) August 31: There is no media in Kashmir for past seven days. The local newspapers are closed. The local news channels are showing directions of the deputy commissioner Srinagar running across the black screen. It says: “The Deputy Commissioner Srinagar has ordered the local news channels to close down current affairs and news bulletins.” The New Delhi based news channels too are off the air. The cable news network owners have decided to hit back at the government refusing to telecast any news channel through their networks. Journalists are scared to come out, particularly, the journalists working with local news organizations. The government imposed the curfew on night of August 23, 2008 in all ten districts of Kashmir valley and since then journalists are accusing the government of “clamp down” newspapers and local TV channels by not allowing journalists to move around. Several journalists including Srinagar based bureau chief of respectable Delhi based news channel has been beaten up by security personnel.
“In past 20 years we have seen worst times but the newspapers and the media was not so brazenly gagged up,” said an editorial of largest circulating local Urdu newspaper Kashmir Uzma when it resumed the publication after seven days on August 31. “This is emergency. Even in emergency there are some rights. We don’t have any,” said Rashid Shahid Executive Editor of largest circulating English daily Greater Kashmir.
The government move came days after three huge successful rallies organized by separatists seeking freedom from India. The government didn’t allow the fourth rally scheduled to be held on August 25, 2008. It imposed curfew in Kashmir ordering troops to shoot anyone who defies the curfew. Since August 25, eight persons have been reportedly killed in various parts of the valley for what government says defying the curfew orders. But there is no authentic information about these killings due to closing down of the media.
The trouble started in June this year when the Congress led coalition government transferred some 39 hectares of land to Hindu Shrine in Sonamarg area, some 70 kms from Srinagar. A Muslim family discovers the shrine and it was considered to be an example of communal harmony. However the government in 2000 enacted Shrine Board act giving authority to the Board to look after the shrine and pilgrimage. Since 2004, the Board has remained constantly in news for allegedly violating established norms, seeking more and more land for the Board and increasing the duration of pilgrimage from 15 days to 2 months. The State government objected to increasing pilgrimage period. But the Shrine Board rejected the government objections. In 2004 an official of the State government had transferred huge chunk of land to the Board without the government approval.
The demand for the 39 hectares of land was pending before the government which finally government diverted on May 20, 2006. However the State government fearing reaction kept the decision under carpet till it was leaked to press by the then Governor S.K Sinha who by virtue his position was also chairman of the Shrine Board.
Kashmiris objected to the transfer arguing it would pave a way for settlements in the area and has potential to alter the demographic character of the only Muslim majority State of India. In 2006 Kashmiris had agitated leasing out of land to outside State industrialists in Gulmarg area on the same grounds. The Board had in 2004 taken huge chunk of land in South Kashmir.
Moreover under the State subject laws the Government cannot transfer land to non-State subjects or organization or body manned by non-State subjects. The nine members of the Shrine Board were all non-State subjects.
Following massive agitation in which seven Kashmiris lost their lives and the Peoples Democratic Party withdrew support from the government, the Congress government revoked the order on July 4 2008. However government fell on July 9, when it failed to secure number in the State legislative assembly following the withdrawal of the support by the Peoples Democratic Party. The Governor’s rule was imposed in the State.
Subsequently things calm down in Jammu and Kashmir. However after July 25, people in Jammu launched massive agitation asking government to restore the earlier order. Jammu, Kathua district, which are 300 kms from valley, have majority Hindu population.
The People Democratic Party president Mehooba Mufti accused BJP, the largest opposition party in India, of bringing the activists of hardliner Hindu groups to Jammu and attacking Muslims in general and Kashmiris truck drivers who were taking produce outside the State in particular.
The Jammu agitators blocked Srinagar-Jammu highway, only link between Kashmir valley and rest of India and imposed what they termed “economic blockade” on Kashmir.
Kashmiri separatist leaders describe Jammu agitation as motivated. “The Jammu agitation has no logic. The pilgrimage to shrine is going on smoothly. Jammu people, who don’t sent two persons to pilgrimage has no right to agitate the matter,” says separatist leader Sajjad Gani Lone. The pro-India National Conference president Omer Abdullah defended the agitation of Kashmiris in Indian Parliament and said Kashmiris wouldn’t give land to anyone. He described the agitation as assertion of Kashmiri nationalism and said, “Kashmiris didn’t attack any Hindu, and neither attack any temple. It was agitation against the government decision,” he said.
Mehbooba Mufti, another pro-India leader accused Jammu agitators of throwing petrol bombs on truck drivers. Many truck drivers were attacked by mobs in Jammu. One truck driver who was seriously injured died in All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
The economic blockade and attacks on truck drivers’ shocked traders in Kashmir. Moreover, shortage medicine, baby food, other essentials created atmosphere of siege in the valley. The Action Aid asked Government that it would provide the medicine. The government reportedly refused the offer saying it has enough stocks ostensibly to avoid embarrassment. However the government claims had no takers in Kashmir. Instead of clearing Srinagar –Jammu-Punjab highway the government launched massive campaign to contradict the economic blockade. But the campaign boomeranged as attacks on truck drivers by Jammu mobs continued.
