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Freedom gagged

Much of the information circulated in the Kashmir valley tends to be half-truths and one-and-a-half-truths, if not outright fabrications, writes Sualeh Keen. There are no clearly set standards of what is allowed under free speech, and what constitutes the abuse of this right. Information asymmetry is counterproductive. Any lopsided and biased perspective is far from ‘free’ if it closes itself to other narratives. This is equally true for the state, which must realise that not allowing people space to protest democratically will lead to protests in less desirable forms

In India, the issue of freedom of expression enters public debate at the national level only occasionally. For example when a book is banned for its controversial content, a movie censored for politically incorrect content, or an artist offends the sensibility of some groups. However, in a conflict zone like Kashmir, freedom of expression and its scope is always a hot topic. And it is easy to see why: a secessionist movement in the valley creates a conflict of interest between the separatists and the state, and it suits the interests of each side to tilt the information asymmetry to its advantage. Each side tries its best to highlight and exaggerate the wrongs of the opposite side, while remaining silent over, or denying or suppressing any mention of its own wrongs.

As expected, much of the information circulated in the valley tends to be half-truths and one-and-a-half-truths, if not outright fabrications. Also, there are no clearly set standards of what is allowed under free speech, and what constitutes the abuse of this right. Apart from this, certain aspects of free speech peculiar to the valley pose challenges in arriving at universally acceptable standards. I intend to extrapolate these peculiarities.

Geographically, the Kashmir valley is a relatively isolated place surrounded by mountain ranges, enjoying a climate and culture distinct from surrounding regions. Historically, Kashmir has always been relatively insulated from the external world. The 11th century Muslim scholar and polymath Al-Biruni mentions that the inhabitants of Kashmir did not allow outsiders to enter the valley. In modern times, thanks to Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that grants special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir, Indian citizens from other states cannot purchase land or property in the valley. Thus, the valley of Kashmir possesses conditions favourable for the evolution of unique local standards covering a gamut of social aspects, including free speech.

The centripetal pull of an island mentality is offset by a centrifugal push to connect with the outside world. Presently, this outward-looking impulse manifests itself in the Kashmiri Muslim majority’s romance with Pakistan, and in their latching onto issues concerning the Muslim world. Controversial issues in faraway Muslim countries can incur fierce responses in the valley. Thus, its unique identity together with the special feature of being a Muslim majority region in India is the religio-regional complex around which secessionism in the valley is constructed.

The beginnings of insurgency

Secessionism did not find support among the masses until a rigged election in 1987 resulted in an unexpected defeat of the Muslim United Front, a new political party floated by various valley-based Muslim groups. Pakistan took advantage of the disenfranchisement of Kashmiri Muslims and extended arms training and weapons to local rebels, which resulted in an armed uprising in the valley in 1989.

The government was in complete disarray while armed militants roamed the streets freely, with full emotional and ideological support from the local Muslim populace. Given the stakes involved, information about militants became valuable, and reciprocally, secrecy about the identity of militants became imperative. A witchhunt ensued wherein a whiff of an allegation of being an informer or mukhbir could get someone gruesomely killed to ‘set an example’. Pandits, being the Hindu minority, were not expected by the Muslim militants and their Pakistani handlers to support this movement and were considered traitors by default. Many of them were gratuitously murdered, and threatening messages from various militant groups were sent to them, warning them of consequences if they did not leave the valley. In some cases, threats were issued via loudspeakers fitted in mosques and in leading newspapers (1). All these events forced them to flee from the valley in order to survive.

Following the exodus of Pandits in 1990, the demographics of the valley became largely homogenous and the vestiges of multiculturalism that an influential minority had offered came to an abrupt end. The new generation of Muslims today have no memory of a multicultural Kashmir, nor do they have any frame of reference about sustaining a non-abusive political discourse with non-Muslims and people of other regions of the state. Because the targets are not around to protest, it is not unusual for hate speeches, uncontested claims and unsubstantiated ‘facts’ to find their way into local newspapers and common discourse.

Terror, press controls and conspiracy theories

In addition to murdering alleged informers in the early years of the insurgency, militants also took immediate control of the local press through intimidation and murder of editors and journalists. Thereafter for many years, local newspapers read like jihadi tabloids with exaggerated figures of the number of armed personnel killed in encounters, spurious news, and propagandist literature. During those days, anybody with a wooden pistol could get anything published on the front page of any valley-based newspaper. This reduced free speech to ‘free-for-all’ speech, but was limited to the separatist side because the ‘freedom fighters’ ensured that nobody was free to challenge them. Television and radio stations were also targeted and their staff intimidated and murdered. It was not until successes in counter-insurgency and the resurgence of an elected government in 1996 that the press gained some semblance of editorial control.

