Does silence come naturally to us?
I admire words for the powers they wield. But words frighten me. There is a form of self censorship that gets built in. We live with that, slowly becoming invisible under the skin. As kids, we were taught not to point towards anything on the road if there was an armyman on the way – I still don’t do that.
Expression is easy today owing to social media, but it is not any bit safer. Slowly, a culture of silence is being built where speaking out (and not necessarily against the state), if not criminalised, is severely deterred. In 2009 private media channels were banned. Later SMS, even though not public communication, were blocked and remained blocked for four years. In 2016, Kashmir Reader was shut down and reinstated after 3 months. We haven’t really moved. All this is well known, and quite frankly was seen as nothing so extreme from the government. If the laws allow the state to arrest anyone and not bother with leveling some sort of charges for years, gagging the press is not an extreme condition that people live with. It is “just” intimidation. Should people be scared to speak what they feel? Probably that’s what they want.
Words are contentious. An official handle of the government of India tweeted a poem calling for the mass murder of Kashmiris. Parodying lyrics of a song, the ‘poem’ extolled the army to murder as many people as they could. More recently, a journalist with a “mainstream” media channel favoured “genocide” in Kashmir as a solution to rid India of whatever it calls “terrorism”. There is no shame or horror felt in calling for mass murder of Kashmiris in India now, it seems. The journalist was only voicing her opinion, of course, but we have heard the same in social media forums over and over again. In our demand to end the conflict, we have been made the perfect “other” – the dispensable, repressible other.
The innumerable strikes and protests are seen as “their” problem – something the people do of their own volition and choice – not as a response to or a reaction to a very basic fact of life here. This is the people’s problem, one that they have taken over themselves, not something that a military state should be bothered about. The perpetrators are the victims and the victims become the abusers. The media doesn’t balk at this irony. It reports this as a matter of fact. Strikes are routine. Curfews are normal. Death is usual. Life is less than life. India has settled into a culture where references to Kashmiri’s suffering must only be seen in the presumed sacrifices of their army men. This is also used to justify the torture committed by the “sacrificing armymen”. I worry where this puts us, as a people – Kashmir is a place where such things happen. Just happen. Come to pass and are forgotten.
A fashion magazine went a step ahead and used the pellet injuries as a theme for a photo shoot. Like collecting trophies of hunted animals. It is not just insensitive, but almost criminal in its mockery of the sufferings of Kashmiris.
Oppression is an everyday story that is hardly told. Asif (you know him from here) was arrested in September when he was found sitting under the awning of a shop using his friend’s Wi-Fi connection. The policemen found him, and even though there was no stone pelting, he was arrested for rioting and possession of weapons. Now he is 24 with a police case pending against him: for using the internet. The police actually used his Facebook to justify his detention. Point to be noted, his Facebook had news from sources like Greater Kashmir, Al Jazeera (for Kashmir) and some news about ISIS and Syria. Soon after being released he went to live with his aunt in a different place.
The building of silence extends to social media too. Last year, Facebook started removing posts which mentioned Kashmir. Early on in July, Facebook suspended accounts of many activists and academicians for posting about Kashmir. So, there is a void in which we have to exist. You could however avoid the Facebook censorship by leaving off a few words from your updates, like “Kashmir”. In around August, when we were under curfew for about a month running and phones had been just restored, a friend called me from India. He asked me about Kashmir and the situation there. I did not answer. I told him that the phones in Kashmir are tapped and there is a chance that I (not he, of course) could be arrested for speaking in such a climate. He laughed and I felt embarrassed at that. But again, phone lines tapped in Kashmir is not a new thing. Caravan ran a story on this long time ago.
Just recently, the website of With Kashmir was blocked “as per the instructions of the Government of India”. With Kashmir is not a news organisation. They call themselves a bunch of “opinionated bloggers”. Blocking a site that calls itself based on opinions is ironical, and I would say silly had it not been dangerous. Opinions can easily be ignored, but the state felt it had to go ahead and block their voices – create victims out of thin air. The state creates more victims than anything else in Kashmir. (With Kashmir has since moved on to a different URL). Even the University of Cambridge disallowed a professor to write a sentence – a single sentence – on Kashmir in a paragraph about her hopes for India’s future.
So, can you go on forcing the silence forever? Or metaphorically, will the caged bird forget its song?
I don’t think so.
Somebody will find new words for old tyranny, be assured of that. Someone will write new obituaries for old deaths. Or metaphorically, someday new birds will find the old songs to sing again.