The Sounds of Silence: Self and Censorship in Kashmir
A few days before India celebrated its independence day this year, my 7-year-old niece insisted I take her to see Pari Mahal, a terraced garden overlooking the city of Srinagar in Kashmir. “I want to see what fairies look like,” she told me. She thought there were indeed fairies stationed there that she would get to meet; she was eager to find out if they looked like the fairies she had come across in bedtime stories. That afternoon, her excitement clearly showed as we went to see the ‘palace of fairies’, only to be turned away by uniformed soldiers, close to three kilometres away from the site. “Because of 15th August, only VIP movement is allowed in this area,” police personnel told me when I confronted them. “You can keep the car here and walk all the way but it is quite some distance. Come back another day!” one dictated. “The kid won’t be able to walk that far and we can’t just come from Varmul another day,” I retorted. The heated exchange went on for a while. I could not hold back my anger, my niece now crying, jackboots in the ‘paradise on earth’ interrupting the ‘fairy dream’. I later recounted this conversation with a friend. “You should not have argued with them,” he said out of concern. “How does one censor rage?” I asked.
In the larger scheme of things, a confrontation such as this is so ‘normal’, so ‘trivial’, that mentioning it sounds petty especially in a context where silencing has taken violent forms and people have paid with their lives for the act of speaking out. And where not everyone has the luxury of planning picnics or finding the motivation to, amid all loss and longing! There is a vicious chokehold of bala’y on Kashmiri lives, as Mohamad Junaid puts it, and it is suitable for the state and its collaborating agents in Kashmir to have pretty pictures to cover up the dark river that lies beneath gorgeous flowers – a constant reminder of our seasons of blood-letting, as Mirza Waheed writes. The times that I have visited such spots, I find it hard to reconcile with feelings of guilt and shame, and often ask myself if it makes me complicit in the ‘normalcy’ narrative or if it is an escape. I don’t really make sense of it. In a state of intimate brutality and manipulation, what desires does one hold on to and what dreams does one forgo and censor? What ‘normal’ does one seek in order to deal with the chaotic every day?
Every form of human rights violation, bodies deemed undeserving of life, erased, disappeared, tortured, maimed, blinded, raped, is an attempt at erasing history and memory. All curbs on the media and human rights organisations, punishments, threats, inducing fear, are meant to stop documentation, memorialization, and instead centre the state’s narrative. This continuum of censorship and self-censorship, enforced through violence and an all-intrusive surveillance architecture, is a part of the state ensuring the “not seeing” of its actions. One could imagine a more diffused structure now with private actors like the big tech, engaged in monitoring and surveillance, as ensuring some kind of self-censorship. Yet, it is the state with its anxieties stemming from popular resistance, that regulates control and produces visible forms of censorship as well as the more insidious and invisibilized ways of self-censorship. This essay engages with moments of individual vulnerabilities and anxieties to bring forth how silencing is imposed and the resulting questions that are often rendered unintelligible to our own selves. Even as it analyses state framings pushed onto the media, it is not an all-comprehensive account and analysis on censorship; it is more an attempt at unsettling an imposed, subjugated subject position in a context where asymmetrical, colonial power relations exist. In engaging with the entanglements, insecurities, demoralizing and disorienting nature of censorship and surveillance, the essay embraces uncertainty and “lack of closure amid a perpetual war” – something that also marks everyday life in Kashmir.
State Narratives and Acceptable Language
In recent years, Kashmir’s mediasphere has been subjected to violence, restrictions, intimidations, and rigorous censorship, some of which continue to be documented even amid enforced silencing, especially by independent and freelance journalists from Kashmir. This is not to overlook the kind of continuities in state structures of violence, control, and narrative-setting over the decades. However, the attempts in recent years to muzzle the media – from Aasif Sultan’s arrest to UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) cases against some journalists, to physical forms of violence and other intimidating tactics like raids, questioning, harassment, and restrictions on travel, are “arguably the most blatant, openly repressive measures against journalists ever undertaken in Kashmir.” Such blatant state conduct has also been institutionalized through the Media Policy 2020, meant to ensure ‘effective use’ of media to build public trust and create a ‘positive’ image of the government’. The metaphor of a frame as a fixed border is useful to think of how the government dictates what kind of information needs to be included and what stays out, so that even content production by the media becomes an exercise of government power.
One of the key components of the policy is Putting in place suitable mechanisms to address issues of fake news, plagiarism, verification of antecedents of all concerned with the profession. Under this section, the policy highlights how Jammu and Kashmir has law and order and security considerations amidst a ‘proxy war,’ therefore, in order to be careful with regard to ‘anti-national elements,’ a robust background check for all journalists is necessary for accreditation. In addition, media content shall be examined for anti-national activities and advertisements shall be blocked if the media questions sovereignty and integrity of India. An extension of this policy was witnessed in the diktat that stopped journalists from covering encounters in Kashmir, invoking national security. What such a policy (read warning) does is it not only enables the state to dictate what gets published – therefore available to be read, and what gets penalized in the name of security and integrity of the nation, but also the kind of language that the media is allowed to use. The policing of bodies extends to the policing of words, essentially forcing a reproduction of state framings and narratives.