The state gave the armed forces special powers under draconian laws, providing them impunity and a licence to kill. These powers were rampantly misused, resulting in fake encounters, custodial deaths and rape. The counter-insurgents, who were pulled from the ranks of surrendered local militants, in turn indulged in extortion, abduction and crime in areas they controlled. Anybody they killed was perfunctorily dubbed a militant or a militant sympathiser. Non-combatant Kashmiris were caught in the crossfire. Supporting one side meant invoking the wrath of the other. This resulted in self-censorship and doublespeak among the masses, as they could not risk taking a committed stand in the conflict. The fear psychosis created by this dilemma meant that the families of victims, when questioned by journalists, hesitated to reveal the identity of the killers. In one case, bereaved families of the 35 Sikhs (another minority), killed in the Chattisinghpora massacre of 2000 by unidentified gunmen, attempted to reach a consensus right in front of the interviewer regarding which account would be less dangerous for the survivors (2). It became characteristic for people to tell different accounts in public and in private.

Misinformation spread by the separatists and the state, coupled with the common people’s reluctance to speak fearlessly, resulted in misattribution of culpability and distortion of reality. The conflicting motives of numerous vested interests made the ground fertile for conspiracy theories. A myriad such theories, ranging from the plausible to the bizarre, vied for mindspace. People made whimsical selections, with the most popular theory being declared the truth.

According to a conspiracy theory about the exodus of Pandits -- now a ‘consensual truth’ among many valley Muslims -- “the Pandits were instructed by the Government of India to leave the valley to clear the ground for the genocide of Muslims”. This theory is an example of ‘moral disengagement’ from collective responsibility for the exodus. It aims to remove the communal taint from the Mujahideen (as the armed insurgents were euphemistically called) and the secessionist movement, and additionally shifts the blame to the Pandit victims whose ‘absence’ is shown as being responsible for subsequent deaths of Muslim insurgents. There are also insensitive references to stereotypical ‘enemies’ such as the Jews, exemplified by a recent newspaper article (3) that propounded a theory wherein Jews, capitalists and Indians scheme to ruin the local economy to enslave Kashmiris with their banking loans, no matter that the economy is most damaged by protracted shutdowns enforced by separatists. Shopkeepers cannot speak out against these shutdowns lest their shops be damaged by separatists.

Regional war of words

According to a recent survey (4) conducted by Ipsos MORI to establish current attitudes in the state, an overwhelming majority of people in the valley support independence for Kashmir, while people of the remaining regions prefer to remain in the Indian Union. Exclusive secessionist and nationalistic aspirations have resulted in regional polarisation, with a neat dichotomy between valley-based newspapers and those from the Jammu region. The regional divide is exacerbated by the flourishing of Hindu right-wing parties in Jammu as a counterpoint to the valley’s Islamist separatism.

Srinagar-based newspapers tend to maintain a sloppy balance between separatist opinions and official statements. The bipolar content is encouraged because the ‘mainstream’ valley-based political parties espouse soft-separatist tendencies in their political promulgation of greater autonomy for the state. Besides, newspapers depend upon the state for revenue through tender notices and advertisements. Presently, separatism has permeated into educational institutions, the judiciary, trade unions and every sphere of life, a spread inadvertently abetted by the constant harassment of common people by the armed forces, which have held draconian powers over the lives of people for the past two decades.

In contrast, Jammu-based newspapers, in addition to being highly critical of separatists, are wary of dominant valley-based political parties which are seen to pursue policies that discriminate against other regions. As a result, where the general consensus in the valley is against the continuation of draconian laws and of the armed forces in general, the Jammu-based papers exhibit solidarity with the armed forces. This vitriolic regional confrontation creates occasions for the settling of personal scores. In a midnight crackdown on June 29, 2010, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, headed by a Kashmir-based party, sealed the office and press of a Jammu-based newspaper whose June 29th edition had criticised Kashmiri leadership (5).

Endemic state of sedition

A New Delhi court recently ordered the police to file charges of sedition against Kashimiri separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani and novelist Arundhati Roy for making anti-India speeches at a conference held in New Delhi on October 21, 2010. This is a selective application of charges, given that Geelani and other separatist leaders make similar speeches frequently in the valley with wide media coverage. Besides, how does a government tackle sedition when a majority of people in the valley are ‘guilty’ of it? It cannot press charges against an entire population. Unless the alleged seditious speech is a clear call for violence, the government is better off ignoring it and addressing the root cause of the widespread alienation.

