Day after the Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370 in a shock move, Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times, approached the Supreme Court. At a time when the then-state of Jammu and Kashmir had been put under complete lockdown — with suspension of telephone services, internet and mobile phone connectivity — Bhasin filed a writ petition demanding the lifting of the restrictions, arguing that it was impossible for journalists to do their jobs under the circumstances.
A year later, while the suspended services are now somewhat functional, Bhasin says the future and the present of the media in Kashmir have never been bleaker, with journalists being charged under terror laws and under the Public Safety Act.
As Prime Minister Modi visits Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir on the anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, Bhasin said it was a calculated move linked to the assertion of Hindutva.
As Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state which was demoted into two union territories, stuggles to come to terms with the events of the past year, Bhasin said the BJP and RSS’s idea of a “new” Kashmir was nothing but frightening.
In an interview with HuffPost India over the phone, Bhasin looked back on the year that has been, the grim state of the media at the moment, and the anxieties that the abrogation of Article 370 has triggered.
It has been a year since Article 370 was abrogated. Thousands of Kashmiris are still under detention, including prominent political leaders. In the meantime, the Modi government is going ahead with holding the Ram Temple ceremony in Ayodhya on the same day. Can you tell us the significance of this?
The fusion of the construction of Ram temple and the anniversary of Kashmir is something which is very, very calculated. Both the agendas have been the long-cherished dream of the BJP and the RSS. Both are linked in the sense that they are to the Hindu assertion in one way or the other. They are driven by the pathological contempt of Muslims and both are also based on the destruction of existing structures. Whereas, in the case of Ram temple, there was the Babri mosque demolished several years ago, in the case of Kashmir, a new Kashmir is being built by destroying the existing structures — socially, politically and economically.
What does the new Kashmir look like?
Well, the new Kashmir is the vision of the BJP government. So far it looks pretty frightening, in the sense that it is completely devoid of any fundamental rights. It is based on, so to say, as the government says, as the official narrative is, that is based on equality, on making the citizens of India equal, it opposes asymmetric federalism as it had existed, and it talks about equality. But here, the future of the population that is being chalked out, that is being talked about,so far they do not enjoy basic fundamental rights, the basic civil liberties. And that itself is a frightening foundation to start with. Other than that, there are anxieties and fears of losing certain privileges that the people of Jammu and Kashmir have enjoyed, it’s not just about the destruction of identity. It is one of the reasons why this step has not been welcome in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in Kashmir, (where people) have for years have been struggling to maintain their separate identity, but it is also about how they stand to lose from the possible demographic flooding in the future, their jobs are at stake, their economy is at stake, their business interests are at stake, the question of land ownership is at stake.
A curfew has been imposed in Kashmir ahead of the anniversary. How does that make you feel?
What happened last year numbed us. In the sense that not only that what had been done and whether it was legally appropriate or not, I am not even going into that question, but the way it was done. You know, an entire population is locked and their future is being decided. This is a democratic country and democracy does not mean just holding elections. It means continuous participation of the public in policies, in legislations that are going to impact them, that are going to impact their day-to-day lives, that are going to impact their existence, their collective lives and here were a people, their future was being decided, they were completely locked up. And one part, Kashmir Valley, and half of Jammu region did not even know what was happening because they had no phones, some of them didn’t even have electricity to watch television news. Right now, a year on, as the first anniversary is being celebrated as if something great has been achieved, J&K has again been put under a lockdown. Now in the name of Covid and if you look at Covid, of course it’s increasing in Jammu and Kashmir as it is in the rest of the country but if you look at the data it has not even gone on 2% of what is happening in the rest of the country. Whereas the rest of the country is opening up, why should J&K be locked down, that is a question. Is there a political interest?... Why is it that they have to be kept in lockdown? This is something the government needs to think about — has it got it wrong in Jammu and Kashmir? Is its handling something that is flawed that they have to keep people locked up when they have to take decisions about them?
How do you think the past year has impacted Kashmiris?
It has impacted them in various ways. And it would be difficult to sum up in a few words, but to just mention a few, there have been massive business losses, economy is completely shattered and broken. It is not only in Kashmir, but also in Jammu because the economies of Jammu and Kashmir, even though their politics have been different, are pretty interdependent. Education has suffered because schools have shut down and there has been no internet and the world moved on to online classes, online working, this is something that remains a dream for Kashmiris. 2G internet is available, and majority of subscribers, they depend on mobile internet so they’re virtually deprived.