On 7 August this year, a report by a Kashmiri journalist noted that Kashmir’s press was being forced to replace the use of the term “militant” with “terrorist.” The report quoted a journalist as saying, “It was the first time ‘terror’ appeared in newspaper headlines, that too on the frontpages.” It has also come to the fore how the CID (Crime Investigation Department) has created a unit called ENT or Ecosystem of Narrative Terrorism to profile activists, lawyers or academics, seen to propagate ‘terrorism’ through their work. These actions are also reflective of the categories the state has created which it seeks to propagate and push through the media, of language that is normalised and words that must disappear. While Kashmiri bodies are generally seen to be killable, there are also gradations of difference created therein and then these differences are blurred too. Someone being a militant, not an OGW (Over Ground Worker) or a civilian, is enough of a justification for extrajudicial killings, of course the most killable category already. An OGW (alternatively, a militant associate) killing has also found justification in recent years, with OGWs called as militants without weapons. The state wants to censor any possibilities of questions asked. Last winter, when three Kashmiris were killed in Lawaypora in what the state called an encounter, the police statement said, “Background check also reveals that Aijaz and Ather Mushtaq, both OGWs (Overground workers) variously provided logistic support to the terrorists. Antecedents and verifications too show that both were radically inclined and had aided terrorists of the LeT (now so-called TRF) outfit.” In 2018, India’s army chief went on to suggest that stone pelters in Kashmir should be seen as OGWs of terrorists. Therefore, grades of dispensability and fluid categorisations are put in place, which keep shifting depending on specific actions and need for justifications.
In the nineties, too, allegations of being associated with militants were used as a weapon in the state’s narrative warfare to reject people’s testimonies of human rights violations. The report by Press Council of India in the Kunan Poshpore mass rape case of 1991 rejected the charges as “a massive hoax by militant groups and their sympathisers and mentors…” In another rape case, the government statement rejected allegations by claiming that the women were wives of terrorists. The 1993 report, Rape in Kashmir, notes how such a claim becomes a way for the government to discredit women’s testimony as well as shirk responsibility for it. Therefore, the state’s narrative building has been one where a case of legitimate violence is built, rather than allowing the lens of human rights violations to be used, and journalists are pushed to pre-edit their own work in order to comply and avoid punitive action. In enforcing the terminology of ‘terrorists’ for example, the state attempts to articulate a normativity where such bodies are already deemed undesirable, imposing a regime of language on the media that disallows it from any alternate articulations.
Beyond Media Censorship
I am thinking of censorship not just in terms of withholding information, or what it entails with respect to writing or speaking in the media, which is often examined and in fact, tends to attract some visibility even in its silencing. In addition, the divergent pulls – ‘individual agency’ on one end in determining what the ‘self’ must/not do, and external structural constraints on the other end putting limits on one’s actions – often make it difficult to conceptualise self-censorship. I think of individual and collective navigation of militarization – every word caught in the throat, every expression schooled so as to not invite ‘trouble,’ every thought restricted before it finds articulation, resulting from coercion and often concealed as meant ‘for our own good’.
I think of blood-soaked bodies, and those behind bars because they ‘refused’. I think of the transformations of our thirst for freedom deflected into codes, metaphor and poetics. I think of vulnerabilities and anxieties, the shame of cowardice, that one associates with one’s silence. Sometimes when we ‘choose’ to self-censor, I think of it in the context of the state manipulating us to believe its apparent invincibility where we are pushed to question if it not only directs violence but also forms of resistance to it in terms of what we (are allowed to) speak and when and how.
During discussions with friends, there have been times when we have wanted to write about something, then asked ourselves, “Is this the right time to write?” “Afraid or being strategic?” Not that there could ever be a ‘wrong’ in speaking back to the oppressor, but in censoring oneself, one also wonders whether we attach significance to our words and writings which they may not actually carry. After all, what words could ever suffice a story written in blood?
Two months after the Pari Mahal ‘episode,’ I saw pictures of the garden, decorated in the colours of India’s flag, “to mark 100 crore Covid vaccinations in India.” The next day, I witnessed the usual sight of red flags waved from an army convoy amid whistles as we waited for traffic to be allowed on the highway. Just as I had done the previous day on seeing the pictures, I laughed – in refusal, in rejection, in disavowal, in resistance. It was the only kind of political grammar I could express even as I ‘chose’ self-censorship. Someday, this repressive silence has to come crashing down, when the empire crumbles under the weight of its injustice and people’s resistance, when fear, guilt, and shame collapse, all codes and metaphors disintegrate, and one thinks, writes, and screams – in freedom, “down to the last atom of [one’s] discontent.”
Samreen Mushtaq is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University, India, as part of a collaboration with Governing Intimacies, located at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, and her research interests include gender, militarisation, and everyday forms of resistance.