Also, the state needs to reconsider the denial of freedom of assembly for public gatherings to Kashmiri people, while allowing such freedom in other regions and states. Mosques and Friday sermons have a long political history in the mobilisation of masses in the valley, but preventing people from gathering for prayers in mosques reinforces the native feeling of being ‘occupied by a Hindu majority nation’. As such, the state needs to take extra care and not give the impression of discriminating against Kashmiri Muslims.

Hostile media phenomenon

In Kashmir, it is generally believed that the Indian state has enforced a ‘media embargo’ on the Kashmir issue, an impression propagated by valley-based journalists. The nationalist Indian media, as it is called in the valley, is perceived to whitewash any wrongdoing by the state, while highlighting the transgressions of separatists and exaggerating the role played by Islamism and Pakistan in the ‘people’s movement’. Indeed, for over two decades of strife, the Indian media tended to look the other way and only intermittently focused on sensational ephemeral news from Kashmir. In the past few years, however, the media have given ample coverage to Kashmir and accommodated a range of opinions and analyses. What then explains the continued suspicion of the Indian media in the present milieu?

The perceived lack of concern by the Indian media can be explained by the fact that local populations in conflict zones which face numerous problems on a daily basis always want their problems to be considered more urgent than, say, coverage of some celebrity’s wedding. It would seem that nothing less than dedicating a full page to Kashmir daily by the main Indian newspapers is going to satisfy the people of the valley. Perhaps even that will not be enough. This ‘trust deficit’ is referred to by social psychologists as the ‘Hostile Media Phenomenon’ (6) according to which people tend to see the world through the eyes of their own side and thus have a biased view about situations where they compete. The competition, in this case, is for media space, not just between secessionist and nationalistic perspectives but between issues concerning the locals of Kashmir and all the other myriad issues and non-issues covered by the media of a large and diverse country.

Also, valley-based journalists are often harassed by the police due to which they empathise with anti-state sentiment and develop ‘localitis’ whereby they are unable to visualise the law-and-order situation holistically.

Facebook face-off

The advent of social networking websites has created new opportunities and challenges for public expression. Their potential for a revolutionary movement are obvious, as exemplified by their role in recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The Internet gives ordinary Kashmiris an opportunity to counter official narratives and tilt the information asymmetry towards their preferred stance. Indeed, the ability of local ‘citizen journalists’ to upload a video of an incident of police brutality directly to YouTube can prevent the state from sweeping such cases under the carpet. However, the absence of control and validation of web-based content also means that rumours, propaganda and spurious videos can contribute to manipulating public opinion.

The Internet played a critical role during the unrest of 2010 that left more than a hundred Kashmiri civilians dead in police firings. Each uploaded photo and video, showing gory details of the victims, enraged the masses further, resulting in pitched battles between stone-pelters and the police and adding to the spiral of violence. Facts can be as damaging to the state as fiction, especially when the state has a habit of abusing human rights, shielding the guilty, and using excessive force against protestors. Facebook stone-pelting support groups have come under the police scanner, but the police should distinguish between real violators of freedom of speech and those who want to seek secession peacefully.

The Internet also became the medium through which estranged Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits interacted with each other for the first time since 1990. The results of this virtual ‘reunion’ have been mixed. Conversation on a web-based platform tends to be loud due to relative anonymity, overcompensation after a long silence, and the bravado of being out of range. There has been no closure between Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims whom the former believe were responsible for their exodus. Thus, interactions between the two have generally been abusive, cause for heartburn for both, and have reinforced stereotypes.

However, the Net also enabled an expression of love for a common culture, the renewal of friendships, catharsis, and closure. I hope that the opportunity to vent pent-up emotions and to share personal grief will engender moderation and sensitivity towards the pain of the ‘other’. But that is only possible if the various exclusively Muslim and Pandit platforms break out of the ‘groupthink’ trap and start seeing things from the other’s perspective.

Groupthink

The flight towards polarised online forums with lopsided perspectives of the freedom struggle has led to a curious situation. Separatist Facebook groups suffer from a severe case of groupthink (7), resulting in illusions of invulnerability and unanimity, ignoring or rationalising any challenges to their assumptions, indulging in self-righteous behaviour that disowns responsibility for actions, and stereotyping those who oppose the group. As a result of this lack of introspection, ‘online stone-pelters’ are unable to survey and re-evaluate alternative solutions to the conflict, to examine risks and contingency plans objectively, or listen to perspectives of the out-group. They end up with incomplete information about the very issue that is of utmost concern to them.