As far as healthcare is concerned, a lot of people were denied access to healthcare. Even the hospitals did not have internet. In Modi’s Digital India, there was one region which was completely without internet. And in this Digital India, where everything is being digitised, including healthcare schemes, people could not avail of these.
You mentioned that children have been struggling to learn, not only because of the restrictions but also the pandemic. What effect will this have on future generations of Kashmiris?
They’re impacted in two ways. One, their education is suffering, they are going to waste a number of years. At the end of the day the government will hurriedly try to, as it did last year, they curtailed the syllabus. So the learning process is suffering even if the years are not wasted.
The other thing is the psychological impact that such a prolonged lockdown continues to perpetuate. The climate of fear that exists has a psychological impact on people. The feeling that as the young grow that there is no right to speak, there is no right to speak differently from the government. I think that is much more worrying.
Can you tell our readers why Article 370 was important for the people of Kashmir?
Article 370 had already been eroded post 1953. In the first two decades it was virtually rendered to a hollow shell. Article 370 was the connect between India and Kashmir in view of the very peculiar circumstances in which Jammu and Kashmir acceded. It was also important because it gave Jammu and Kashmir, the people of Jammu and Kashmir, their distinct identity, some autonomy over themselves. Even as Article 370 was reduced to a hollow shell, it continued to assure certain protections to the the people of Jammu and Kashmir in terms of their land rights, in terms of their hold over government jobs, in terms of their business investments. It limited business investments from outside, while keeping the interests of locals and ecology in mind. Now those riders have gone.
In terms of admission in higher educational institutions, there are fears now locally, not only in the Valley, much more in Jammu, which feels that larger part of the demographic flooding will happen here, where things are more peaceful, where there is a more geographical and cultural congruity with the rest of India, that their jobs will be take away and they will not be able to compete with people from outside.
Whatever was being written was not what journalists are supposed to do. They are not supposed to become stenographers and simply amplify the government handout, the government narrative.
In what ways had Article 370 already been eroded?
That happened in 1953, first when a local government was overthrown and its leader (Sheikh Abdullah) was jailed and that was the beginning. Thereafter, Article 370 was gradually eroded by extending the central laws here. Initially under Article 370, which was unanimously adopted by the Indian Constituent Assembly without a single person saying no to it, including Shyamaprasad Mookherjee, because at that time it was understood that this was the only way, by assuring the people of J&K their autonomy, it was possible to keep, retain J&K.
From that to 1950s and 1960s, the governments that time used puppet governments in Jammu and Kashmir to erode Article 370 gradually by bringing in central laws, by changing the nature of centre-state relationship, in various ways. But the fact was they were using the puppet governments to do it. So there was at least some pretence of involvement of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The change in 2019 is that there is no involvement of people of Jammu and Kashmir, they were all of them collectively jailed and gagged in various degrees, and their decision being taken.
You filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court saying it was difficult for journalists to work properly in Kashmir. Even now, there is limited internet connectivity and threats of retaliation from the administration. How would you describe the past year for the media in Kashmir?
It’s becoming more and more challenging. Last year there were two things — the first was that there were logistical issues impeding the functioning of journalism. How could we operate in these times without the internet and without even telephones? Even in the worst of times, because Kashmir has been in a conflict situation, we’ve seen many many challenges, we’ve put up with intimidation, a lot of journalists have been killed. But never before has such a silence been perpetuated. Putting the entire media industry into a state of freeze. Whatever was being written was not what journalists are supposed to do. They are not supposed to become stenographers and simply amplify the government handout, the government narrative. They’re supposed to bring out stories of ordinary people. They are supposed to see how the policies are impacting the public. And that is something they were unable to do. A prolonged situation like that creates a climate of fear.
Other than that, because of the lack of internet connectivity, the journalists were forced to use the only media operation centre which was set up by the government. It was operating under complete surveillance. By putting their work under complete surveillance that climate of fear deepened. And now, post March, as the restrictions started being eased, the climate of fear has started deepening because of certain action and policies of the government.
First came three cases against journalists, two booked under anti-terror law UAPA, another for fake news and these are cases which legally cannot stand. Constantly journalists are being summoned by the police and intimidated and grilled for several hours, asked questions about their stories.
