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Saturday, 15 June 2019

Reality of Kashmir


Reality of Kashmir hits you once you visit state, at odds with TV-spun narrative; J&K misrule in ample evidence


I spent a few days in Srinagar this week, visiting after a couple of years. And now I think it is important to let readers know about the disturbing things happening in Jammu and Kashmir. It is always strange to visit the state because when you are away, you can get carried away by whatever narrative our news channels spin, but the reality of Kashmir and its people hits you in the face when you are actually there.
The first thing that one notices is how little change there is in Srinagar. The vast changes in the landscapes of Indian cities over the past 15 years are absent in the state capital. There are no multiplexes, not one single-cinema hall and no malls. The restaurants look exactly as they did two or three decades ago. Although the traffic has increased, there is very little other visual sign of change or economic progress in Srinagar.
Moreover, as the government frequently cuts mobile internet services in the region, there is no app-based economy in the city either. No Uber, or Ola, or the other services that people have become accustomed to in cities for years.

There are 403 news channels in India but none in Kashmir. The government doesn't allow any local television news due to the fear that it can cause trouble. The weak economy does not allow for much corporate advertising either. This means Kashmiri newspapers are dependent on the advertisements they get from the government in New Delhi, which results in no criticism of their biggest customer in the papers and lack of public sentiment on the front pages.
The day I was leaving Srinagar, a headline in a newspaper read: "Neither azaadi nor autonomy possible, says J&K governor". The governor, Satya Pal Malik, told Kashmir's reporters that he wanted the youth of the state to put down their guns and "join me for dinner". If azaadi and autonomy are already off the table, it's hard to construe what he planned to serve them and why they would want to engage with him in the first place.

The reality is that this government has no idea what to do in Kashmir and is trying to rule over the population through force, not democracy. The presence of paramilitary forces on the streets of Srinagar has become depressingly normal. Uniformed men carrying assault rifles and speaking Tamil, Bengali, Hindi and Punjabi keep watch over local residents.

The number of security personnel dying in Kashmir has risen in the past five years — from 41 in 2015 to 88 in 2016, 83 in 2017 and 95 in 2018. We are not even halfway through 2019 but have already lost 67 soldiers. The air strikes carried out in Balakot in response to the Pulwama attack are believed to have been instrumental for the NDA government in winning the Lok Sabha election. But I wonder how many took a good look at the actual result of all that happened in the state. We seem to be fine with it as long as the killing happens a distance away.
I met 10 reporters in Srinagar the day I landed. As a reporter myself, I was able to freely speak with them about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. They said they no longer needed any specific instruction from the government to not write about certain issues as they instinctively knew what not to report. I have never seen a group of Indian reporters so afraid. At the airport, there was a booth for foreigners to register themselves when they land, which I have noticed in any other state. Foreign reporters are more or less banned from Kashmir. The Centre has taken the foreign channels that the locals prefer, such as Al Jazeera and News TV (owned by the government of Iran), off air.

Kashmiris have been dehumanised for years, not a doing of this government alone. We have been doing what is being done to them for three decades now, but it seems we have learned no lessons yet. We blunder on, happy to sacrifice citizens and soldiers and talk about delusional musings, such as bringing back normalcy, when we are the ones who made things abnormal to being with.



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