India’s Press Crackdown: The Silencing of Journalists in Kashmir

India’s Press Crackdown: The Silencing of Journalists in Kashmir

India’s Press Crackdown: The Silencing of Journalists in Kashmir

Police charged Fahad Shah, editor in chief of The Kashmir Walla and a Nation contributor, with sedition. Under India’s anti-terrorism laws, he could face life in prison or the death sentence.

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On February 4, the Jammu and Kashmir police charged Fahad Shah, editor in chief of The Kashmir Walla and a Nation contributor, with sedition. Under India’s anti-terrorism laws, Shah could face life in prison or the death sentence. While conviction rates on these cases are low, people have been incarcerated for up to 10 years without a trial. The rules allow authorities to designate anyone a terrorist without evidence and detain them indefinitely.

Police arrested Shah for his publication’s coverage of a gunfight between government forces and militants, during which a 17-year-old named Inayat Ahmad Mir was killed. The Walla interviewed Mir’s family, who denied that their son was a militant and contradicted the official timeline of events. The family’s claim was published alongside the police’s version of the story.

After Shah was detained, I wrote to journalists in the region and received little response. Some numbers were either switched off or no longer in use. But in most cases I just never heard back. In a few instances, I got messages: “Things are bad,” “I can’t speak now,” “Fahad’s arrest has terrified everyone,” and “It is no longer safe.” Almost everyone, I was told, had “retreated into silence.”

Like many journalists in Kashmir, Shah has been questioned multiple times by local police. However, no one expected ​Shah’s arrest, despite the threatening calls, summons, and harassment that reporters have recently endured. Another journalist observed, “Fahad’s arrest has sent shock waves, and streets where journalists would generally roam all day are deserted.”

A reporter who left Indian-administered Kashmir a few years back told me, “Journalism is not just in crisis, it is a crime.” When news later broke that a court in Kashmir had issued an arrest warrant for another journalist, Gowhar Geelani, the person requested that he be quoted anonymously. He still had family back home and feared that they would be targeted if he talked to me on the record.

Geelani has written for Deutsche Welle, The Federal, and the BBC; appeared as a commentator in various national and international news programs; and has been vocal about the ongoing crackdown of journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir. Speaking to Caravan magazine recently, Geelani said, “It is more than evident that this regime is on a mission to erase individual and collective memories…and to manufacture a new history that suits its own civilizational and ideological project with respect to Kashmir.” Since the arrest order, no one knows where Geelani is. A poster offering a bounty for his whereabouts, by an unknown group called the “Civil Society Volunteers Group of Kashmir,” resurfaced last week.

The recent arrests have confirmed what many have always believed: It was just a matter of time before the authorities came for anyone who disagreed with or challenged the authorities in any way. “The heat has gone up,” added a journalist in Kashmir, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Anyone who is in contact with anyone outside is branded a ‘white-collar terrorist.’” In addition to coining this phrase, the Jammu and Kashmir state police also use terms like “journo terrorism.” Haley Duschinski, a legal anthropologist at Ohio University specializing in Kashmir, said that “the police use these categories to justify its extrajudicial killing of civilians.” She added, “The brutal reality is that every Kashmiri civilian is a potential target, and every Kashmiri body is a disposable body.”

Many Kashmiris have been put on a no-fly list in the past year, and others have had their passports taken away. “So hardly anyone will speak now,” the journalist told me, “unless you have left and never plan to come back.”

In January, Kashmir Walla reporter Sajad Gul was arrested under preventive detention laws for posting a video of protests on social media. I was told that authorities may have believed that Gul’s arrest would “silence the The Kashmir Walla” and that the outlet would fall in line. But, as one journalist put it, “Shah kept making noises about Gul’s release.”

