In Kashmir, it is hard to find the “truth”. Anthropologically speaking, conflict societies are prone to exaggeration and conspiracy theories triggered by fear. But having been to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, I find the level of diversion and exaggeration in Kashmir to be astounding. Rumours here take hold quickly and spread like wildfire.
So, I went to Kashmir and asked people what TV channels they watch. Invariably, the reply was, “We don’t trust Indian channels… they all lie. We only watch Al Jazeera, NDTV and sometimes RT.” When I asked the residents, the Jammu and Kashmir Police and CRPF personnel about the BBC and Al Jazeera’s footage of the Soura clashes, most of them responded with added stories of massive protests, none of which I could personally verify.
What I could, however, verify from all sources was that clashes between the protesters and the security forces, as reported by the BBC and Al Jazeera, did take place in Srinagar’s Soura on 10 August. But there’s a deeply disturbing and confusing story of their genesis.
Flummoxed police, CRPF
The first problem is that the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) still don’t how the incident was triggered. In Srinagar’s Soura, there are troops present every 100 metres, including in the narrow bylanes I went into. As I travelled through the streets, I kept wondering how easily the troops would have reported the protest or any gathering of more than 10-15 people the moment it had happened. And yet this was not done; the why remains a mystery.
It turns out, the CRPF personnel were not aware of the protests until their spotters on the ground started “reporting crowds of over 2,000, which had gone up to around 6,000 by the time we arrived”. Several security men insist that the footage taken from different angles and different cameras were in fact “security camera footage” (Jenab Sahib mosque area) and those taken by security videographers (Ganderbal Road). They did in fact show me the angles and locations that at least two sequences in the spliced videos were shot from.
But curiously, the Narendra Modi government denied the occurrence of Soura riots at first. It later admitted to the clashes and even to the use of pellet guns.
This is where the local constables and jawans don’t get three things:
1. How did the security camera footage find its way into the hands of the foreign press?
2. Who sent the media advisory from Kashmir to the Centre to outrightly deny the Soura riots?
3. Who in the Centre approved this lie, allowing it to become the official line despite knowing that camera footage existed?
Like all rumour-based societies, the rather disturbing story is that there was some kind of collusion with a deliberate intent to sabotage – the crowd of protesters wasn’t detected at an early stage; it had successfully managed to coordinate without WhatsApp or SMS (mobile internet services in Kashmir continue to be restricted); if the protesters were congregated through loudspeakers, why were the calls not heard and responded to the gathering was allowed to grow; the security camera footage was leaked; a recommendation was made to lie about it; and a central directive followed that maintained this lie.
Another thing that the local constables and jawans confirmed was that they did not use live rounds, but did use lots of teargas and limited pellets. Almost everyone found it bewildering why the Modi government couldn’t have simply stuck to the truth about police action against a murderous and violent crowd, which they believed “would have done us harm”.
This is definitely something that Home Minister Amit Shah, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to ponder over.
No shortage of medicine
The other major rumour was of medicine shortage. All four hospitals that I visited – Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital, Lal Ded Hospital and Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital – confirmed there were no shortages. Even doctors who had no love lost for India said the same thing in private, one on one conversations.
Which bring us to the second part of the story and the “two Wall Street Journal women” who reported on the security clampdown in Kashmir. It turns out that both of them had stayed in the same hotel as me, and the staff there said that the hospital opposite to them had been functioning to full capacity the entire time. I have photographic evidence to confirm this.
Moreover, the staff at SKIMS, SMHS, Lal Ded and GB Pant hospitals, in one on one discussions with me, confirmed that they had developed procedures to ensure excellent stocking given the shutdowns that had happened in 2010 (alleged fake encounter killings of three civilians), 2014 (floods), 2016 (Burhan Wani). The independent chemist shops, on the other hand, said they did not have a few medicines but told me to ask for them in other nearby shops, assuring me I would get the medicines there.
To sum up, clashes in Soura did take place, but both Al Jazeera and BBC were fed spliced security camera footage from within, and this was compounded by a clumsy PR plan of the Modi government. The Wall Street Journal’s story on empty hospitals and a medical crisis, on the other hand, are complete fabrication and lead one to question if the two journalists were deliberately twisting facts or were being fed by their stringers.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.
This is the second part of a series by the author based on his recent Kashmir visit. Read the first part here.