Nationalism, Exclusionary Politics, and the Fate of Kashmir Under Modi’s India
Rohini Mohan and Praveen Donthi Talk to V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, journalists Rohini Mohan and Praveen Donthi talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the recent widespread protests in India over the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act and why many see the act as a threat to India’s secular nature and constitution. Donthi talks about his time reporting in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and the abrupt change in its autonomous status, announced in August; Mohan speaks about covering Assam, a state in India’s northeast where the debates over who belongs have a longer history.
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Readings for the episode:
Inside India’s Sham Trials That Could Strip Millions of Citizenship by Rohini Mohan, Vice, July 29, 2019 • India’s Immigration Crackdown Could Make Millions Stateless by Rohini Mohan, Time, August 14, 2018 • Prove your grandfather is Indian: People who lack flawless paperwork cannot just be jailed as illegal migrants by Rohini Mohan, August 2, 2019 • Prove your Grandfather is Indian: Ground Reportage on NRC • Bangalore International Centre video interview • Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan (Verso) • Modiʼs war: Dispatches from a seething Kashmir by Praveen Donthi (The Caravan) September 22, 2019 • “One Solution, Gun Solution”: Ground report: Kashmir in shock and anger, by Praveen Donthi (The Caravan) August 16, 2019 • The liberals who loved Modi by Praveen Donthi (The Caravan) May 16, 2019
Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer • Mirza Waheed’s novels • Under Siege: Mirza Waheed on Kashmir (Lit Hub, September 10, 2019) • The Association of Small Bombs: A Novel by Karan Mahajan • The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay • Ground report: On a cold night in the new year, JNU attacked by a masked mob; Delhi Police watched, The Caravan, January 5, 2020 • India’s first-time protesters: Mothers and grandmothers stage weeks-long sit-in against citizenship law, By Niha Masih, The Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2020 • Reading the Signs: The protest poster is where art meets agitation, poetry meets politics. In India, it was born during the freedom struggle, and grew up through post-Independence struggles against inequality. With the anti-CAA protests, it embraces a new digital life. by Benita Fernando, The Indian Express, January 5, 2020 • Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India, by Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker, Dec. 9, 2019 • ‘Hum Dekhenge’: Singer and writer Ali Sethi explains how to read (and interpret) Faiz’s poem, Scroll, Jan. 9, 2020 • Why the National Population Register is more dangerous than the Assam NRC, by Harsh Mander & Mohsin Alam Bhat, Scroll, Jan 12, 2020 • Pankaj Mishra and Mirza Waheed on the Death of India’s Liberal Self-Image, Scroll, Jan. 5, 2020 • Behind Campus Attack in India, Some See a Far-Right Agenda, By Kai Schultz and Suhasini Raj, The New York Times, Jan. 10, 2020 • Earlier attacks on students: Attack on art, by Anupama Katakam, Frontline Magazine, May-June 2007 • Earlier, Rohini Mohan on Kashmir in The Wire: In Kashmir, Doctors Bear Witness, Sept. 5, 2016 • Earlier, Praveen Donthi on Assam in The Caravan: How Assam’s Supreme Court-mandated NRC project is targeting and detaining Bengali Muslims, breaking families, July 1, 2018
Part I: Rohini Mohan
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So on December 11, Indian lawmakers passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship to migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, but not if they are Muslim. And Sonia Gandhi from the main opposition party called the act “a victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism.” For our listeners who might not be familiar with this issue, could you give us some background on how and why this act was passed and why it’s so controversial?
Rohini Mohan: The BJP, which has a majority in the Parliament, they just passed it, so it was the first time—that’s why people were watching the discussions in Parliament so closely, because we didn’t know where it would come from. So the basic idea of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is an addition to the Citizenship Act, which defines who is a citizen of India—the basic idea is that anyone who claims persecution, has been persecuted as a Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Jain, Buddhist, and Christian, in neighboring states of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and has come to India before 2014 December, can apply for citizenship in India. So each of these sections, people belonging to which religions, people belonging to which country, and this date of 2014—we still don’t know why these were chosen. And this was something that the government passed to say that they want to give citizenship and shelter to those who are persecuted in these countries.
