The New “Iron Curtain”!


(The Digital India has failed to control the Social Life in Kashmir in spite of the strongest curbs ever put on all the social networking sites sand TV channels!)

In the erstwhile Soviet Union there was such a blackout of communications with the outside world that the measure got the name of the “Iron Curtain”. It was virtually an Iron Curtain which the communist regime had put on all communications with the free world. No news filtered out nor were the outsiders able to communicate with the Soviet Citizens. In fact, the “Curtain” extended all over the Communist countries of Europe. The real definition was, “a notional barrier separating the former Soviet bloc and the West prior to the decline of communism that followed the political events in Eastern Europe in 1989”. According to Wikipedia, “The use of the term iron curtain as a metaphor for strict separation goes back at least as far as the early 19th century. It originally referred to fireproof curtains in theatres. Although its popularity as a Cold War symbol is attributed to its use in a speech Winston Churchill gave in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels had already used the term in reference to the Soviet Union”.

In the present world after the advent of the Internet, popularly called the information highway, it is practically impossible to shut out any area from the world at large. There are umpteen ways of communicating with the rest of the world. If internet is blocked through landline or mobile, there are many options of satellite internet. Small digital devices costing $ 60 to $ 200 or so can be used to connect to internet through satellites all over the world. People use these devices in the deserts, ocean and mountains. As regards blocking of Social Media sites, there are dozens of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) available, some absolutely free, to sign into these sites without the local Internet Service Providers knowing anything about it. The days of the erstwhile “Iron Curtain” are gone!

The State Government vide Home Ministry order banned 22 Social Media sites accessible through the internet. Earlier, the internet itself had been blocked a number of times since the installation of the present coalition government. Mobile phone networks too have been blocked several times. Last year these were blocked for almost five months. The state government has also banned some television channels. The reasoning behind these extra-ordinary totalitarian measures is supposedly the use of these by militants for spreading violent activities and so on. Well, the unrest has been there even when there was no internet and even when there were no social media sites. Again it is a short term fire-fighting effort instead of determining and treating the cause of the fire. There are always upheavals off and on. This is because the basic cause of the perennial unrest is not attended to at all! All sane and matured people from the civil society as well as from the Army have opined that the unrest in Kashmir needs a political solution and not a military one.

Unfortunately, the top leadership of the present dispensation in New Delhi refuses to listen to the saner advice and are adamant that talks can only be held once violence is given up. However, they refuse to see the truth that the cause of violence is the total denial of the basic rights including total suppression for any free expression. The words “Freedom of Expression” seem to have been wiped out from their constitutional dictionary! In a free society claiming to be the largest democracy in the world one would expect respect for all views even if contrary to the general belief. Once there is total suppression of freedom of expression especially when every peaceful expression is put down with undue violence, counter-violence is but natural.

In spite of all these totalitarian measures, which remind one of George Orwell’s’ 1984, the truth has the habit of coming out all over the world. In fact, this blockade reminiscent of the Iron Curtain days has proved counterproductive. Videos of suppression, demonstrations and so on are still going viral on the Facebook and twitter. The only gain has been universal condemnation of the Central and the State Government for this total communications and social media blockade. Even the United Nations Commission for Human Rights has held a meeting to discuss these violations of Human Rights in Kashmir.

Incidentally, all these gags have not lessened the protests or other unrest all over the valley. Every day there is news about protests and clashes in different towns. People need to understand that the fastest means of news communication in Kashmir has always been the word of mouth. Interestingly, the most important news source is a baker’s shop in the morning in every part of Kashmir. All over the valley, the people in large numbers very early in the morning gather and wait for their turn to take the bread at the bakers’ shops. These places are the best locations to gather news and the discussions sometimes are very lively and informative. To put a complete blockade on dissemination of news from all parts of the valley, the government may next have to close all the baker shops!

On the positive side, the government has inadvertently done a great favour to the social life in Kashmir. After the violent events of the decade of nineties of the last century, almost all the physical interaction had come to a virtual end. People would not dare to go out to meet friends or relatives due to continuous crack downs, cordon and search operations and continuous curfews. The only meeting places were either funerals or marriage functions! There was a revival at the beginning of the new century and the people had started moving around. This physical interaction got another jolt by the interactive social media. People became couch potatoes sitting in front of their laptops or holding their smart phones and doing all the interactions at their own homes. The blockade of the social media is making people mobile once again. We may, hopefully, see much more physical interaction in future which is the most important requirement to keep a movement alive!

Mohammad Ashraf,    I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir

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