Thursday, June 25, 2009


The recent unrest over the alleged rape and murder of two women in the Kashmiri town of Shopian (that has led to massive protests, with very many people convinced that the perpetrators were Indian army personnel -- so far, evidence to that effect has not been unearthed, although given the general culture of impunity within which uniformed men seem to operate in India when it comes to sexual assault, not to mention in Kashmir, the conviction is a plausible one) has clearly rattled the state government (Chief Minister Omar Abdullah didn't help matters by sticking his neck out early on and claiming that there was no evidence of sexual assault, a claim belied by the autopsy report). So much so that the government has apparently resorted to bullying cable TV operators for showing too much news:

As the protests grew in intensity, information dissemination became a cause of concern for the Omar Abdullah led National Conference-Congress coalition government in the state. It reacted by imposing a crackdown on local Cable TV channels. In its June 6 directive to them, it asked them to limit their news telecasts to 15 minutes a day. The channels were asked not to report anything which goes against the taste of the government and do not give much coverage to the activities of the separatist groups or the protests staged by the masses. . . . [P]rior to imposing curbs, the owners and editors of Cable TV channels in Kashmir were summoned by the authorities and threatened that they had better "behave properly". Editors say the meeting was more of a threat than any discussion on Cable TV reporting. During the meeting, editors were accused of the receiving funds from All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomerate of various separatist organsations operating in Jammu and Kashmir. LINK

Evidently, the cleaner, more transparent administration promised by Omar Abdullah comes replete with a thin skin. [Not to mention that it exposes the absurdity of a media (at least the English-language portion of it) that was utterly complicit in projecting Abdullah as a break from the past, as representing a new start, etc. But as was no less true of Rahul Gandhi, such attitudes spoke volumes about the relative youth and telegenic personae of the candidates in question, and nothing at all about any substantive policies offered by these scions of political dynasties of rather old vintage (Omar Abdullah, for instance, is the son and grandson of Kashmiri Chief Ministers; his father, Farooq Abdullah, simply vacated the CM-in-waiting spot in favor of his son, preferring to be a federal minister in the Manmohan Singh government, a reversal of the NDA-years when the father was CM of Jammu and Kashmir, and the son a federal minister), beyond mouthing banalities like "good governance". Who anyway says (s)he is for bad governance? The bankruptcy of political discourse in the mainstream English-language Indian media (specifically, its insistence on presenting "good" politicians as those who are apolitical providers of good governance, which is nothing more or less than an anti-democratic fetishization of technocrats) never ceases to amaze me.]

The work of the Jammu and Kashmir state government is made easier by the sorts of laws in effect nationwide, that have severe consequences for freedom of expression. Consider this gem from the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 (Chapter V, Paragraphs 19-20; emphasis mine):
Power to prohibit transmission of certain programmes in public interest. Where an officer, not below the rank 'Of a Group 'A' officer of the Central Government authorised by the State Government in this behalf, thinks it necessary or expedient so to do in the public interest, he may, by order, prohibit any cable operator from transmitting or re-transmitting any particular programme if it is likely to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, linguistic or regional groups or castes or communities or which is likely to disturb the public tranquillity. . . . Where the Central Government thinks it necessary or expedient so to do in public interest, it may prohibit the operation of any cable television network in such areas as it may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf.

According to one media source (emphasis mine):
The Deputy Commissioner (DC) Srinagar in his notice to various Cable TV channels has given a reference of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995 guidelines saying that no programme should be carried on Cable network which:
Offends good taste or decency.
Contains criticism of friendly countries.
Contains attack on religious communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes.
Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths.
Is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes.
Contains anything affecting the integrity of the nation.

Such laws are not only more worthy of the British Raj than of India's democracy; they are uncommonly stupid: in the context of a state like Jammu and Kashmir, they do not help counter secessionist sentiment, but simply foster a suspicion of all institutions -- a cynicism that is, in the long run, far more harmful to the Indian polity than whatever the state government is afraid the TV channels might show. [Such laws are in effect across India, of course, and not just in Jammu and Kashmir; but, are far less likely to be enforced to the fullest extent in a non-secessionist context; although even here, the example of the Emergency three decades ago shows there is no room for complacency.]

None of this is to absolve the irresponsibility of much of the Kashmiri media (not to mention, perhaps more charitably, the intimidation it is subject to from pro-secessionist groups in addition to the state), but the government's cure is worse than the ailment. For a fascinating piece on media coverage of the Shopian murders, see HERE.

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