How they will show whether they were persecuted, why Muslims have been excluded even though for example, Rohingyas in Burma, or Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, or say even Hindus in Sri Lanka—these are different groups that don’t fit into this category of those who will be favored for citizenship, but actually do face persecution historically—none of these are included. So the logic of the Act has eluded all of us. So we don’t really know why this has been passed, except for this one conclusion: that this is to favor a large number of Hindus that live in our neighborhood. And also, recently, a large number of Hindus—almost, I think about 10 lakhs Hindus, the number is not clear yet—in Assam, that have recently been stripped of citizenship through another process, which is important to that area, but which is now going to happen to the rest of the country. It’s so complicated and so bureaucratic, and also extremely confusing because it is meant to be so, I think.
Whitney Terrell: So wait, I got confused there myself. You’re saying that the Act is partially designed to restore citizenship to Hindus who had lost citizenship? How did they lose it?
The Indian government wants to remedy the fact that many of those who have lost citizenship are Hindus themselves.
RM: So recently there was a National Registry of Citizens, which is one more bureaucratic process that happened in Assam in 2015. It started in 2018. A list of people who were citizens from the northeastern state of Assam was released. The National Registry of Citizens is a process by which every resident of Assam, which is a northeastern state in India, they’d have to apply to be included as a citizen. And the state would look at their identity papers and see if they had been in the country before 1971, which is when Bangladesh was created, and Bangladesh is a neighboring state, is a border state for Assam. So everyone applied and in 2018 19 lakhs, I think 1.9 million people, were excluded. And this actually means that they will soon lose citizenship. They’ve been stripped of citizenship and we don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They’re supposed to be deported or put in detention camp. Many of these people lost citizenship because they didn’t have the right paperwork. They didn’t have good enough paperwork. And actually, this was not something that the government expected. The process was supposed to identify illegal immigrants, and illegal immigrants in the conception of the government that wanted this process were all Bangladeshi Muslims. Bengali-speaking Muslims that came from across the border in Bangladesh.
WT: So they ended up kicking out people that they wanted to keep.
RM: Yes. And now to keep them even surer, this Citizenship Amendment Act was passed. The Indian government tries to separate these two processes, but the Home Minister of India, Amit Shah has repeatedly said that first the Citizenship Amendment Act will be passed and then a nationwide NRC will come through. But the Citizenship Amendment Act itself has been passed after this Assam process went through. And there are a lot of people who have lost citizenship. And this is something that the Indian government wants to remedy because many of those who have lost citizenship are Hindus themselves.
WT: I just want to say that you in fact are speaking to us live from India, right? And what city are you in?
RM: I am in Bangalore.
WT: So, that is the traffic that we’re hearing in the background. Usually it’s New York traffic, but this time, it’s traffic much farther away. We’ve also been reading quite a bit about the intensity of these protests against the Modi government. There was a 24-hour strike on January 8, not exactly related to the Citizenship Amendment Act, which we’ll be calling the CAA from now on, but still. There have been targeted attacks on students in major universities like Jawarharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where there’s a strong history of activism. There was also violence on the campuses of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia University. What role have students played in these protests and what’s the situation on the ground now?
RM: Students have come out for protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in numbers that we haven’t seen recently at all. And actually, this was sparked off by some violent reprisals in Jamia Millia Islamia, the university that you said. It’s in Delhi. Despite how the name sounds, it is a secular university, it’s a minority institution, but there are students from all communities, including Muslims, in this university. And it has very well known programs for media, for political science, and it’s a very well regarded and reputed university. And here there were demonstrations by a few students against the Citizenship Amendment Act, saying that it goes against the Constitution of India because it defines citizenship by religion when India is actually a secular country, and decidedly so from in the day of independence. And when they were protesting, the police went in and beat up large numbers of people. There’s one person who’s lost sight in one eye. There were students studying for their exams in the library; the police burst in and beat them up. Video started coming out as this was going on, because actually a lot of people who have worked in the media have studied in Jamia. When these visuals came out I think it really struck a chord across the country and one by one universities started all having protests themselves.
It galvanized more people to join in, it mobilized people who’d been silent until then, and also universities that usually stay quiet—technical universities, engineering students, all of these also. Some of the management institutions, like the Indian Institute of Management and the Indian Institute of Technology. There are several across the country—these usually stay quiet, out of politics. And they all even issued statements initially, condemning this violence, and slowly started protesting themselves.
VVG: It’s really interesting to see the forms that some of these protests have taken. I know that a very well known actress, for example, went to JNU to express solidarity with the students shortly after that particular protest. And then there’s also a lot of women, it seems like at the forefront of these protests. Can you talk about that a little bit?