Shah’s arrest comes just weeks after pro-government journalists took over the Kashmir Press Club and shut it down, citing a “potential law-and-order situation.” India-based web portal Article-14’s recent essay about the criminalization of journalism in Kashmir did not carry a byline. Instead, it said, “The reporter of this story requested anonymity, fearing reprisal from the Jammu and Kashmir government.” Samar Halarnkar, the editor of Article-14, noted, “The removal of the byline at the reporter’s request is the manifestation of the fear that Kashmiri reporters feel. There has clearly been a sharp escalation in state pressure against them.”

Halarnkar added that other Kashmiri writers who have written for the portal have left Kashmir and are looking for ways to sustain themselves. He said that anti-terrorism, sedition, and preventive detention laws are being used illegally to target journalists: “Over 200 journalists have some kind of cases against them. The cases are like the sword of Damocles hanging over them. Once a case is filed, it can be activated anytime.” Journalists Aasif Sultan, Kamran Yousuf, Qazi Shibli, and Manan Gular Dar have been arrested for reporting under anti-terrorism or preventative detention laws. The police have continued to harass and target Yousef and Shibli even after their release from jail.

“The Indian government is using its entire arsenal of legal and quasi-legal weapons to illegally wage its war against the people in Kashmir—to criminalize free speech and expression, to criminalize dissent, to criminalize Kashmiris,” Duschinski told me. “Kashmiri journalists and activists have been working to document this collective punishment. The government silences civilians because it doesn’t want the world to know what it is doing in Kashmir.”

The 1990s saw armed militancy and violent state oppression in Indian-administered Kashmir. In those brutal years, communities could find out about curfews, closures, arrests, and, in some cases, the death of their loved ones from local newspapers. In addition, Kashmiri journalists reported on the armed rebellion, enforced disappearances, and torture, and broke stories about mass graves and extrajudicial killings. Their reporting became a valuable resource for human rights organizations and researchers.

By the early 2000s, a people’s resistance had gathered momentum. In 2010, a new generation of Kashmiris took to the streets, and Indian-administered Kashmir—especially in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir—witnessed some of the region’s largest anti-India protests. In this climate of renewed demands of freedom, a vibrant online ecosystem bloomed alongside the growth of social media platforms. Many web magazines, including The Kashmir Walla, trace their origin stories to the 2008 and 2010 protests. Journalists created homegrown web magazines, spaces, and publications that would report on Kashmiri voices, experiences, and resistance. Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Narrator, Kashmir Dispatch, The Kashmir Walla, and Free Press Kashmir all emerged during this period. This happened alongside the growth of a small but robust civil society made up of lawyers, activists, and rights defenders who started gathering, documenting, and creating an archive of rights violations and perpetrators.

Reporting from Indian-administered Kashmir, one of the world’s most militarized regions, has always been challenging. But the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016 ignited another wave of anti-India protests, and producing journalism became even more difficult. The Indian government suspended mobile and telephone services and banned the Kashmir Reader, an English-language daily. In 2018, Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, was shot dead outside his office. In June 2019, the National Investigation Agency, India’s anti-terrorism bureau, questioned Fayaz Kaloo, editor of the newspaper The Greater Kashmir, for a week. Soon after, the government stopped advertising in local newspapers—and only began again in a few publications.

In August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, scrapping Kashmir’s limited autonomy. At the same time, India shut down all communications, silencing over 8 million Kashmiris for over 145 days. While landlines and some mobile phone connections were subsequently restored, the Internet remained blocked for another month. Access Now, a digital rights body, called the Kashmir Internet shutdown “the longest ever in a democracy.”

In April 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir police charged Hindu correspondent Peerzada Ashiq, Gowhar Geelani, and photojournalist Masrat Zahra under anti-terrorism laws. Zahra left Kashmir in March 2021 as a “politically persecuted​ person​” at the invitation of the Hamburg Foundation and now lives in Germany. Since her departure, the police have harassed, assaulted, and surveilled Zahra’s parents. They have received several calls from the local police station asking them to bring her pictures, ID cards, and other documents. While Zahra is relatively safe, ​she doesn’t know when she will return home or what will happen to her. Her case remains in​ legal limbo. “People call me brave. I tell them I don’t want to be brave. I want to live a normal life.​ I want to lie down on my mother’s lap when I have a migraine.” ​But now, she told me, “there is no hope.”

