A minister’s unguarded frankness at a New Delhi event that marked the growth of community radio caused major embarrassment to the Modi government at the end of August. Said Prakash Javadekar, minister for information and broadcasting, at that event:
‘When people store everything in their hearts and are unable to tell anyone about it, that is the biggest punishment. When you cannot talk to anyone, you cannot contact anyone, and you have no tool to communicate, that is the biggest punishment.’
For anyone who did not connect the dots, PTI’s story on the minister’s remarks provided this clarification:
‘Incidentally, the minister’s comments come in the backdrop of restrictions imposed on communication services in the Kashmir Valley after the abrogation of Article 370.’
In the US, New Delhi’s efforts to justify the communication blockade in Kashmir suffered setbacks when the New York Times published Imran Khan’s strong article attacking the blockade, and again when Senator Bernie Sanders, a front-runner in the race among Democrats to take on Trump, brought up Kashmir at a large gathering of Muslim Americans in Houston, Texas.
Saying that he was ‘deeply concerned’ about Kashmir, Sanders asked the US government to ‘speak out boldly in support of a UN-backed peaceful resolution to resolve the issue’ and urged the Indian government to ‘lift the communication blockade immediately’.
When Kashmir’s status was suddenly changed on 5 August, voices in India hailing Narendra Modi’s ‘decisive’ and ‘bold’ move expressed gladness that from being a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan, Kashmir had been turned into India’s internal question.
However, statements such as the one by Sanders, the space given by the New York Times to Imran Khan’s condemnation, and media stories across the world about the communication blockade suggest that the ‘decisive’ step may have helped to internationalize the Kashmir question.
The world’s anxiety over the breakdown in relations between two neighbours possessing the atom bomb may have declined a notch after Imran Khan’s statement of 2 September that ‘there will be no first use of nuclear weapons from our side ever’.
Earlier, that anxiety had climbed a notch after India’s defence minister, Rajnath Singh, suggested that circumstances could alter India’s no-first-use commitment.
South Asians have a greater stake than anyone else in preventing nuclear madness between India and Pakistan. Equally, silencing millions of people and preventing them from communicating with one another or with the rest of the world cannot be a matter of pride, a recipe for normalization, or a guarantee of peace.
This would be true even when the silencing is done in the name of preventing terrorism, and even when the silencing has the approval of a great many Indians.
Indians should remember that the movement for freedom from British rule received a great and unexpected boost exactly one hundred years ago when, via the Rowlatt Act of 1919, the Empire imposed curbs on free speech to prevent the radicalization of India’s youth by German or Soviet agents.