Gender & Identity, Life

Don’t let Kashmir’s media blackouts blind you

The best way to learn about a conflict is to hear from those on the ground. But in Kashmir, censorship makes that nearly impossible.

The light in my mother’s eyes as she spoke of the unmeasurably beauty in her homeland and my father’s stories about his childhood painted a heavenly picture of Kashmir in my mind. I knew from a very young age that I was Kashmiri, and that was something to be deeply proud of. But as I grew older, an increasing awareness of the gruesome reality of the region my family left behind began to overshadow the nostalgia.

Chances are that you, like me, never learned anything about Kashmir in school. You probably haven’t heard much about it in the media. And if you’re not careful, you never will.

[bctt tweet=”Chances are you never learned anything about Kashmir in school.”]

The region of Kashmir has been under brutal occupation for nearly 70 years. In August 1947, the new nation-states of Pakistan and India were born out of the former British Raj. Kashmir, which is situated between the two countries, remained independent but forever in limbo. That October, Kashmir’s monarchal leader of Kashmir acceded the region to India. The people of Kashmir, who were never consulted, assumed it was only a temporary move until a permanent decision could be reached.

But Pakistan never gave up its claim of the region. Instead, it funded armed militants to take advantage of the growing resistance in Jammu and Kashmir. The United Nations would eventually intervene and negotiate a ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan. The ceasefire, taking effect in 1949, split the region into two: one third would become Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir, and India would retain the remaining two thirds.

To this day, that 1949 UN resolution calling for Kashmiris to realize their right to self-determination has not been fulfilled. Kashmir is now the most militarized region in the world and remains under brutal occupation of both sides of the line of control.

While history books and much of the media minimize the situation in Kashmir to a religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus, it’s a lot more complicated. Culturally, Kashmir has always been distinct. Its people have a rich and diverse cultural history connected to Sufism, Hinduism and Budhism. Kashmiri identity would transform from a secular identity attached to the shared land and culture of indigenous people, to an identity attached to religion (specifically, one’s “Muslimness”). Economic policy would also exacerbate the conflict.

[bctt tweet=”The term ‘religious conflict’ barely scratches the surface of Kashmir’s situation.”]

The insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir began in the late 1980s as the extremist presence rose. Kashmiri Pandits, the region’s Hindu minority, face brutal oppression on their indigenous land. The religious element of the conflict hit a climax and a mass exodus began. To this day, nearly all Pandits remain displacement from their homelands: either in refugee camps in India that were intended to be temporary but have remained a permanent, or as immigrants in the U.S. and the U.K.

In the adjacent Azad Kashmir district, Pakistan – which, unlike India, has struggled to maintain democratic institutions, or at least the illusion of them – has set up a brutal occupation. “Although ‘azad’ means ‘free,’ the residents of Azad Kashmir are anything but,” said Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams in a statement. “The Pakistani authorities govern Azad Kashmir with strict controls on basic freedoms.”

While not dealing with insurgency, the region regularly is under tight military control that includes censoring the press, persecuting those who advocate an independent Kashmir, and indiscriminately detaining and torturing Kashmiris. Pakistani intelligence has also been linked to supporting extremists that terrorize areas of Jammu and Kashmir.

This impunity and occupation has led to heinous crimes against humanity, including sexual assault, mass disappearances and what many say amounts to genocide. But much of the world, including most everyday Indians and Pakistanis, remain unaware of it all. Because occupation has also meant control of the media and the Internet. It’s a “deliberate attempt to block the flow of information…to keep the global community in the dark, not letting them see with their own eyes how Kashmiris are being treated,” reporter Ashraf Javed accused in The Nation.

[bctt tweet=”Media blackouts in Kashmir keep all of us in the dark.”]

In September 2015, when Indian prime minister Narenda Modi held a town hall at Facebook’s headquarters in California, Kashmiris were under another internet and media blackout. The official state explanation for this particular blackout? According to the Times of India, the Indian government “imposed the ban on Internet services throughout the state on the eve of the Eid festival to prevent anti-social elements posting provocative comments and pictures online.” So while Mark Zuckerburg was singing the praises of Modi and their joint vision for expanding internet accessibility and a ‘Digital India,’ Kashmiris’ human rights were being violated for the umpteenth time.

Media and Internet blackouts are undemocratic, oppressive – and ubiquitous in the region. Last spring, Al Jazeera TV was banned from broadcasting for five days for “displaying a map in which India’s border with Pakistan in Kashmir did not correspond to its territorial claims.” Reporters Without Borders has recorded several other experiences of media censorship and targeting in India-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. They have ranked India 136th out of 180 on their 2015 press freedom index, while Pakistan is ranked 159th.

Photo: Mughal Gardens in Srinigar, 2008. Tristan Yau, Creative Commons
Photo: Mughal Gardens in Srinigar, 2008. Tristan Yau, Creative Commons

Is it any wonder we know so little about the conflict? Artistic and academic work with any inclination of resistance or pro-Kashmiri sentiments is totally banned; creators find themselves at risk of losing everything, including their lives.

And on the other side of the globe, I find myself struggling to find media or literature that encompasses integrity and understanding of Kashmir. As a Kashmiri, it’s a rare moment when I find media that actually speaks the truths of Kashmir. Discovering journalist Fahad Shah’s 2013 “Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir,” an anthology of narratives from various Kashmiris who live life under insurgency, was one such moment. Shah also founded The Kashmir Walla, an online magazine focused on news, art and literature, and I recommend you take some time to read the voices and stories it features.

[bctt tweet=”These are the brave Kashmiri voices resisting the region’s media blackouts.”]

Censorship has left a lasting impact on generations of Kashmiris, and it has made simply telling our narratives an act of resistance. That’s why the work of journalists and writers like Shah, Basharat Peer, Mirza Waheed and other brave Kashmiris is so powerful.

I am the grandchild of Kashmiris who lived through Partition and the transformation of their homeland from a heaven on earth to the world’s most militarized region. This is personal. The power of media blackouts is all too real, and I have firsthand experience. These blackouts affect every aspect of how we as Kashmiris live and understand our struggles and identity.  To this day, nothing has been more informative or compelling to me than my grandparents’ and parents’ stories about life in Kashmir.

Featured image: A soldier guards the roadside checkpoint outside Srinagar International Airport, 2009. Wikimedia Commons