In June, they followed with rolling out a media policy, which is pretty much in line with the actions that are already being taken. Giving government officials in the information department the right to decide and act as judge and arbiter on what is fake news, on what content should be considered anti national. These basically show that there is an attempt to completely throttle and kill journalism.
How do you think this will affect the future of journalism in the state?
It’s already affecting. There has been a lot of self-censorship after these kinds of measures. There is a lack of confidence in talking about things. If you look at newspapers, critique of the government has completely disappeared particularly when it comes to politics. There are red lines drawn. There are younger journalists specially who are braving all odds and trying to bring out stories still and trying to tell them in whichever way they can. I don’t know how I see the future, but the present looks very, very bleak.
You wrote in an article in Al Jazeerathat the new rules of domicile have created an atmosphere of anxiety for the youth of Kashmir. Can you elaborate on this?
Now the domicile law itself is very very relaxed. It opens up space for many categories of people and there is no cut off date. People who’ve lived there for 70 years, may be even before that, or ever, for 10 years, 15 years, or 7 years and those who have studied here, children of bureaucrats. It’s also talking about Kashmiri Pandits and now there is some clarity on Kashmiri Pandits who left in 1944, though I’m confused what significance they have.
Kashmiri Pandits who have lived here have been state subjects, even those who may have left in 1944 should have been state subjects. The way they’ve opened these different categories, it’s likely to benefit at least about 10-15 lakh people in one go and then it’s going to be a continuous process. Continuously people will keep adding, those who want to avail of domicile certificates, that category will be increasing. And that has led to a fear that people from outside, who’ve probably had better education, who’ve had more opportunities, will encroach upon their [people of Jammu and Kashmir] exclusive rights of jobs.
How do you think the past year has affected the women of Kashmir in particular?
Women of Kashmir, right now there’s been a lot of silence. And you do not find women in the public space. But they have been, within communities, they are usually the source of strength that keep the families going. Not just within their homes, but also with their communities we did hear of stories of how women played roles in even getting patients to different hospitals, in providing food where somebody in the neighbourhood did not have enough. So these are the kinds of roles that we heard of. Right now there is silence.
But one think I’d like to clarify is that often this government has been talking about that now there would be no discrimination with the women in Jammu and Kashmir because Article 370 is gone and because Article 370 discriminated with the women, I think there are a lot of myths that are being perpetuated. Not that gender equality in Jammu and Kashmir was something perfect, but it is imperfect anywhere in the world, it is certainly not perfect in other parts of the country.
It is erroneous to say that women lost their state subjectship if they were marrying outside the state. That question was completely settled and the original law was gender neutral. The ambiguity rose only when an executive order was passed in 1967 which did not have a legislative mandate also or validity. That ambiguity started the thing because there was a certain minister who decided that the women should carry a valid-till-marriage stamp. And that ambiguity continued for several decades till there were women who challenged this order and in 2002 the high court had clubbed all these petitions together and finally decided that women of J&K cannot lose their permanent resident status even if they are marrying outside. So that was pretty much settled.
Other than that there were certain laws that were, that should have been, pro-women, that did not exist in J&K, but these could have been brought in without completely demolishing the entire structure. You can always amend laws within the existing structure. Some laws have been applicable, some laws have been extended but some haven’t been. So if you could do that, you could have done the others also. The struggles internally had also been growing on these.
Other than that, women in J&K, because of its free education structure, women had access to free education, women were getting 50% reservation in professional colleges. And that is something that doesn’t exist anywhere in India and is now gone.
I mean we move from dismay to more dismay and more dismay. And that’s been the journey of the last one year.
Do you think that elections, whenever they are held, will help make the situation at least a little better?
I don’t see right now, I mean everybody seems to be struggling, at least the mainstream political persons because they have been virtually out of the scene and virtually behind the bars for the last one year. There has been complete silence, there has been destruction of whatever political structure that existed. They’re still struggling on how to renew that political narrative. What political narrative do they now come up with when their existing political narrative has been completely destroyed? Particularly in the case of Kashmiri politicians, whose entire politics was autonomy and protecting the identity of Kashmir. Now since that has gone, where does one start from? And if ever they do start will it have an audience among the public? As I spoke earlier with the demographic flooding, that audience is likely to change.
Are there any moments over the past year that have made you feel hopeful?
No. Nothing. I mean we move from dismay to more dismay and more dismay. And that’s been the journey of the last one year.