NEW DELHI — Just before midnight on the eve of the biggest political change in Indian-administered Kashmir in decades, authorities shut down internet access, mobile and landline phones and cable TV in the disputed region home to 12.5 million people.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government presented an order in Parliament on Aug. 5 revoking the autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state. The following day, lawmakers passed a bill to split the state, Jammu and Kashmir, into two federal territories.
Government officials have filled the communications void by asserting the changes have widespread acceptance in Kashmir, across India and internationally — a portrayal that hasn’t stood up to scrutiny.
By circulating photos and videos with rousing Kashmiri folk music but no voices — evoking 20th century wartime newsreels — India’s foreign ministry asserts life is returning to normal. Independent news reports suggest otherwise.
Kashmir has been disputed territory since 1947, when India and Pakistan won independence from British rule. Each claimed Kashmir and they have fought two of their three wars over it, with each now administering part of it.
The nuclear rivals approached war again in February, when a suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir killed 40 paramilitary soldiers. India responded by bombing an alleged terrorist training camp in Pakistan.
The response was meant to signal Modi’s hard-line stance on Kashmir, where soldiers are authorized to shoot civilian demonstrators with marbles and pellets, blinding some people.
The Indian government has also regularly cracked down on communications, especially in the Himalayan region where most people oppose Indian rule and want independence or a merger with Pakistan.
India leads the world in the number of internet shutdowns, according to the U.S. non-profit Freedom House, and communication blackouts in Kashmir under Modi have become commonplace. Of the 340 total internet shutdowns in India since 2014, more than half were centred there, including 55 this year, according to the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Legal Center.
The government usually cuts internet service ahead of expected uprisings, citing the British colonial-era Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 “in the interest of public safety and for maintaining public order,” according to the centre’s executive director, Sundar Krishnan.
The shutdowns have a compounding effect, disrupting business and education and demoralizing people.
“It’s obstructing the free flow of information but it’s also bringing many elements of a modern society to a grinding halt,” Krishnan said.
As New Delhi deployed tens of thousands of additional troops early this month to reinforce its control in Kashmir — already one of the world’s most militarized regions — India’s foreign ministry escorted foreign journalists, including a reporter with The Associated Press, to a Hindu pilgrimage site elsewhere in the region. Officials billed it as an opportunity for journalists to see a side of Kashmir beyond the protests and clashes.
Days later, the government evacuated the pilgrims, and the communications curtain in Kashmir came down. Since then, no foreign journalists have been permitted entry to Kashmir.
On Aug. 7, with an indefinite curfew and a ban on public assembly imposed, a news video showed a chaotic protest with the sound of shots fired.
On Twitter, Jammu and Kashmir police slammed the video as “completely fabricated and incorrect,” a description repeated by India’s home and foreign ministries.
“The situation is calm, people are co-operative, and restrictions are being relaxed to ease the situation,” the police tweeted.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Garima Paul posted a link to a TV interview with a sympathetic Indian broadcaster in which S.P. Pani, the inspector general of Kashmir police, denied media reports of police firing there.
The government later conceded that the news video wasn’t fake but continued to maintain that no protest involving more than 20 people had taken place, despite video evidence to the contrary.
On Aug. 10, the start of the three-day Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, India’s foreign ministry released a slew of photos and videos. In one, an aerial shot showed brisk vehicle traffic on a bridge. Another showed a busy square in Srinagar, the region’s main city, and another a crowded intersection on the road leading to Srinagar’s famed attraction, Dal Lake. Another was labeled Pulwama, one of Kashmir’s most restive districts, and showed streets humming with activity, not a soldier or barricade in sight.
None of these scenes matched independent news reports.
The curfew was briefly eased for Muslim Friday prayers, but the following morning, many people remained indoors, with shops and most health clinics closed.
Another set of images released by the foreign ministry on Aug. 12 depicted men and boys kneeling in prayer outside mosques in Jammu and Kashmir. But some of the region’s largest mosques were closed, and others in the government videos were mislabeled, purporting to show mosques in Kashmir but actually showing worshippers in Jammu, where the Hindu-majority population supports the government’s moves.
Worried that the world was getting a distorted view, Kashmir Times Executive Editor Anuradha Bhasin filed a Supreme Court petition demanding an end to the communications restrictions, which she said were hampering the work of her staff. The court on Wednesday ordered the government to reply to the petition within seven days.
By limiting the ability of journalists to report on the region, she said, the coverage of Kashmir has been overwhelmingly biased in favour of Modi.
“The government has its own publicity department, but over and above that, you have these big moneyed television channels, you have certain sections of print media who are virtually working as extensions of the government publicity department,” she told The Associated Press.
“They are also giving a one-sided picture,” she said.
The Press Council of India, a media watchdog that is statutorily tasked with ensuring freedom of the press, has tried to intervene in Bhasin’s case with its own petition, defending the ban as “in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation.”
Emily Schmall, The Associated Press