All of the anger, emanating from the nationalist ideas, is also mixed with the kind of patriarchy that really is the reason for a lot of repression and fear.
RM: Yeah. I think because there was initially violence against protesters, who were gathering in large numbers, there seemed to be some attempt by women to come out in the hopes that this will make the police not act violently, as they were until then. For example, there was a young man being beaten by the police in Delhi and his friends, who were all women, gathered around him and threw themselves on him to stop the police from beating their friend. And two women, Ayesha Renna, who’s 22 years old, who’s a history student, and another one, Ladida Farzana, who’s studying a Bachelor’s in Arabic—these two with their maroon hijab and spectacles—they became the face, because one of them, she stood up and there’s this photograph of her with her finger up, pointing at the policeman, who’s holding his baton up. And she’s holding her finger up at him, wanting him not to beat her friend. And this became this iconic image. And people have made so many memes out of it. And this is one face of the protest.
But there is a long-running protest—now, almost a month it’s been going on—where over 2,000 women have been coming out and sitting in this place called Shaheen Bagh, a neighborhood in Delhi. And they turn up every night with their children, they cook their food for their family, and they come and sit all night in extremely cold conditions. I know it’s colder where you are. But on December 31, there was a New Year’s Party, which was a protest party, in Shaheen Bagh, and it was the coldest Delhi has ever been in 119 years.
WT: I wonder if you could answer this question for me. Because I’m thinking about how protests work in the United States. And we have our own nationalist president now, who proposes things that are not exactly the same as what Modi is doing in India, but not all that different. We have a Muslim ban that isn’t called a Muslim ban, but was called a Muslim ban, in terms of people traveling into the country. But we also have had the Me Too movement and had women’s marches that happened in protest of Trump, who’s seen as a harasser of women. And I wondered if the women who were involved in these protests have that also as part of it, or is that not really the deal and it’s really just protesting Modi and Hindu nationalism?
RM: During the Me Too movement, which had its echoes in India as well, a lot of women were writing online about their experiences in different industries, whether it’s media, entertainment, academics, IT industry—there were lots of women coming out then. But still many of them were anonymous. When the larger numbers of people are coming out on the streets now, there is some level of anonymity to each individual woman, and also because all of the anger, which is emanating against the nationalist ideas, is also sort of mixed with the kind of patriarchy that really is the reason for a lot of repression and a lot of fear. It’s the reason for a lot of women not to be able to go to work, a lot of them not being able to go to college, and generally unable to rise in ways as they would want to, as ambitiously as they want to. I think women coming out is being also allowed by several men, because it does help move the protests forward. This might be my cynical view, but a lot of women who are coming out are doing it on their own, but a lot of them are also doing it because their families are encouraging them to. It’s maybe a kind of beginning for several women who are say, married or from conservative communities. But it is a huge, huge door that is open now.
Part II: Praveen Donthi on Kashmir
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I’ve been following the situation in Kashmir for some years, primarily through the writing of a friend and sometime editor of mine, Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night, whom I think you also know. Today we’re here to talk to you about Kashmir, and Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave that state semi-autonomy and special status in relation to the Indian state. But on August 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Article 370 would be abrogated; thousands of Indian soldiers descended on Kashmir, there were mass arrests there, and communications from Kashmir were cut off, sparking protests. For those of our listeners who may not be familiar with the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s previous special status in India, can you briefly explain how it was run before Article 370 was abrogated, and what changed then?
Praveen Donthi: The state of Jammu and Kashmir is the northernmost state in India, that borders Pakistan, and it’s been a bone of contention since the partition of the country soon after the British left. The very first point of interest is when the British sold Kashmir to the Rajah of Jammu at the time, a despot who was ruling Jammu. He bought it for 7.5 million. That’s when for the first time, Jammu and Kashmir state comes into being.
Whitney Terrell: What year was that?
PD: 1846. This sort of plays on the minds of every Kashmiri, that they’ve been sold by the colonial state to the Rajah. They look at it as an illegitimate sort of thing to do. So in 1947 when the British left there were many princely states, more than three, four hundred princely states, and Jammu and Kashmir was the only princely state that really negotiated the terms of the membership with the Indian union. So, according to that, the Indian union promised some freedom to the Kashmiris, to be part of Indian union. To begin with, the Indian union only had control over three things: defense, foreign affairs and communication.
Pakistan was supposed to be a Muslim-majority state, and India was supposed to be home for the Hindus. So, the Kashmir dispute or the Kashmir conflict is a result of those pangs of Partition.