Forced by economic blockade, on August 11, Kashmiris in lakhs marched towards Muzafferabad, demanding opening of Srinagar-Muzafferabad road for trade and movement of the people. The road is closed since 1947. The Hurriyat had supported the march. The Hurriyat leader Sheikh Aziz was leading the march to Muzafferabad. Security forces fired upon the rally at Chahal in Uri sector some 30 kms away from the Line of Actual Control dividing Pakistan Administered Kashmir and Indian Administered Kashmir. Sheikh Aziz along with five others was killed. In next two days security forces killed 30 Kashmiris and injured 500 others when people launched agitation against the killing and demanding freedom. But massive use of force didn’t yield desired result.
Undeterred by the killings, the Hurriyat gave call asking people to march Pampore to pay tributes to Sheikh. Near about 5 lakh people participated in the Pampore march but Hurriyat described the number far higher than that. In Pampore rally the Hurriyat called upon people to march to United Nations Militarily Observers Group in Sonwar.
The people responded and on August 18, hundreds of memorandums were handed over to UNMOG officers asking the world body to settle the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the wishes of people of Kashmir. One million people participated in the UN march.
On Friday August 22, 2008 streets of Srinagar were again filled with people who were shouting pro-freedom slogans and marching towards Eidgah ground. Police sources said five lakh people participated in the Eidgah march while as independent observers put the number over a million. Buoyed by the response of people to their calls, the pro-freedom leadership in Kashmir had called for another March to Lal Chowk on August 25.
The government announced curfew on the night of August 24, 2004. And next day no one was allowed to move on the road not even the media persons. The government picked up several separatist leaders including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Some of the separatist leaders have been booked under Public Safety Act. A person booked under the act is kept in preventive custody for two years without trial. The Government sources say that near about 18000 people have been booked under the act in past 20 years. However the High Court Bar Association puts the number to 50,000. “I think 50,000 people have been booked under the act since 1989 when armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir,” says Mian Abdul Qayoom, former president High Court Bar Association. Human rights activists in Kashmir describe the PSA as most abused act.
The media persons who came out on August 24 morning to do their professional duties were thrashed and beaten by the Indian security forces. Bilal Bhat, Sahara, Bureau Chief of Shahra news was beaten severely when he was on way to his office. Later he was admitted in the hospital. He said though he showed his identity card to the security forces, he was dragged and beaten up.
The drivers who early in the morning were carrying newspapers in their vehicles for distribution were beaten up and forced not to distribute the papers. And as the day passed by news about the newsmen started pouring in from different places of valley. The curfew passes were not honored; the movement of media persons was restricted. The correspondents, reporters, staff members of local newspapers realized what government is upto. “The government has passed unwritten instructions to security forces not allow correspondents and local staff to reach their office,” said an Internet edition of a paper quoting top sources. First time in 20 years the government made conditions for the newspapers such that it become impossible for media persons to reach their respective office. For past one week valley papers remained closed. “The operation to muzzle the voice of press was smooth and successful. The government without announcing the ban on the press banned it,” said a senior editor.
In the meantime, the Government reportedly passed an order banning local cable news channels from airing news and current affairs programme. They were accused of “fuelling the tension.” The government didn’t explain what it meant of “fuelling the tension.” As the days passed there were reports of killings from different areas and the official media was given its only officials version of the civilian killings.
Some doctors at the Government Medical College started blogs disseminating information about the injured persons brought to the hospital from different quarters. That was only authentic news from the ground zero.
Interestingly, the government, which had clamped down on Kashmir media, had no problem with Pakistani news channels including Geo TV, PTV, Waqat TV. The PTV is official news channel of Pakistan and is often being accused by Indian government of distorting facts while reporting incidents in Kashmir. Ironically the Pakistani news channels were not telecasting any news about Kashmir. Moreover the South Asian Free Media Association and other such groups didn’t issue any statement about the media situation in Kashmir. “It was criminal silence of the organization that claims working for objective and free media in South Asia,” wrote the Rising Kashmir in one of its reports when the paper published on August 31, after six days of forced break.
Many observers in Kashmir believe that the Government of India and the State Government were perturbed by huge pro-freedom rallies and ,marchs in Kashmir. They say this prompted the government to sabotage another rally on August 25 in the Lal Chowk, which is in the heart of Srinagar city. The separatists had selected the venue deliberately. Six decades ago India’ first Prime Minister J.L Nehru had promised plebiscite to Kashmiris while addressing to them from Lal Chowk along with Jammu and Kashmir’s first prime minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. It seems government was not sure that curfew, which PDP president described as worst than any Martial Law, could be successful in containing the people. It erected barricades around the Lal Chowk and imposed unprecedented curfew in which even a pregnant woman, who was expecting baby was beaten up and thrashed by paramilitary forces when she was on her way to hospital.



(AUTHOR IS senior CORRESPONDENT WITH GREATER KASHMIR)
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