Reminders of my helplessness
|January 19, 2013||Posted by Shehla Rashid under Kashmir, Media Gag in Kashmir, Politics, Women|
Although this post contains references to my work, the views expressed are entirely my own.
Over the past few months, I’ve been asked this question several times: “What exactly do you do?”. Well, my work involves advocacy of free speech and examination of censorship-related cases. I defend free speech as long as it does not border on hate speech. When I’m not working, I express disgust at gender inequality, gender-based violence and gender stereotypes. I protest against rapes in Delhi, I protest against the arrest of two girls for a Facebook post in Mumbai, I attend regional consultations on how South Asian countries can design better Internet policy that is less intrusive and more citizen-friendly while, at the same time, being effective.
I was born, raised and educated in Kashmir and, although I keep hopping cities, most of my experiences are centered around Kashmir and the politics surrounding it. It’s hard not to talk about Kashmir and about how we face similar or bigger issues when a certain issue is being discussed. At times I am indeed drawing parallels and at other times the reference to Kashmir is simply an expression of how “I can relate to that!”- both, because I would like to see better human rights standards being followed when the State deals with my people and with people, in general. At all times, however, I’m conscious of the need to not sound rhetorical and be objective. But, as long as injustice continues and dual standards are indeed followed while dealing with people in Kashmir, and those outside it, does ‘objectivity’ even carry a meaning? At times, I feel that I’m going overboard with Kashmir, taking every opportunity to raise relevant issues on various forums. Sometimes I doubt whether I’m doing enough, doing even what is within my capacity. At times I wonder if I’m too loud about Kashmir while, sometimes, I’m not sure if I’m vocal enough.
When I speak against censorship or against repressive laws that may affect free speech, my comments are generally well-received. It is okay to express concern at total surveillance by the State in the name of public order. Last summer, while I was in Srinagar, and I tried to raise the issue of continued ban on SMS in Jammu & Kashmir, three of my well-wishers asked me why I want to get myself killed. This is apart from criticism of the whole “cause” as being a red herring that takes attention away from the real issue (i.e. the Kashmir issue). While I agree that Kashmir is the main cause, other causes are equally important. After all, we DO things other than solving the Conflict most of the time. Among the critics of the SMS “cause” was a guy who kept insisting that, since there’s “Whatsapp”, what was the need for SMS? Fair point. After all, if the government decides to ban phone calls, we will have to resort to Skype and Viber. If the government bans Google, we might have to switch to Bing. If the government bans YouTube, we’ll still have Vimeo. When they ban Facebook, we’ll still have Twitter, right? I must also mention that my critic has been a rather privileged kid with access to gadgets and cars. The brunt of all repressive measures is always borne by the most underprivileged among any class (in this case mobile phone users, the penetration being around 85%). It is one thing to use a certain technology out of choice. Quite another to have to use it because your State clamps down on what should be normally available to you.
It is true that SMS ban is only a minor issue- the bigger issue is that we tend to forget our rights. We forget to ask for justice. We learn to live with injustice. Just because it doesn’t affect us adversely, SMS ban is not a huge issue. Because we have access to the Internet and smartphones (which many people don’t) it’s a minor issue. The real issue here is the telecom gag in Kashmir. Kashmir did not have cell phones till about 2004 when the public operator, BSNL, was allowed to roll out mobile services. When someone remarked that cell phones are just a new surveillance tool, I ridiculed them for being “a conspiracy theorist”. After nearly a decade, when a cyber-security professional with wide exposure to government practices told me the same, I could not agree more. A pre-paid phone from India does not work in Kashmir. A pre-paid phone from Kashmir does not work in India. I’m not creating distinctions between India and Kashmir. These distinctions exist. You can’t make a phone call to Pakistani Kashmir from Indian Kashmir. This affects traders who want to trade across the border severely because it is near impossible for them to track their consignments.
While we propagate lofty ideas like protection of offensive and inconvenient speech, I can’t help but think what a mockery of the same is made in Kashmir. Earlier last year, the Inspector General of Police, Mr. SM Sahai was reported as having “summoned” the admins of various “anti-India” Facebook pages and asked them to mend their ways or face the music. While I agree that the content on these pages may have been virulent, there are equally, even more, vitriolic Facebook pages which spread hatred against Kashmiris. Why is criticism of the Indian State something that must be stopped while the same outrage is not sparked among police circles by anti-Kashmir pages? Do they not spread hatred and venom, do they not fuel “disaffection”? On the contrary, police booked a famous BBC journalist of Kashmiri origin, Nayeema Mehjoor for “inciting violence and spreading disinformation” for her comments on the killing of a man by ‘armed men’ in the middle of Lal Chowk (commercial hub of Srinagar). Some of us may be aware of the extra agility with which the Pune police acted when some people insulted the Maratha war hero, Shivaji. We are aware of how a war hero of a different streak, Narendra Modi, can go to any length to protect the image of Gujaratis. We continue to crave such an administration and such a leader who can speak up for his/her people without feeling less loyal to his/her masters at the Centre.