Later on, with coming of the Indian constitution in 1950, also came this Article 370 that really dictated the terms between Kashmir and Indian union. But gradually it has been eroded by the Indian state, you know, for various reasons. First Prime Minister of India Jawarharlal Nehru admitted as much in the Parliament saying the special status is just in name. It’s been hollowed out. So, this steady erosion of this Article 370 was done, you know, with stealth. It was never in your face, it was never clear to the public at large. But with the coming of the right-wing government under Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist government under Narendra Modi changed all that. For them, for their constituency, it is important to be seen doing certain things in the public. They’re hardliners and they want to do certain things—a sledgehammer sort of approach. And the special status was just hollow rhetoric in that sense. There was nothing to special status.
The Indian union could do whatever they wanted in the state, and the limitation about dealing with defense, foreign affairs and communication had come to an end long ago, and they could do anything. But this government wanted to show that the special status is no more there, because the masses who support Narendra Modi wanted this sort of thing, because it was part of their election manifesto, when they first came to power in 2014, that they would be removing 370. They had warned, and they kept up their word.
The Kashmiris call it occupation because the agreement that they had with Indian union now comes to an end because this article 370 has been removed. So they are very angry, upset, they are scared because it’s the only Muslim-majority state within the Indian union. They are scared for their identity and also they’re culturally quite different from the rest of India. So they have their own insecurities and fears that they might be subsumed under the larger union and because of the Hindu nationalist agenda to convert all the Muslims back to Hinduism, and they call it coming back home. There’s a word in Hindi called Ghar Wapsi.
WT: That was a great précis. Thank you. But for our listeners who might not be familiar with the term, can you define what a princely state is?
PD: Right. A princely state had a ruler like a prince or a Rajah. It was not directly under the rule of the British; these people were sovereign states within British India. So, the British gave the option to these princely rulers to decide if they want to join Pakistan or India, whereas those territories which were directly under the British had to directly go under Pakistan or India, depending on the religion of the population. Pakistan was supposed to be a Muslim-majority state, and India was supposed to be home for the Hindus. So, the Kashmir dispute or the Kashmir conflict is a result of those pangs of Partition. In that sense, it continues. For the Indian Muslims, Muslims of the mainland India, it’s a settled question for them, they’ve chosen India. But for Kashmiris it has been a burning question. It’s been going on since ’47. There have been various ups and downs. After 9/11, there was a crackdown on militancy in Kashmir. It’s been peaceful, but in 2008 and ’10, again, the protests started by a new generation, and they call it Intifada protests, a reference to Palestinian protests against Israel. These young boys, pelting stones at the security forces and it had taken that shape. Earlier it was said that Pakistan used to fan these protests and militancy, etc. But now, it’s more and more indigenous.
I haven’t seen anything like that before. Imagine a life without any modern means of communication. It was like a black hole. You didn’t know what was going on.
WT: Well, yeah, speaking of that we just were talking to Rohini Mohan about the NRC and the CAA, and the protests and the rest of India. You’re talking about these protests and resistance in Kashmir too, of course, but we aren’t really seeing them because there’s a total Internet shut down in Kashmir right now, with the abrogation of Article 370. And the change in its status, which you’ve been talking about. Can you tell us what you saw on the ground when you went there and read to us from your cover story?
PD: It was quite shocking. I haven’t seen anything like that before. Imagine a life without any modern means of communication. It was like a black hole. You didn’t know what was going on. There were rumors doing rounds everywhere. Nobody could tell what’s true and what’s not. That creates a certain kind of paranoia and fear among people and it was like—dystopic. The first dispatch I sent in August, as soon as I went—I went there after a week—this is how I started my first dispatch, which was put together in a hasty manner.
“The sense of siege hit early, in the air, long before seeing the barbed-wire barricades and security forces armed to the teeth blocking the way. Fifteen minutes before the plane touched down at Srinagar, an announcement was made asking the passengers to close the windows. The staff went around making sure all windows are shut—“An order from the DGCA, sir,” one of the flight attendants said upon enquiry, referring to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. First there was mild disbelief, then there was mocking. A Kashmiri passenger next to me laughed and said, “This is nazarbandi”—house arrest. Others repeated the word as if they were adding it to their vocabulary. Some of them, curious, opened the windows halfway to peep out but closed them in a hurry. It was 7:30 am and I saw a glimpse of the verdant green Valley enveloped in grey monsoon mist.
