Amid increased scrutiny by the international press, India’s external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, in an interview with a foreign publication, had dressed up New Delhi’s unilateral abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy as “reforms” that were merely “announced”. The siege on the region’s more than twelve million residents was sugar-coated as “precautions”.
The remarks were made during an interview with the French publication Le Monde — two months after the abrogation on 5 August 2019; when freedom of local journalists was being undermined and foreign correspondents, too, were barred from visiting Kashmir. “I can’t commit to a deadline,” Jaishankar said in response to a question on when foreign journalists could visit, “but as soon as it is safe, they can go. We don’t want their presence to provoke problems – from people who would take advantage of it to show that there is unrest.”
After more than a year and a few sponsored Kashmir tours for foreign politicians and diplomats, the government decided to embed a small group of foreign journalists in the contentious District Development Council (DDC) elections — the first after 5 August — that was hailed, ironically, as a mandate of public approval for New Delhi’s abrogation of the region’s limited autonomy.
The journalists were, according to their local associates, disallowed from freely visiting any part of Kashmir without a police escort, and meetings were “pre-arranged”, largely with government officials, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other individuals seemingly approved of by the government and its agencies. Their visits to various polling stations were also monitored.
The Financial Times (FT) opened its report with a first-time voter, identified as Mohammad Afzal, in north Kashmir, but “rather than exercising his political free will, Mr Afzal was casting the first ballot of his life out of fear.” FT further reported: “According to the BJP, the polls are proof that normalcy is returning to the valley, with each vote a tacit endorsement of the abrogation of 370, the article of the Indian constitution that gave the Jammu and Kashmir region limited autonomy. But this is anathema to Kashmiris who say they are being subjugated by Mr Modi’s government.”
In what summed up the intentions, and perhaps even the futility, of the trip, the FT report noted the shadow and surveillance of government forces over the elections and the foreign correspondent’s coverage; at some polling stations there were “twice as many soldiers as there were voters.” Furthermore, FT reported that six troops formed a ring around a voter who told the FT: “For now the fight is about 370 but the ultimate goal is freedom from India.”
Simultaneously, The New York Times (NYT) chose to open with “Votes were counted on Tuesday in the first local elections in Kashmir since the Indian government waged a harsh political and security crackdown in the restive region last year. Officials hailed a solid turnout as a sign that democracy has been restored, but little in Kashmir feels normal.”
The region’s Chief Secretary, BVR Subramanyam, was quoted by the NYT as having said that “The voting shows democracy being alive at the grass roots…People taking value of their own lives is visible, palpable.” The report, however, deconstructed this claim — with an assortment of facts.
“There was democracy in Kashmir previously, but with abrogation it was trampled upon,” Mohammad Bhat, identified as an independent candidate in Bandipora as part of the People’s Alliance, told the NYT. He was further quoted saying: “We have united to bring back the special status.”
The thinkers behind the embedded tour must have been left red faced after these foreign journalists managed to — with the help of local journalists — peek through New Delhi’s imposed horse blinds. Both The New York Times and The Financial Times prominently stated in their reports that the publications were in Kashmir “on a tightly controlled, government-organized trip.”
What New Delhi expected from foreign coverage can only be speculated but it wouldn’t be incorrect to think that it had, perhaps, expected validation — specifically from the West. Prior to this evident embarrassment, the European Union non-profit group researching disinformation campaigns, EU DisinfoLab, had linked the New Delhi based Srivastava Group — that had organised a Kashmir tour for the far-right members of the European Parliament after August 2019 — to a racket of fake news producers, attempting to shape opinion in favour of New Delhi.
Perhaps, habitual of the complacent and partisan media in the country, the thinkers behind the trip had assumed unquestioned collusion from the foreign publications. It is both an indictment of their expectations from and poor understanding of the working of the press, as well as that of the situation in Kashmir.