It is often observed that ‘mind guards’ (self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information) pressurise questioning members to conform and to self-censor ideas that deviate from the assumed group consensus. Non-conformists are dubbed traitors, Indian agents, boot-lickers of the state, vested interests, biased communalists, etc. On August 22, 2010, a Kashmiri woman artist was threatened with dire physical consequences after an article featuring an interview with her was posted on the Kashmiri Facebook group ‘Bekaar Jamaath’ (literally, ‘Idle Group’). Her fault was that she had voiced her wish to see children in schools instead of pelting stones on roads. There are many such examples.

Groupthink also exists in Pandit Facebook groups contaminated by hardline Hindu right-wingers. Most of these groups see a homogenous Kashmiri Muslim community, all of whom are terrorists or their supporters. Any member who expresses a desire to reconcile with Kashmiri Muslims or shows an aversion for right-wing politics is called a traitor, evil, impotent, or stupid.

Conclusion

After an armed uprising, pelting stones at the armed forces may appear ‘non-violent’ in terms of relative local standards, but local standards are misleading when it comes to anticipating a global response. Making a grand mufti of Kashmir retract his fatwa that stone-pelting is un-Islamic, or getting the stone-pelting ‘Intifada’ endorsed by non-Kashmiri anarchists is not going to win support for the secessionist movement. It does not matter if there is unanimity among the group about a certain mode of protest; what matters is whether or not the world agrees. If they are to earn the solidarity of people around the world, separatists should introspect, analyse the differences between actual and potential performance, and apply universally-accepted standards to their narrative and their actions.

The Indian media should also introspect about their two-decades-long apathy towards the misery of the common Kashmiri. The Indian media are also guilty of violating journalistic principles in the face of ‘national interest’. When we tell Kashmiri youth they should demonstrate peacefully and not pelt stones, they reply that their peaceful demonstrations do not sway the nationalist media. If it takes over a hundred deaths for them to start paying attention to abuses of power in a purportedly ‘inseparable part of India’, we can say that the hardness of hearing of the nationalist media is against the national interest. This has paved the way for stentorian and violent methods of public expression, and has aided the cycle of violence.

Information asymmetry is counterproductive. Any lopsided and biased perspective is far from ‘free’ if it closes itself to other narratives. This is equally true for the state, which must realise that not allowing people space to protest democratically will lead to protests in less desirable forms. The state should not abuse its power by applying laws selectively to settle personal scores, or by harassing people who use peaceful methods of seeking independence. Facts, no matter how bitter and embarrassing, should be proactively sought. Towards this end, the state should open grievance redressal cells in every corner of the valley to proactively seek feedback and complaints from the people. Time-bound action should be taken to resolve their grievances. If the state provided easily accessible communication channels, people wouldn’t need to take to the streets to register their protest, and local issues wouldn’t result in valley-wide agitations. Accepting blame where it is culpable is the duty of a responsible government. It will lend it stature, and go a long way towards assuaging the alienated feelings of the people of Kashmir.

Finally, there is a fine line between freedom of expression and violation of that freedom. Attention should be paid to bringing that line sharply into focus.

(Sualeh Keen is a Kashmiri writer, poet, graphic artist, and cultural critic. He works as a marketing communications professional in a Pune-based software company. He created the Facebook group Moderate Voice of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as a platform to promote dialogue between various stakeholders of the state)

Endnotes
1 Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant outfit, published an ultimatum to the Pandits to leave the valley within 48 hours in The Daily Aftab edition of April 14, 1990
2 ‘A Kashmiri Mystery’ by Barry Bearak, The New York Times, December 31, 2000. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F00E2DD1138F932A05751C1A9669C8B63&pagewanted=all
3 ‘Why Jews Love Our Hartals’. Greater Kashmir, December 31, 2010. http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2010/Dec/31/why-jews-love-our-hartals-19.asp
4 ‘Kashmir: Paths to Peace’, Robert W Bradnock, King’s College London and Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House, May 2010.
http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2551/Kashmir-Paths-to-Peace.aspx
5 ‘Police Harasses the Family of Early Times Editor’. The North Lines, Jammu, July 4, 2010. http://www.thenorthlines.com/newsdet.aspx?q=33854
6 Vallone R P, Ross L, and Lepper M R (1985), ‘The Hostile Media Phenomenon: Biased Perception and Perceptions of Media Bias in Coverage of the Beirut Massacre’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585. Vallone, Ross and Lepper showed news broadcasts about the Middle East to Arabs and Israelis. Each group thought the broadcasts were biased towards the other side
7 For more information on groupthink, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

Infochange News & Features, July 2011