Mohamad Junaid, an anthropologist and Kashmir scholar at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said, “This is an unprecedented crackdown on not just reportage or journalism. It’s a crackdown on any voice that is not completely in consonance with what the state wants us to say, think and believe.”

The aim is not just to control what is said, written, and reported about Kashmir but also to have control over Kashmiri minds, bodies, history, and even memories. Shah’s arrest is part of a systematic and coordinated effort to wipe out any independent voice, institution, or media in the region.

On June 2, 2020, the Modi administration, which directly oversees the territory Jammu and Kashmir, released a 53-page “New Media Policy 2020,” which gave unrestricted powers to mid-level bureaucrats in the local administration to determine what constitutes “fake news” or “plagiarism” and what is “unethical,” “seditious,” or “anti-national.” Furthermore, local politicians can now initiate legal proceedings against editors, publishers, and journalists without any evidence.

A Kashmir-based journalist, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said, “The new media policy was what was happening before as well. Then the authorities were breaking the law. Now it is the law. Criminalizing journalism is now official state policy.” The journalist added that in any court of law, this new policy document wouldn’t stand: “It goes against constitutional values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. But we are not living in an ideal world. We live in an occupied zone.” Many journalists have been summoned, interrogated for long hours, and had their houses searched. He described one raid of a photojournalist’s home that resembled a “counterinsurgency operation.” He told me that police “went inside his room with guns and seized all the devices.”

Another consequence of the new media policy is the loss of stories. “Everything that exposes the occupation is gone—whether it’s human rights violations, arbitrary and illegal laws, seizing of resources, paving the way for settlements—anything that exposes the occupation has disappeared,” the journalist added. Journalists have also seen their old stories and bylines quietly disappearing from websites in the past few years.

India’s media policy arms the state with absolute power. There are no limits on authority and no institutional checks and balances. Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times, called the policy “draconian” and one that “forbids any kind of narrative that is critical of the state”—and this, she added, “completely militates against what journalism is about.”

In December 2021, for example, the Jammu and Kashmir police published the findings of an investigation that cleared themselves of all wrongdoing in an encounter in which civilians were killed. But they provided no evidence. In addition, the police issued a “warning threatening penal action” against anyone critical of the investigation. Bhasin described this incident as a “brazen act” and a “clampdown that defies all democratic norms.”

In this era when Indian armed forces and the police act with absolute impunity, a handful of local news outlets play an essential role in reporting and documenting various acts of state violence.

With most local newspapers in Indian-administered Kashmir now reduced to publishing press releases, independent journalists and publications like the Walla are under intense scrutiny and pressure. A young Kashmiri scholar Muda Tariq told me she worried how this would affect the public record of state violence. “Scholars depend on local newspapers. People’s memories are short. If you don’t have these stories, how do we build critical knowledge?” “Personal memories,” she concluded, may not “outlive public memories.”

Junaid, a scholar who has worked extensively in archives in Kashmir, told me, “Since 2019, stories from Kashmir have thinned out. In the last three years, there has been a complete erasure and suppression of our voices. Before, you would hear the voices of Kashmiris in the reports; that is gone now. This is going to be a black hole in our political memory and the archive. If everyone is silenced and there is no reportage, we are going to be faced with a situation where we are going to have no account of this time.”

If the past is completely erased and the present is denied a record, what history and memory will survive? The Indian state now has the capacity to establish anything, even lies, as facts. This moment is dire, dark, and dangerous—yet hope remains. The Kashmir Walla is still publishing, and its staff continue to report on stories as they try to secure Shah’s release. One local journalist I spoke to said, “This is just tactical silence, strategic withdrawal.” They will emerge from this, the reporter promised. Tariq added, “I recently saw a female journalist on the ground trying to report. If she can go out under the current restrictions, there is still hope.”

“Hope,” she said, “always resides in the young.”

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