To Write in Blood: Censorship of Journalists in Jammu & Kashmir

This article is a complementary piece to The Rights Stuff’s Zahra Muzaffar’s timeline. It contains a day by day account of the Internet shutdown in the Kashmir region. Please click here to view the timeline.

On August 14, 2019 in his Kashmir home, Irfan Malik, a reporter for the Greater Kashmir newspaper, was arrested by Indian troops. When Malik and his father asked for the reason for his arrest, they were given no explanation. Instead, they were told that there were “orders from the top” for Malik’s arrest. The Greater Kashmir is one of the largest circulated English-language newspapers in Kashmir and has been at the forefront of reporting the Indian government’s human rights violations against Kashmiri people. Irfan Malik’s arrest is not a one-time occurrence and reflects a frightening trend of suppression of the voices of Kashmiri journalists by the Indian government and a rise in Hindu nationalism.

In the same month as Malik’s arrest, the Indian Parliament passed a resolution revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution in an attempt to undermine the special autonomous status that was granted to the region of Kashmir prior to the article’s abolition. An accompanying article, Article 35a, was also abolished due to its continuation of the territorial provisions under Article 370. Enacted after the end of British rule in India, these two articles exempted Kashmir from being a part of India, instead granting it regional jurisdiction and a constitution of its own to define its permanent residency program. With the abrogation of these two articles, the Indian government was able to lock down the Kashmir valley, increase the presence of military forces on the ground, place political leaders under house arrest, and block Internet and phone services.

The people of occupied Kashmir protest against India, September 4, 2018.

At 205 days and counting, the Internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest Internet shutdown to ever be recorded in a democracy. Upon detaining political activists and leaders in Kashmir, the Indian government left 7 million Kashmiri people unable to access websites to keep them informed. Kashmiri journalists have been left to rely on a small, Indian government owned media center with only 10 operating computers to write their stories. Moreover, this center is strictly monitored by government officials with no ability to allow journalists to express their opinions freely according to the president of the Kashmir Press Club. Due to the prolonged shutdown, many Kashmiris’ social media accounts have been disappearing due to a lack of activity, furthering the inability to voice their opinions to the international community.

To see a day by day account of the Internet shutdown in Kashmir, click here to view The Rights Stuff staffer Zahra Muzaffar’s timeline.

Amid the media blockade, the Indian government has actively enlisted Twitter to censor accounts that are sharing news updates. Though the notices Twitter sends regarding blocked tweets are not public, some of them are shared to Lumen, a database that collects and analyzes the removal of online data. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Twitter blocked hundreds of thousands of tweets shared by Kashmir-centric accounts in India under the company’s country withheld content policy. Though there is little transparency regarding the process of requesting for tweets to be blocked, some of Twitter’s transparency reports reveal that more accounts were withheld in India in the second half of 2018 than in the rest of the world combined.

Indian government officials are quick to cite Section 69A of India’s Information Technology Act, which enables government agencies to request third parties to remove online content on the grounds of national security. Though these agencies must record their reasons for removal in writing, these inscriptions are hardly public or transparent. 

An Indian soldier looks at a wall in occupied Kashmir, November 2010.

The Indian government’s institutional framework allows for broad interpretations of censorship initiatives, specifically in the name of regional security and the prevention of potential civil unrest amongst insurgency groups. Digital liberties advocates argue that this is actually a counterintuitive measure, arguing that access to Internet allows groups to peaceably assemble and speak out against injustices in a cogent, legal manner. Indeed, the Internet shutdown seems to be making the issue far worse.

According to a Columbia University article about the rising geopolitics of Internet governance, governments have elevated the importance of Internet governance because it has become a strategic resource of journalists in the dissemination of their opinions and urging the international community to hold governments accountable for injustices against their citizenry. In the subtle employment of third parties and the opacity by which these censorship initiatives are being carried out, India is able to conceal its fingerprints and avoid widespread condemnation by the international community. Thus, it becomes  rather difficult to say that the Internet can realign the traditional hierarchies of power.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects one’s freedom of opinion and expression, in addition to the freedom to hold opinions and impart information freely without any obstruction. Moreover, Article 19 of India’s constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, but it also enables the government to circumvent this right in the name of incredibly broad interests that ultimately dilute such freedoms.

Kashmiri people protest occupation, November 2010.

The right to express oneself freely entirely shifts the power structures of the past. Journalism in particular establishes facts and prevents state controlled narratives from shifting public opinion for their own motives. The Indian government’s blatant attempt to undermine the rights of Kashmiri journalists is a form of collective punishment to curb the potential of anti-government miscreants. By targeting local media outlets who are the most equipped to report on issues with first hand experience, the free flow of diverse, robust information to other regions is restricted to a one-dimensional narrative that fails to acknowledge the legal rights of journalists and the rights of Kashmiri people as a whole.

The rise of the nationalist, right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, of India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to unite India under a nationalist, Hindu-centric ideology. The Hindutva ideology, or the notion that in order to be truly Indian one must be Hindu has emerged, alienating any religious and ethnic minorities in India. This construction of “otherness” has certainly led to condemnation and indignation of the human rights violations occurring in Kashmir, but the Internet shutdown allows for the Indian government to control the narrative of  “their” nation.

BJP Party supporters at a rally in Uttar Pradesh, May 7, 2014.

In a verdict delivered in the beginning of 2020, the Indian Supreme Court ordered a review of the Internet shutdown in Kashmir, hoping to place some accountability on the part of the Indian government and citing constitutional clauses that champion the fundamental right to access to Internet services. But the court did not provide any discourse regarding the Indian government’s duty to review the orders and make remedial efforts. 

Internet services were partially restored to Kashmir, but social media websites remain inaccessible to the Kashmiri people and only 300 websites are available for use – all of them under intense Indian governmental scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that it has been 200 days since Internet services have been made entirely available to the Kashmiri people and to journalists to report on the atrocities committed in their land. India is the world’s largest democracy and yet it has made no effort to hold itself accountable to upholding the rights that a democracy should for individuals.

“They exhort us to write. And to write in blood of peace. Of tulip gardens they grew on soils made fertile with our flesh and bones. And write. When they are at war with us.”

Ather Zia from In Kashmir: Writing Under Occupation

The palette of memories that the Kashmiri people are being left of India indicates a future far from cooperation and consolidation but rather of independence and indignation. In the words of Kashmiri poet Ather Zia, “They exhort us to write. And to write in blood of peace. Of tulip gardens they grew on soils made fertile with our flesh and bones. And write. When they are at war with us.”