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State Policy and Media Reporting: Similarities Between Punjab 1984 and Kashmir 2019

August 20, 2019 | By

author: Jaspal Singh Sidhu*

The manner and intent of Indian Establishment in sending of the Indian army to the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar on 3 June 1984 and degradation in the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August (2019) bear a lot of similarities. Both actions were sudden and unexpected carried with excessive use of the armed forces. These two events were concerted swoops intended to shock and bamboozle the targeted people of Punjab and Kashmir, thereby, rendering them numb and reactionless.

As a journalist reporting for a ‘national news agency’ from Amritsar, the epicenter of the troubled in Punjab during the 1980s, I witnessed that feverish attempts were made to create a public opinion for justifying the sending heavy forces to a religious place. For that purpose, the government hyped and propagated some flimsy grounds through docile domestic mainstream media. Spreading disinformation was the main strategy as the manufactured and fake news invariably made headlines in the newspapers black painting the then ‘dharamyudh morcha’ (agitation) launched by the Akalis from Darbar Sahib complex in pursuance of their demands. The morcha was projected as a ‘Pakistan-inspired separatist agitation’…. ‘a ruse for housing criminals in the religious place’… ‘the morcha posed a palpable threat to the country’s unity and integrity’. Even the isolated killings in Punjab were portrayed as “Sikhs are killing Hindus”. All routine crimes and violent incidents were bundled up into one head: “Sikh terrorists killed … (so many) … attempted to looted, hijack ….so on”. Such an impression was also dispersed through frequent bulletins relayed by the government-controlled All India Radio and Doordarshan. Official intelligence agencies worked overtime to polarise and divide the Punjab society pitting Hindus against Sikhs. No doubt, some violent incident did take place because of the surcharged atmosphere during nearly two-year-long Akali agitation when two lakh Sikhs courted arrests. The Hindi press played a dirty role in painting the Darbar Sahib Complex as the fountainhead of “Sikh terrorism” dismissing its 100-year long history of 18th century when the shrine had been a rallying point of the Sikh warriors in their fight against Iranian and Afghan invaders out to make Punjab a part of Afghanistan.

Even my colleague journalists reporting for ‘national newspapers’ from Amritsar never bothered to highlight the latest history and Sikh traditions when the Akalis was the lone political party to launch a ‘morcha’ (agitation) from Darbar Sahib complex against the 1975 Emergency clamped by Indira Gandhi which was participated by BPJ leaders like L K Advani.

File Photo

Now in Jammu and Kashmir, the same strategy was adopted by New Delhi establishment for whipping up intended propaganda prior to the 5 August action. The television and electronic media outlets took up a leading role and invariably, quoted intelligence agencies’ sources for projecting the jihadi threat in the Kashmir valley. “Fear from Pakistan and Pak sponsored terrorists’ splashed the mainstream media space with added impact from stage-managed high-pitch discussions. Rarely, the media dispatches referred to the fact Jammu and Kashmir were given the ‘special status’ in the constitution because it joined the Indian Union later on and on its own volition and under some conditions. And the sovereign princely state spurned all attempts of Pakistan to forcibly occupy the territory through blackmailing tactics. The governments used the media to the hilt to deliberately suppress and disconnect closely related past in the cases of the Sikh agitation of the 1980s and Kashmiris’ stand on article 370. All that was intended to raise the ‘nationalistic fervor’ among the large Indian population that their ‘Punya Bhoomi’ (sacred motherland) was being “vivisected and defiled by anti-national’ elements”. Isolating from the proper perspective, the government intentionally propagated J&K as if it is mere ‘real estate’ by repeating endlessly that ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’.

Just before launching the army action on the Darbar Sahib, an unprecedented curfew was imposed on entire Punjab and with excessive use of armed forces the state was completely cut it off from the outside world. Similarly, J and K, particularly the Kashmir valley were virtually caged by the gun-toting soldiers before initiating the process of lowering the ‘special status’ of the state.

During the early 1980s, the media and official communique propagated for the general public that the army operation was confined to the Darbar Sahib and meant to eject and finish off Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed men “holed up” there. But the fact was rarely known outside Punjab four dozen other Sikh Gurdwaras located at other places were too simultaneously attacked by the army to oust “potential Sikh terrorists” from there. To crush the Sikh dissent for all the time to come, a larger number of armed soldiers conducted night raids on Sikh villages to pick up and eliminate Sikh youths who could be ‘potential threat’ to the officially envisaged “peace and normalcy” after the army swoop on the Darbar Sahib. That army operation in rural areas made the Sikh youths to flee homes for safety and it was given a fanciful codename, ’Woodrose Operation’.

As the follow-up to both of the army actions in Punjab and J&K, a barrage of manufactured and fake reports were circulated and stage-managed inspired visuals and spectacles to occupy larger space on electronic and social media sites. This exercise was aimed at inculcating a sense of “bigger achievement” in the client section of the majority community.

I have recorded in my published book on media coverage (‘June Chaurasi Di Patarkari’ in Punjabi language—Media Coverage of 1984) that strict censorship was imposed on the press in Punjab two days prior to the army action and lasted for several weeks later on besides the government used several underhand tactics to get a favorable flow of news-items. For example, my rival news agency put out a “social survey” of the Amritsar city just a fortnight after completion of army action (10 June 1984) which said the city people and the Sikhs “are feeling relieved after the army restored ‘Maryada’ (religious code of conduct) in the Darbar Sahib following its clearance of the gun-toting criminals”. That a widely circulated story in newspapers was missing in my dispatches which perturbed my Editor-in-Chief in New Delhi who pulled me for “not writing positive stories that could help in fast normalizing the situation in Punjab”.

To my utter surprise, the same type news-items are seen splashed in the media that “Kashmiris are feeling relieved after the withdrawal of article 370 …. there is no terrorist activity in the valley….. people celebrated Eid with gusto….. some reasonable restrictions there to be removed gradually”. The mainstream media rarely refer to “complete lockdown of the valley’’, snapping all communication network like telephone and internment and imposing a “comprehensive information blackout” there.

As the flow of factual news has been blocked and the so-called national media, practically that exists outside the valley is free to carry news that strengthens the official jargon about J &K.

The same official strategy was at work in Punjab during the army action that the sizeable local press in Amritsar was not allowed to attend the press briefings held by army officials just after the operation on the Darbar Sahib ended. Rather, chosen media persons from Delhi and Chandigarh were flown to Amritsar and briefed by an army general to get publicity for “successful army action conducted with precision”. Thus, an attempt was made to blackout killings of hundreds of innocent Sikhs including women, children and old who got trapped in the shrine on the auspicious occasion of observing the martyrdom day of Guru Arjun Dev.

Even though the two actions were separated by a time gap of 35 years, the same political expediency necessitated them to happen. Such strike-downs were meant to kick up a Brahmanical Hindu nationalism that facilitated the consolidating of the majority community to be translated into a ‘vote-bank’ politics. The concomitant bashing up minorities and projecting them as ‘anti-nationals’ and a threat to India’s unity and security have been the palatable feed of the rabid Hindu nationalism.

Tracking the history, the above said practice had a begun much earlier at the outset of 20th century when the Hindutva began taking a shape which surfaced and retreated as required by the Congress during the Indian freedom movement. But Congress leaders strategically chiseled the Hindu religion and culture towards the building a Nation-State based on the Hindu identity in the highly diverse Indian sub-continent. During the 1930s the Hindu brand of nationalism rather got overwhelmingly hegemonic within the Congress which had a larger base among the Hindus with a negligible presence of Muslims. This dispensation, later on, obstructed the Congress’s political settlement with the Muslim League during pre-independence days. Rather it led to the drawing of battle-lines between the two contending parties—the Congress and Muslim League, ultimately bringing about a bloody Partition in its wake and diminishing of possibilities of setting up a federal type of governance in the sub-continent.

On transfer of power from the outgoing British in 1947, Congress inherited a centralized strong power center at New Delhi. Obsessed with achieving a territorial unity and retaining of socio-religious affairs within the Brahmanical framework of the caste-ridden Indian society, the Congress rulers further centralized the powers which entailed snubbing of all sort of dissent of the minorities and their aspirations. The process got peaked up during Indira Gandhi regime in the early 1980s.

In the case of Sikhs who too projected themselves as a ‘nation’ got pitchforked in the centralized power structure. They were denied all solemn promises the Congress made them in pre-Independence days like allowing them (Sikhs) to “experience a glow of freedom’’ in Punjab having sizeable Sikh population there. But Instead of accommodating the Sikhs politically, Congress chose to snub them by refusing them their separate identity and describing them as part of the larger Hindu society. That is why Sikhs remained on war-path with New Delhi since the 1950s. And their several agitation programs for a due share in power were viewed as secessionist to be culminated into the launching of a ‘dharamyudh morcha’ (an agitation) from Darbar Sahib in August 1982 for more autonomy to the state.

The June 1984 army action in Punjab and suppressing of Akalis with a heavy hand gave instant political dividends to the Congress with the majority Hindus rallying around the party. After her assassination, her son Rajiv Gandhi heading the Congress emerged as ‘savior of India’s unity and security’ and won a record number of 404 seats in December 1984 Lok Sabha polls. But the political process of instilling insecurity among the majority and hate against the Sikh minority resulted in the massacre of the Sikhs in November 1984 and metamorphosing the Indian democracy into a ‘majoritarian dispensation’.

A fertile ground, thus, got prepared for the Hindutva politics which strengthened the Hindu nationalists and their political outfit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The majoritarian polity which largely thrives on the minority bashing has now come to stay in India and well-entrenched Hindutva is fast paving way for setting up ‘Hindu Rashtra’, a version of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

  • Jaspal Singh Sidhu retired as Special Correspondent with United News of India, New Delhi and can be reached at jaspal.sdh@gmail.com.



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