Apart from telecom gag and Internet surveillance, media in Kashmir is a watered-down version of the Indian media. Local journalists operate under various pressures while Indian media operating in Kashmir have failed to display the objectivity and moral courage required to report about a highly suppressed people. My journalist friend, Showkat Shafi, was beaten up several times by the police for covering protests. When young people were being killed in 2010 and while copies of local newspapers were being seized on their way to homes, ETV Urdu (operating from Hyderabad) is the only news channel that even reported these incidents. So much for press freedom! Indian media pride themselves as being morally upright, principled, fair and free, but the protests in 2010 in Kashmir were dubbed as the handiwork of “unruly mobs” while in Delhi, even unruly mobs are referred to as angry protesters and given not just wide coverage but also sympathetic coverage. The government run Door Darshan (DD Kashir) channel is something about which the less said, the better. I have talked at length about it in an older blog post. Local channels are banned, seemingly forever, in Kashmir while the local cable channels in Jammu are allowed to operate just fine. Of course, you can’t watch Pakistani TV channels in Kashmir.
I have been part of protests against rape in New Delhi. Even before the recent wave of protests, I had tried to push some recommendations earlier last year and used various tactics to raise some awareness around it with my limited time and resources. Every once in a while, an extreme case of sexual violence in and around Delhi triggers mass outrage, so I keep writing about it. In my writings, I call for justice for the survivors of rape by way of strict punishment to the guilty. I know, howver, that the survivors of rape by Army men will never ever get justice due to unconditional legal impunity available to State forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. I must admit that I expected India’s Supreme Court to do better than just making a few observations on how bad AFSPA is. I must also admit that I was being optimistic to the point of silliness. Even rabid right-wing extremists can hope to head the Indian State while student politics is systematically suppressed in Kashmir. No wonder then that the starting point of protests is defiance and stone-pelting.
I express outrage on Twitter over the denial of right to protest to fellow protesters in Delhi, I condemn the use of water cannons and tear gas on them. In Kashmir, however, Section 144 is always in place and purple-colored water is used on protesters to not only disperse them but also mark them so that they may be caught later. I once saw a mentally challenged person in Lal Chowk, shabbily dressed as usual but drenched in purple color. As I drove further ahead, I saw the entire street covered in purple color. It took me a while to realise that the person had been caught in protests. The only spots where protests are allowed happen to be near the Press Enclave (where, probably, it is politically too inconvenient to shoot protesters for violation of an everlasting curfew called Section 144). I support Arvind Kejriwal’s protest against hike in power prices in Delhi but what about my people who are being systematically exploited by the illegitimate nexus of the ruling party with NHPC?
No, I don’t want to whine all the time about Kashmir but my country doesn’t leave me with a choice. I too want to enjoy life like any other person of my age without feeling neglected, without feeling like a step-child of this democracy but I can’t stop thinking about Kashmir and the countless issues that my people face. I believe that we deserve better. I’m often told to “go to Pakistan”. But why should I go? Kashmir has not invaded any country. On the contrary, Kashmir lost its independence in 1947 when the Conflict turned into a border dispute. As long as I’m a citizen of this side of the border, I’ll continue to demand the same rights that are available to other Indian citizens. But not without a feeling of helplessness every time I do so. When I advocate for something in India, I know that there’s hope. At least, I can hope for hope. But every time I ask for better treatment of my people, the standard reply is National Security and National Integrity. I feel helpless because these vague and jingoistic terms are thrown at me carelessly, as if basic human rights are not important for a nation’s “integrity”, as if “integrity” can be achieved by systematically antagonizing people. I feel helpless because the Indian civil society, the media and the judiciary have failed us. And I’ve had people laugh at me when I spoke about democracy and better engagement with India to them in Kashmir. I feel helpless because the international community (if you still believe in the idea of one) is busy sucking up to the next-superpower-in-making while ignoring its continued abuse of human rights in Kashmir.