“Probably they don’t want us to see how many (security) forces they have brought into the Valley,” one person said. The passenger was coming home for Eid, which was the next day, on 12 August. Some tried to laugh about it while others looked anxious. Soon, they had to figure out how to reach their destinations. As the flight landed on the runway, many passengers switched on their cell phones and kept staring at them, probably out of habit, and maybe some hope. The reality struck them soon enough. The Valley has been under strict lockdown since 5 August, with no communication services, when the union government effectively abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution. The green ticker at the tourist department counter next to the baggage belt kept flashing the message: ‘Welcome to the paradise on earth.'”
So that’s the end of my lede from the first dispatch.
WT: I remember that story. That’s an amazing opening. It would be so strange to land somewhere and just have your cell phone not work. Although I’m old enough to remember when that was possible everywhere.
PD: That’s true, you know. When you are used to a certain thing, and suddenly it’s taken away from you, you feel lost. The disorientation was very evident everywhere I went.
VVG: As you were talking about this, one of the things that you mentioned is that the way that there’s this—for most of us—unimaginable space of the lack of freedom of movement, the lack of communication. There were some writing about—I remember seeing on Twitter—people talking about in their WhatsApp chats their Kashmiri friends disappearing, because after a certain period of inactivity WhatsApp deactivates your account. But you were talking about the fear of demographic change, and as I recall, Article 370, which is the special provision of the Indian constitution that gives—that gave Kashmir, I should say, in the past tense, gave Kashmir special status—so that we were referring to it as India-administered Kashmir, one of the things was about who could come to Kashmir and own property. So, when you read about from the Indian government’s rhetoric, their line on why they did this: oh, development will be so much better if people can go to Kashmir and buy property and begin businesses.
This thing about the image of Kashmir in the average Indian mind is built over time. When I was growing up in the South, I had the same fantasy.
This will be so good for jobs, this will be so good for Kashmiris—right, that’s the line that’s being put forward. And of course, you know, that’s getting at also the demographic change that Kashmiris are saying that they fear, that people will come to this place, which is already, as you wrote in that cover story, it’s the most militarized place in the world. So I was really curious to hear you talk about that. I’ve heard about this from so many Kashmiri friends and have read about it—Basharat and I used to talk about this; northern Sri Lanka is also heavily militarized—the sense of what it’s like to live with that large military presence and that sense of a minority community’s identity eroding. And Article 370 was this at least nominal protection against that and so now, am I right to understand that say, there is some question of whether Indians outside Kashmir are going to come to Kashmir, which they think of as this—you refer to “paradise,” and Kashmir holds in India’s imagination a special place. Oh, it’s so beautiful, it’s so much more beautiful than the rest of India. It’s this fantasy place. I could move there now. How does that language work? Is that actually going to happen?
PD: I doubt that’s going to happen. It’s going to be very, very difficult because, like I’ve written in my pieces, now the legitimacy for violence, for militancy, is at an all-time high. When it started in 1989, for the first time, there was still sections of Kashmiri society who were probably very skeptical of violence and militancy and they were probably leaning towards the Indian state as a better option than the Pakistani state, which was seen as a failed state and things like that. But right now for the first time I see people of all political ideologies and shades and everybody, they’re together now, for them, it seems like the only thing that can stop the mainlanders from coming in and settling down or taking over land, property or change their culture and religion is militancy. You know, the gun.
As they say—you know, the headline of my first story was, ‘One Solution, Gun Solution.’ It’s a very pithily put but very smartly done thing. I heard that slogan everywhere. This thing about the image of Kashmir in the average Indian mind is built over time. When I was growing up in the South, I had the same fantasy. All the movies that I used to watch growing up, they were shot in Kashmir, especially the songs. The song and dance used to happen in the beautiful Mughal gardens of Kashmir. And for the first time when I went to Kashmir to cover elections I was shocked. Then I came out of that fantasy, but most Indians don’t get that opportunity. And that’s one of the reasons why they support every government move that is done in in Kashmir, because they think it’s so beautiful, it’s paradise, so you don’t want to let that go, you don’t want to lose that place to Pakistan.
