This Independence Day, Can We Restore Our Freedom of Expression?
In these testing times, can journalists do their jobs? Not if you are the office bearers of the Press Club of India.
Seventy-three years ago on this day, a Kashmiri man told us we are now free.
At the stroke of the midnight hour, people heard Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru say it on their radio sets. And now… this Independence Day, a school child tweeted that her brother in class six has been set an assignment to write a letter to PM Modi in Hindi, thanking him for removing Article 370 of the Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir. And our national security advisor tweeted to people to please watch PM Modi walking through grassy Corbett with Bear Grylls.
In such times and on such a momentous occasion, I have an audacious question. Can us journalists dare to do our jobs? Not if you are the office bearers or managing committee of the Press Club of India.
This lofty institution that was set up in 1958, is a place where scribes have always converged to hold press meets, talk shop and most importantly, drink cheap daaru.
This is the place where the press converged when one of our finest – Gauri Lankesh was killed in September 2017. It’s where many meetings have been held underlining the importance of keeping the press free and fair. And independent from attack by the state or corporations. But it is being argued this independence eve, in the same press club; that ‘yaar, we have to be careful these days or the government will get after us.’
Was The Press Club Seeing Ghosts or Being Made to See One?
And so it was that on 14 August at noon, a press conference was held by a group of activists that had travelled to Kashmir. They had sent out invites to the press in advance, saying they would present their findings in a written report and also play out some videos. Once the press conference started, however, we were told by Kavita Krishnan – activist and member of this Kashmir solidarity group; that the Press Club of India has expressly forbidden them from playing out videos.
In the information blackhole that is now Kashmir; where journalists have to acquire curfew passes, carry pen drives to hand to people and report in impossible conditions; information from the ground is gold.
But Kavita Krishnan explained, when the renowned economist Jean Dreze, Krishnan of the All India Progressive Womens’ Association, Maimoona Mollah of the All India Democratic Womens’ Association and Vimalbhai of the National Alliance of People’s Movements arrived at the venue an hour before, to set up; a gentleman at the reception desk told them in no uncertain terms that they are specifically not allowed to use a projector. This was confirmed to me later by a senior journalist who spoke to senior management at the club.
“It was done so that the government does not get after the club,” is what the journalist said the management told him.
Whether the press club was seeing ghosts or were made to see some, it finally did not matter. In the non-ghost world, things seen cannot be unseen even if pellet guns are thrown into the mix. Instead of showing us, the four speakers just told us the testimonies of the people of Kashmir.
From the Archives of Kashmir – an Information Blackhole
They spoke of how they heard little children speak of ‘Iblees’ Modi – and then explained that ‘Iblees’ is the word for Satan. They quoted Kashmiris that surprisingly were not jumping for joy. Here’s one telltale quote:
“The government has treated us Kashmiris like slaves, taking decisions about our lives and our future while we are captive. It’s like forcing something down our throats while keeping us bound and gagged, with a gun to our heads.”
They went to Anantnag, Shopian and Pampore in South Kashmir, where people said they were in mourning on the day of Eid. They recorded that the protest on the streets of Srinagar in Soura that the BBC had also recorded wasn’t small by any means. It consisted of 10,000 people. They talked of at least 600 political leaders and civil society members being under some form of arrest. And they talked of how people standing in their own doorways could end up with pellet gun injuries. And they provided anecdotes like this to support it.
“On 6 August, a graphic designer for the Rising Kashmir newspaper, Samir Ahmad, (in his early 20s) had remonstrated with a CRPF man near his home in the Manderbag area of Srinagar, asking him to allow an old man to pass. Later the same day, when Samir opened the door to his house, CRPF fired at him with a pellet gun, unprovoked. He got 172 pellets in his arm and face near the eyes, but his eyesight is safe. It is clear that the pellet guns are deliberately aimed at the face and eyes, and unarmed, peaceful civilians standing at their own front doors can be targets.”
They spoke of the presence of at least five lakh security forces in the Kashmir valley alone, which takes the ratio of troops to person in the valley to 1:10 – one armed security person for every ten civilians.
And they spoke of how “hundreds of boys and teens are being picked up from their beds in midnight raids. The only purpose of these raids is to create fear. Women and girls told us of molestation by armed forces during these raids.”
Even Without Being Shown, Everyone Saw
What could the stopping of video do in the end, in the face of these stories they told? Words can make us see. Videos can only add the feet of people shuffling as they give testimonies on the condition that their faces weren’t shown.
In the end, everyone saw.
The press club’s worst fears had indeed come true. Not only was the ‘Happiness Project,’ shredded, but there was no need to be literal about it. Even without the faces and names, everyone could imagine. The faces without eyes. The anger that no matter what the orchestrations by some amongst the media, could not be stamped out. The journalists desire to hold on to their constitutionally enshrined right fused with the Kashmiris’ anger at their freedom being taken from them.
In the end, freedom made so many painful hoops like silver concertina wire and pierced forcefully through foul and filthy air.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context in December 2018. She tweets @revatilaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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