The Prime Minister has closed off a watershed week with a telecast that promises Kashmir education, prospects, prosperity and LTA. Most positively, he has indicated that union territory status would be of finite duration, though a deadline for statehood remains unspecified. Unfortunately, India treats like heirlooms temporary interventions like Article 370, which was in force pending a plebiscite, and reservations, which have bloated out of control without periodic reappraisals. In the neighbourhood, generals frequently run nations while promising eternally deferred elections. The PM has spoken positively of the future to make up for the colonially brusque manner in which Kashmir’s history was changed, but action needs to follow quickly.
From Kashmir, there was no news fit to print in the days after the reorganisation of the state and its demotion to union territory status, and little that was worth showing. Except the video of the National Security Advisor sharing lunch on a street with the local colour, against the backdrop of downed shutters, which betrayed the local flavour. Other images showed Srinagar depopulated, with fewer civilians visible than in pictures from the flooded districts of Maharashtra. The usual channels reported that Section 144 was in force, but magically, life was normal. Mumkin hai.
TV news channels rose to the challenge of the information vacuum, dredging up unverifiable rumours from social media, like the theory of the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. Deprived of domestic news, the diplomatically learned suggested that the government had responded to a flick of the endlessly long tail of the Great Game, which Donald Trump’s unprovoked willingness to mediation had agitated. Simpler explanations, like the BJP’s persistent discomfort about special status, seemed to be too obvious to satisfy.
The debates on TV revealed two misapprehensions. One, the discomfort zone is not really the removal of special status. Many liberals who are uncomfortable about this week’s events have been equally uncomfortable about regional exceptions persisting for decades after Partition, especially the legally exclusive zone of Kashmir. The real problem is that an agreement cannot be scrapped or gutted unilaterally, and certainly not without consulting the people affected. Secondly, the larger question is not about Kashmir, but about federalism. With this precedent, can the Centre proceed in a similar way in any state where governance has faltered and where President’s rule has been imposed? And can it black out telecommunications and fetter movement at any time? This will be debated in TV studios, besides the courts.
When you want to see yourself clearly, you look in the mirror — in this case, the international media. Information asymmetry is what Foreign Policy chose to highlight on August 5, with an infographic headlined ‘India is the world’s leader in internet shutdowns’. Drawn from SFLC.in, it showed a huge spike since 2016, and noted that there have been more shutdowns between January 2016 and June 2018 than in the restless states of Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia and Iran combined. It attributed the world-beating rate of shutdowns to Kashmir. The Internet Freedom Foundation has condemned the shutdown.
Meanwhile, among the mainstream foreign news channels, CNN’s coverage on the day of the lockdown was dominated by news of shootings in the US and protests in Hong Kong. Their world lead was ‘Boris could be the last prime minister of the UK’, and the India lead was classic human interest: ‘Doctors find 526 teeth in boy’s mouth’. In the UK, Kashmir was second lead on the BBC, but the 10th on the Guardian’s index page. Fox News led with the shootings, naturally, but then collapsed into news of a shark attack on some people, the broken shoulder of someone else, a Brazilian gangster dressed as his daughter, and the distinguishing features of sunburn and allergy. Nothing on Kashmir.
In India, the focus on Kashmir has reduced coverage of beguiling stories, like the Ayodhya matter in the Supreme Court, where a learned judge has asked if, anywhere in the world, there has ever been a lawsuit concerning the birthplace of the Prophet or Jesus, and the wondrous “Counsel for Deity” has sought time to reply. But on the bright side, Kashmir has brought relief to the 131 chartered accountants who had sprung to the defence of the government and denounced 108 economists predicting gloom ahead, shortly before gloomy data emerged. No one will remember their stupidity now.