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The state government in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir has initiated action against 34 television channels beamed from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, reckoning that these channels have the “potential to encourage violence and can disturb law and order situation in Kashmir”.

The latest Indian government order to act against transmission of these channels, which include news, entertainment, food and cuisine, religion and sports channels, has come nearly two weeks after the government imposed an unprecedented ban on 22 social networking sites in Indian-held Kashmir Valley on April 26.

New Delhi often blames Islamabad for fomenting trouble in Indian-held Kashmir, but Pakistan denies its involvement and describes the “freedom struggle” of the people of Kashmir as “indigenous”.

In a letter written by principal secretary home Mr. R K Goyal addressed to all deputy commissioners, the state’s home department has sought a compliance report on the matter by Monday.

The channels whose transmission is to be banned, according to the letter, include Noor TV, Karbala TV, Hum TV, ARY Zindagi, Geo News, Geo Tez, Express News, ARY News, ARY Zauq, ARY Masala, ARY Musik, ARY News Asia, ARY Digital Asia, ARY QTV, A TV, Abb Tak News, Waseb TV, 92 News, Duniya News, Samna News, Peace TV English, Peace TV Urdu, Madni Channel, Hadi TV, Paigam, Hidayat, Saudi Al-Sunnah, Al-Nabawiyah, Saudi Al-Quran, Al-Karim, Sehar, Ahli-biat TV and Message TV.

Jammu and Kashmir government’s home department intends to stop what it describes as “unauthorised broadcast” of all the above channels which are available in held Kashmir via cable networks.

Predictably, the proposed ban has irked many Kashmiris, especially women and elderly people, who regularly watch entertainment and religious channels for variety of reasons.

Many entertainment, food and cuisine and sports channels beamed from Pakistan are a huge hit in most Kashmiri homes.

People, especially working women and housewives, spend substantial time in watching Pakistani television serials while some stay glued to the TV screen for learning modern recipes of Pakistani delicacies.

Some elderly people who can’t perform Haj due to physical frailties or financial stress often spend their time while watching channels like Saudi Al-Quran, Madni, Noor TV and Hadi TV just to see pictures of Mecca and Masjid-e-Nabvi for spiritual solace.

For Nausheen, a young Kashmiri working woman, the proposed ban on Pakistani channels is uncalled-for and against the very spirit and idea of globalisation.

“No one should have the right to deny facilities available for infotainment, sports or devotion available on television. The government ban is anti-globalisation and essentially undemocratic and authoritarian,” Nausheen tells Dawn.

The new government order has surprised many Kashmiri women who keenly watch news, entertainment, dramas and recipe making programmes on various Pakistani television channels via cable.

Another Kashmiri woman argues that many would-be-brides were learning new recipes on Pakistani television, but the government is unfortunately choking this space too.

Mohammad Athar Mir, a class XI student from downtown Srinagar, is a huge cricket fan. After school and tuition, he often watches Pakistani sports and news channels to keep himself abreast with the latest developments regarding his favourite team, Pakistan.

“I do not care a lot about the news channels, but the government’s proposed ban on sports and entertainment channels is imprudent and silly,” Athar Mir tells Dawn.

He says that his father, a businessman, has been deprived of an agency for he remains an ardent news follower.

“Usually my father spends his evenings by watching Geo News. The ban has upset him emotionally,” he says.

'Cultural aggression'

Irfan Ahmad, a key Kashimir watcher, argues that the ban “only exposes the deceptive sound bite of India’s attorney general at the UN, saying that India is a secular state equidistant from a particular religion.”

“Well, see the government has targeted a particular religion by the new proposal. The ban further delegitimizes Indian control in Kashmir,” Ahmad adds.

Gowhar Yasin, a teacher by profession, describes the ban on social networking sites and Pakistani channels as India’s “cultural aggression” in Kashmir.

Yasin says that it was no secret that the people in Kashmir love to watch Pakistani news and infotainment channels. His sisters and cousins, he says, love to learn new recipes by watching food and cuisine channels (ARY Zauq and Hum TV) while he himself remains a sports buff.

“The decision to ban Pakistani Islamic, cultural and sports channels is direct interference in our affairs and cultural aggression aimed at detaching us from our roots. It is a form of violence by the state to choke us as a people and to award collective punishment for our political aspiration,” he tells Dawn.

The ban has evoked strong criticism on social media too.

Many Kashmiris using social media through proxy applications have reacted sharply to the ban on Pakistani and Saudi television channels.

Khurram Parvez, coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) took to Facebook and Twitter to express his outrage on the proposed government ban.

“Banning Islamic, Pakistani cultural and sports channels and all social networking sites in Kashmir, only exhibits that the pretence of democracy has to be suspended for the militarised occupation to survive,” Parvez wrote.

On May 5, journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh wrote in Times of India that “Saudi clerics and Pakistani news anchors are being beamed direct to Kashmiri homes, and are stoking the fires of ‘azadi’.”

“Over 50 Saudi and Pakistani channels, including Zakir Naik’s banned Peace TV preaching Salafist Islam, and others indulging in anti-India propaganda are running without necessary clearance via private cable networks in Kashmir,” she wrote without substantiating her argument.

Televangelist Zakir Naik seldom speaks on the Kashmir dispute in his sermons on comparative religion and talks on Islam while the Saudi channels mostly air recitation of Holy Quran and Azan from the holy cities of Madina and Mecca.

Many in Kashmir are asking “how can recitation of Holy Quran stoke passions in Kashmir as far as the 70-year old political struggle for freedom from Indian rule is concerned?”