Do whatever, just keep it. Even those who’ve never been there. But for them it just gives them some satisfaction to keep it within the Indian union. The Indian state’s approach has not really changed. Before the BJP and before Narendra Modi, before the Hindu nationalist government came into power into 2014, things have happened, horrible things since ’89. It’s just that, like I said, they used to do it stealthily, but the Hindu nationalist government wants to make it an electoral issue, to consolidate their voter base and keep winning the elections and in fact, just before the elections in 2019, the second term of Modi, there was a huge bomb blast that happened in a place called Pulwama in South Kashmir which killed some 40-plus security forces—that completely consolidated all the votes behind Modi and he came to power.
They’ve made this an electoral issue. if there is a consensus that that exists between liberals, leftists, centrists, and the hardliners on Kashmir. For the first time I see, this is the hypocrisy of liberals—and many of them are not going to like this—that they’ve never really raised voice on the things that were happening in Kashmir before 2014. After that, now, they’re talking about it. This time, they are talking a lot more because it gives them a handle over Modi, in the sense that it gives them a stick to beat Modi with. Otherwise, for the longest time they supported every Indian state action.
WT: Putting on my hat of the geographically illiterate American, which I wear occasionally when necessary for the podcast, I’m just going to tell everybody the reason that when you’re talking about Kashmir’s beauty and why it’s such a interesting place and why it’s in dispute is that it’s on the northern tip of India. And it borders both India and Pakistan. And I just bet a number of our listeners don’t know that, although they might know that Led Zeppelin has a song named Kashmir. So I just wanted to get that in there.
VVG: And it’s been used as a political football in that conversation in the way that you’re saying, Praveen, that what does it mean to care about the people of Kashmir versus just caring about the handy rhetoric that they offer up to criticize Modi. It’s kind of a different thing, and a little bit later in your story that was on the cover of The Caravan magazine, you talk about, young people being detained, the detention of children, torture, police involvement in some of that, the heavy presence of security forces. And I mentioned before that Kashmir is one of the most militarized places in the world. How many additional troops are in Kashmir as of August?
PD: Eighty thousand more troops were sent in after August, and it’s probably the highest military deployment since the beginning of the conflict in ’89. Never before have we seen so many forces in the valley, and the the funny thing is, most of them were not really told how many days they’re going to be posted in the valley. They were told that it’s at best, posting for elections, and it’s going to be a week. These guys are clueless. This communication blockade also affected a lot of security forces. They couldn’t be in touch with their families in the mainland. And they were seen hovering around the media center, where there was one solo phone for many journalists who wanted to call their families or their offices for reporting purposes. And just to say, whatever, that they’re doing fine and they need not worry. The security forces wanted access to that phone, but they couldn’t get it. I’m talking about the common soldiers, not the powerful officers at the top.
VVG: So, you mentioned this a little bit before—there’s a lot of rumor. You were saying that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. And one of the most interesting things as I was reading your story, was the way that you were covering and tracking rumors and the way that the community was communicating with each other around these difficulties, lack of phones, and the way that the government was trying to paper that over, talking about access to landlines when people aren’t really using them anymore, or talking about, oh, people are going to school. And then the ways that the population of Kashmir coordinates certain kinds of community resistance. There’s a great phrase in the story, which I think someone says, “the state can surprise the people, but the people can also surprise the state.” What is it like to report when information is so diffuse and uncertain? How do you nail things down?
PD: Oh, well, just by traveling to the place, checking things out for myself, talking to people. Kashmir is not a very big place. It’s very small. You could cross the valley from one end to another end in a couple of hours. It’s a very small place. I traveled extensively, as much as I could, and that was the only way. And it was it was quite scary in the sense that if something happens, there is no way to communicate to any of my fellow journalists in Srinagar or my office or my family, or anybody else. Reporting in general in Kashmir has always been very difficult because the Kashmiris don’t trust the Indian media, because since ’89, it has just become like a propaganda arm of the government, the security forces and police, etc. So as an Indian, it’s really difficult for me to even report during peacetime. So, the government had created this media center in the basement of a private hotel where they provided three, four computers with Internet connection so that they could see who’s doing what, for surveillance, e-surveillance.
So I wrote the text, I took photos of it, and one of my colleagues, he was good enough to break the password of the WiFi at the Internet center. So I sent the pictures of my story via WhatsApp, through my editors. And then, some of them actually were pooling in money because the resources are hard to come by for Indian publications. They used to send stories, videos and photos, via pen drives. People would come down, fly down from Srinagar to Delhi, and then they would send stories and there would be huge time lags. And there was no way for the office to contact journalists on the ground to confirm or to make things clear. It was just—I mean, I’ve never been through anything like this.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan.