Three days on, the first reports are coming in of the situation on the ground in Kashmir, after New Delhi imposed a blanket clampdown on landline, mobile and internet services, before revoking #Article370 in the Valley.
The Telegraph‘s Sankarshan Thakur (above) has a diary of the run-up to the “lockdown”—jargon for a brutal suppression for civil liberties in the Valley—saying it is nothing like he has seen before, in Sri Lanka, Cairo, Kargil or even in decades of covering Kashmir itself.
The Delhi-based Thakur, incommunicado with his newspaper for more than 60 hours, had to return to the capital from Kashmir yesterday to file the copy for today’s edition.
In his “lockdown” diary, Sankarshan Thakur recounts the moments before his phone went blank on the night before India revoked Kashmir’s special status.
At 10.54, the Internet on my friend’s phone snaps. He has a local number; mine, a Delhi number, is still working.
I send a text to my editor, R. Rajagopal: “They have begun snapping Internet services incrementally.”
At 11.04, I send him another text: “It can safely be added that the administration is bracing for imposing ‘restrictions’ on movement tomorrow in the Valley.”
At 12.26, I begin writing another text to Rajagopal: “Don’t know what the cabinet will decide in Delhi tomorrow, but the iron curtain is about to….”
My phone snaps.
Like at the throw of some switch somewhere. Internet gone. WhatsApp gone. Connectivity gone. The signal towers have collapsed.
I run down to the landline. “This line is currently out of service, please try later.”
The Telegraph‘s Srinagar-based correspondent Muzaffar Raina, like Thakur not reachable for tens of hours, typed out his stories on his computer, took screen shots and sent them to Delhi, from where they were transmitted to Calcutta.
In one of those reports, published today, Raina says reporting has been one of the biggest casualties of the government clampdown.
The “curfew” in large areas means reporters have little freedom to move. The crushing information blockade, with mobile and landline phones shut down and Internet suspended, means they have no way to send their stories.
The authorities have not issued curfew passes to journalists because officially there is no curfew. It has been a practice for years now not to declare a curfew, even when one exists for all practical purposes, to tell the outside world that all is well here.
In the absence of phones, information is hard to come by and one has to rely on word of mouth.
Raina writes that reporters saw the developments—including bureaucrats being given dozens of satellite phones in a clear sign of what was coming—but could not file stories in the absence of communication facilities.
In the early days of the militancy (in Kashmir) when there was no Internet, reporters would send their stories through telex at the local BSNL office and later over landline phones.
“We would send our stories and videos amid bombs. But this time we are so helpless,” a reporter said.
Very few local reporters have been able to get stories out. One of the exceptions is Fahad Shah, a Kashmiri journalist and the founder and editor of The Kashmir Walla, a weekly newspaper, who managed to send a piece to Time.com despite the blackout.
Just hours before the rollback of Kashmir’s autonomy was announced to the world, we Kashmiris woke up to find our Internet cut off for the 53rd time this year, as well as the suspension of all cellular services and landline telephones.
People remain cut off from their families, and journalists have no channels of communication to report through. The online homepage of Kashmir’s largest local paper [Greater Kashmir] is blank and the website of our own magazine has been offline since Monday.
Many journalists like me have had to send out work on thumb drives with passengers flying out of the area by airplane. Only a small group of people using satellite dish networks have access to TV news channels.
Speaker mounted vehicles are making announcements warning people not to venture out. There is no way to know or confirm if the situation has remained peaceful. Amid no communication, anxiety fills the air in the Valley.
On the Indian edition of the website Huffington Post, Safwat Zargar reported on the death of Osaib Altaf, a 17-year-old boy, due to pellet injuries.
He was among a group of boys who were cornered by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, on the afternoon of Monday, August 5, while the boys were at a playground.
This reporter managed to reach Altaf’s residence in Srinagar around midnight on Tuesday, after several unsuccessful attempts through the day.
Officials at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar said they were not authorised to speak to media over any incidents of violence involving government and police forces.
“We can’t share the information with you as it creates problems for us,” a senior official of SMHS hospital told HuffPostIndia on condition of anonymity. “We have been told to not to give any information to the media.”
The Huff Post piece carries this extraordinary postscript from the site’s editor, Aman Sethi.
“On August 2, 2019, HuffPost India commissioned journalist Safwat Zargar with writing a series of stories on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir in the backdrop of the unprecedented (and at the time, unexplained) mobilisation of troops in the former state.
“Two days later, the Indian government cut off the internet and severed all means of communication in the valley. This blackout, it has since been revealed, was a calculated strategy to silence Kashmiri voices as the Bharatiya Janata Party fundamentally altered the terms of Kashmir’s accession to the Indian Union.
“For two days, the government — and many sections of the Indian media — have launched a propaganda blitzkrieg extolling the virtues of this unprecedented decision while refusing to let the media access the voices of the people of Kashmir.
“On August 6 2019, the Hindustan Times carried a report claiming people in Srinagar welcomed this decision. Their source? National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
“In this situation, which is clearly without precedent, Zargar sent us a report on the human cost of the Indian government’s decision.
“Given the absolute blackout on all news coming out of Kashmir, we are carrying this story to start a conversation. We anticipate questions from our readers — in fact, we welcome them.
“We stand by Zargar’s reporting, and call upon the government to clarify the circumstances around the death of 17-year-old Osaib Altaf, and to face the consequences of its decision by lifting the communications blackout in Kashmir.
As with everything since the dawn of civilisation in 2014, there is a convenient “counter-narrative” available for everything.
So, while sarkari images and videos of the national security advisor Ajit Doval eating with “locals” in front of closed shops were happily “accessed” by reporters to suggest life was normal, Open magazine journalist Rahul Pandita tweeted:
Meanwhile, the United Nations jumped into the picture. It referred to a July 2019 report which recorded how Indian authorities repeatedly blocked telecommunications networks to “muzzle dissent”.
“We are seeing blanket telecommunications restrictions, perhaps more blanket than we have seen before. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified, the right to freedom of opinion and expression includes the right to seek, receive and impart information. The fact that hardly any information at all is currently coming out is of great concern in itself”
BBC has managed to get out a short video which shows signs of protest: slogan-shouting, and the remnants of stone-pelting.
The Canadian radio station CBC has spoken to Ahmer Khan, a freelance journalist, who flew out of Srinagar.
A Zee News reporter’s piece to camera from Kargil, parroting the “development agenda” line of the BJP, is shouted down by onlookers in this video.
The Hindu has an editorial on the information blackout:
“Reporting from conflict zones is not new to Indian media. Journalists have covered riots, insurgencies and wars for decades in the country, and governments have allowed them to do so. By and large, state agencies have even enabled reporting from conflict zones and sites of natural disasters with curfew passes and special communication facilities, though there have been exceptions. Accurate information is always the best counter to misinformation and treacherous rumours.”
Also read: With phones, internet switched off, it’s hell for reporters, photogs