Hours before taking oath as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 2015, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed told me in an interview that he was “an ardent fan of the Pakistani television serials”.

Humsafar, starring Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan and airing on Zee Zindagi at the time, was his favourite. The serial was originally aired on the Pakistani channel Hum TV from September 2011 to March 2012.

Sayeed, patriarch of the Peoples Democratic Party, was not the only one in Kashmir to have fallen in love with Pakistani television serials. There were tens of thousands of Kashmiris, particularly women who spent time at home, who were glued to their television screens. Besides romantic serials and comedy shows, they also followed Pakistani bridal fashion and watched Hum TV and other Pakistani channels like ARY Zauq and ARY Masala to pick up new recipes. It is also no secret that cricket enthusiasts in the Valley are fans of Pakistani players.

But this television routine came to an abrupt halt on July 2 with a government order directing district magistrates in Jammu and Kashmir to “ensure that urgent necessary action is taken” to stop the transmission of “non-permitted TV channels by the cable operators”, which “violated the sub rule 6 (6) of the Cable TV Networks Regulation Rules”. The order, issued by the state government’s home department, said “the district magistrate has the power to seize the equipment in case of violation”.

The state has been under governor’s rule since June 19, after the government fell with the Bharatiya Janata Party pulling out of its alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party.

For peace and order

Following protests by cable operators who complained that their businesses had suffered massively in the wake of the order, the state government issued a statement on July 21. “The powers to permit or not permit telecast of any TV channel are vested with the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and not with the state government,” a spokesman for the state home department said. He said anyone who wanted the ban on the channels lifted would have to approach the Central ministry and not the state government.

The statement went on to say that the order proscribing certain channels was originally issued in May 2017 and that the subsequent order simply asked district magistrates to implement it. The original order could not be implemented primarily because of protests by cable operators and partly because of statements from the pro-freedom camp.

Overall, as many as 34 television channels have been banned, apparently because they have the potential to disturb “peace and order” in Kashmir. Most of these channels are Pakistani while some are broadcast from Saudi Arabia. They include ARY Zauq, ARY Masala, ARY Zindagi, Hum TV, PTV Sports, Paigam, Karbala TV, Geo News, ARY News Asia, Duniya News and Samna News as well as Peace TV English and Peace TV Urdu, which are owned by Islamic preacher Zakir Naik who is on the run from Indian authorities investigating him for terror links. These channels generate news and religious content as well as infotainment, sports, satire, comedy and food shows.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was a fan of the Pakistani serial Humsafar starring Fawad Khan (left) and Mahira Khan (right).

A selective ban?

The ban has been criticised by civil society, the trade fraternity, media and even the police and bureaucracy in Kashmir. Leaders of the separatist Hurriyat say it is an attempt “to hurt the collective psyche of Kashmiris” through this “cultural aggression and politics of invasion”.

Terming the action “questionable”, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party tweeted on Sunday:

In his weekly column Write Hand, published in Greater Kashmir, the Valley’s largest English language newspaper by circulation, Ajaz-ul-Haque used satire to address the proscription, calling it a “throwback to the good old time when tuning to Pakistan Radio was considered punishable in Kashmir”. Such bans were imposed every time tensions ran high between India and Pakistan.

“If anything that breeds trouble deserves ban why let the bigger trouble-mongers go free?” he asked, referring to news channels based in Noida and Mumbai that are widely perceived in the Valley as mouthpieces of the ruling dispensation in Delhi and believed to encourage violence with their polarising rhetoric.

Gut feeling and perceptions

So, what convinced the government to ban cooking, sports, news and religious channels, especially those broadcast from Pakistan? How do religious channels telecasting live coverage of the Haj pilgrimage disturb law and order in Kashmir?

In public, at least, the government has not backed its order with any authentic research or a holistic study. It has failed to show how the banned channels posed a threat to the region’s peace.

According to a state government official, finding immediate causes of turbulence and devising palliatives is “one of the main tasks of the research and analysis bureaus of intelligence agencies in Kashmir”. It has always been believed that television content broadcast from Pakistan and overseas, both religious and political, triggers violence in Kashmir. No one knows how, but this is the general belief. “So if there was a time to kill the goose, it was when the elected government is not there,” the official said. “On the security front, governor’s rule is essentially military rule. They have taken their old and abandoned recommendations out from the safety lockers and are getting the state administration to implement them.”

The tragedy is that most of the research and analysis done in Kashmir is based on pedestrian inputs, gut feeling, perceptions, hearsay, unverified information and bureaucratic vindictiveness.

But some observers also see the ban as part of a “larger design” to stamp out diversity in media, to deny Kashmiris access to anything broadcast from Pakistan, and to control narratives both in the traditional media and on social media. They believe the ban to be of a piece with curbs on the entry of foreign journalists into Jammu and Kashmir, reiterated by the Union Ministry of External Affairs through a letter to foreign media bureaus on May 22. They also link it to the frequent internet shutdowns in the Valley – at least 62 of them since 2012, according to the Delhi-based non-profit Software Freedom Law Centre.

Either way, such bans seem misplaced. As a resident of Srinagar wryly remarked, “No one in Kashmir picks up a stone or gun because of watching Pakistani channels, but they might do so if the ban is not lifted.”

Gowhar Geelani is a Srinagar-based journalist, analyst and political commentator. He was formerly Editor, Deutsche Welle, in Bonn, Germany.