Internet blocked numerous times

The state home department’s directive came after the New Delhi government asked the state government to take immediate steps to stop the “unauthorised broadcast of the Pakistani and Saudi Arabian channels” in the Indian-controlled Himalayan region.

In this connection, the Indian federal minister Venkaih Naidu had spoken to Jammu and Kashmir’s chief secretary to seek action.

Earlier on April 26, the state government’s home department had ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block 22 social networking sites to “counter rumours” and “prevent loss of life” during ongoing escalating waves of civilian protests against Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region.

From 2012 to 2016, according to a report by the Software Freedom Law Center, the internet has been blocked in Kashmir at least 31 times.

Ban on the internet is something that the people in Indian-held Kashmir Valley are quite familiar with.

Interestingly, it is for the first time that any government in Indian-held Kashmir has placed a ban on popular applications and social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (upload), WhatsApp, Skype, WeChat, QQ, Google+, Viber, Snapchat, Snapfish, Telegram, Reditt, Baidu and Pinterest, etc.

The ban order, signed by the principal secretary in the state’s Home Department, argued that social media networking sites were being used by “anti-national and subversive elements” for “vitiating peace and tranquillity” in Jammu and Kashmir, an argument which has been rubbished by the opposition National Conference (NC) as well as all the prominent political groups seeking independence from Indian rule.

This unusually harsh ban on social media has made different people react in different ways.

Notwithstanding a government imposed ban, some people could still access the banned applications and social sites using the incumbent service provider Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) broadband connections in various parts of Kashmir.

Some tech-savvy young people found alternative communication tools to stay connected even without internet connections. They are using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and platforms such as Signal and Instagram to defy the social media ban.

'Disconnected'

In the absence of social media, the valley’s well-known photojournalist Javed Dar feels “disconnected from friends and colleagues”. Besides, Dar opines, the ban has hampered his professional work too.

For an upcoming book release function to be held in Srinagar, Dar says, he could not send invites to many of his colleagues and friends with whom he often remains in touch via social media.

“Normally, I’d have created an event reminder and invited many people through Facebook or Twitter. The ban on social media has played a spoilsport,” he tells BBC.

Dr. Qazi Haroon, a Srinagar-based medico who works with the state’s health department, says that many health awareness campaigns that were being regularly run by his department via social media have come to a “grinding halt” due to the ban.

“Owing to the social media ban, many of our vital health campaigns beneficial to general public that we were running on social media spaces stand hampered. Now, we have no alternative medium to promote awareness programmes related to immunisation, mother and child care, neonatal care, etc,” Dr. Qazi contends.

Besides medicos, journalists, scholars and students, many IT professionals and entrepreneurs are also baffled by the ban.

Sabiya Yaseen, a young engineering (B.Tech) student, says that the ban on social media and 4G/3G mobile internet has not only constricted space for communication with her friends and classmates, it has also delayed vital information about study material and examination dates.

“I could not access our college website on my mobile phone in the absence of high speed internet to know the date of a remaining paper. We would normally distribute such information on WhatsApp or via Facebook. The delay in information meant that I got little time to prepare. The ban isn’t helping anyone,” Sabiya tells BBC.

'Collective punishment'

For young development practitioners like Suhail Masoodi, the challenge that the ban has thrown can be turned into an opportunity to produce knowledge and quality work.

“…If there is a 6 month (long) ban, my target would be two papers and field work for my book. Good literature has been produced inside jails. Pull up your socks, folks!” said Dr. Masoodi’s last status update on Facebook minutes before the ban on social media.

Though most are suffering, some are employing innovative methods while others are using humour and satire to stay in good stead.

However, on Kashmir’s dicey political turf strong reactions are pouring in.

Commenting on the ban on social media, the Srinagar-based chairman of a faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq says that “such measures by the autocratic state are aimed at maintaining the status quo in and on disputed Jammu and Kashmir to avoid resolution of the political problem that is the root cause of the strife.”

“Repeated bans on means of communication in this day and age, in the hope of restoring so-called peace and normalcy in the Kashmir Valley is ridiculous to say the least,” the Mirwaiz tells BBC.

Defending the internet gag, a government representative says that the move is aimed at restoring normalcy and stopping unverified information from spreading further to create chaos.

“It (the ban) is a temporary decision to stop rumours and restore law and order to prevent further loss of life. It is also being done to stop the provocative video war from both sides,” leader of the PDP’s youth wing Waheed Ur Rehman Parra tells BBC.

But the opposition National Conference (NC) isn’t buying the state government’s restoring “peace and normalcy” argument.

Imran Nabi Dar, NC’s provincial spokesperson, calls the ban “archaic” and accuses the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) coalition government of meting out “collective punishment to the people of Kashmir for expressing their political expression and raising voice against human rights excesses”.

“The irony is that the state government has invoked an archaic British-era law to silence the people of the Kashmir Valley in 2017,” Dar tells BBC on the phone.

The internet is often suspended or restricted in Kashmir to quell civilian protests and anti-India demonstrations, which sometimes turn violent when government forces clash with civilian protesters.

The latest cycle of agitation began when held-Kashmir witnessed the lowest voter turnout during the last five decades in the just-concluded by-election in Srinagar parliamentary constituency. It resulted in the killing of 10 civilians in firing by the Indian government forces on protesters.

Afterwards, many purported videos showing excesses of Indian armed forces in Kashmir were circulated on social media, including the video of one civilian Farooq Dar of central Kashmir’s Budgam district who was tied to a bonnet of an Army jeep and used as a human shield.