Jammu and Kashmir continues to face violations of human rights and free speech
On the morning of August 5, 2019, the few that had access to dish TV watched in shock the proceedings of the Indian Parliament, which abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and stripped it of its limited autonomy.
The restive Kashmir Valley is already one of the most militarized zones in the world, where suspicion, distrust, and rumour galore brew among the 13 million residents.
“Working has been hell for journalists in Kashmir for the past year,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
For J&K’s residents, the state became the centre of the world’s biggest news and information blackout, with all forms of communication -- internet, mobile data, TV, and fixed-line telephone -- suddenly suspended. This unprecedented internet shutdown began on the night of August 4, 2019, on the eve of the abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution of India, which granted special status to the state of J&K.
The South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) deplored Kashmir Valley’s one year under shutdown.
On August 11, a special committee set up by India’s Supreme Court recommended the restoration of 4G internet services in J&K, and access to high-speed internet on a “trial basis in a calibrated manner in specified limited areas to assess the impact on the security situation” after August 15.
However, the government in New Delhi and the J&K Union Territory administration (Delhi-appointed governor in Srinagar) told the court that while security concerns and threats from the region continued to remain high, 4G internet services would not be made available.
Further fuel to the fire is the J&K government’s new media policy for journalists. The policy announced in June has come under strong criticism, with political parties stating that it will give the government an upper hand to militate against journalists and muzzle free speech. “It’s an assault on press freedom,” writes Naseer Ganai in Outlook magazine.
The policy says that background checks of newspaper editors, publishers, and reporters will be carried out before the empanelment of newspapers, media organizations, and outlets. The policy gives power to the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) to examine the content of print, electronic, and other media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or anti-national activities.”
On the other hand, Tapan Kumar Bose, an independent filmmaker and a human rights activist based in Delhi, expressed his deep concern over those detained during the crackdowns and search operations, and those picked up from highways, with promises to relatives of their safe return -- the releases rarely happen.
Since 1990, thousands of habeas corpus petitions have been filed before the J&K High Court. “There is a total breakdown of the law and order machinery. I shall not feel shy to say that this court has been made helpless by so-called law enforcement agencies. Nobody bothers to obey the order of the court,” grieves Tapan Bose.
Besides Kashmir valley, Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam are the worst places in India where enforced disappearances are rampant and appalling. Usually, security forces are in denial about those in custody and do not even register complaints about missing persons.
The relatives of the detainees move from pillar to post in J&K after being refused help for year after year. The relatives are frustrated and tired, but angry; they eventually abandon the search for their loved ones, and one day their cries go silent.
Tapan Bose, who made a documentary with Zahir Raihan during the 1971 Liberation War, stated that India’s domestic law allows impunity for enforced disappearances in states such as Manipur, J&K, and Punjab.
He says there is denial of justice and the right to know the truth, but de jure immunity minimizes victims’ access to the right to justice. The perpetrators are rarely held accountable for their acts.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.