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Censorship in Kashmir: through the prism of Ocean of Tears

On an unusually sunny February day, inside a tensely packed hall in a hotel in Srinagar in Indian administered Kashmir, a woman survivor of the Kunan Poshpora mass rape said in a painful voice, “We have shed tears everywhere, but still we are unable to express what happened to us.” Enough was made out from the other women speakers on the day commemorated as the Women’s Resistance Day in Kashmir (falling every year on February 23), that the women of the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpur symbolise the ‘valiant and inexhaustible struggle that Kashmiris have fought against the brutal Indian military occupation,’ which continues to this day. “Although nothing substantive has come out of speaking endlessly about that night as justice still eludes us, but we will still persist with it till everyone knows what happened and justice is done,” other women said purposively.

When Bilal A. Jan, a lesser known documentary film-maker from Srinagar, chose to focus his attention on the violence committed against women in Kashmir by state and non-state actors since the breakout of popular insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir, the women of the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpur in the frontier district of Kupwara appeared to him as the single most case exemplifying the horrific violence committed against Kashmiri women.

“The idea was to make a film on the violence committed against women in Kashmir in the past few decades of conflict. Kunan-Poshpora tragedy was obviously the foremost among hundreds of others because justice was totally denied to these women even to the extent that mainstream Indian media questioned that this incident happened,” Bilal A. Jan says.

Bilal had previously worked on a film detailing the widespread ill of child labour in Kashmir and it was during the shooting of this film that the idea of Ocean of Tears formed in his mind. Women of Kashmir have faced a harsh world, he says. “On one hand there is the never-ending political conflict of which women are the worst sufferers and on the other there are domestic issues which lead to violence. I wanted to focus on both of them and a make a film giving an objective representation of the crimes committed against women. Thus Ocean of Tears was born.”

But the story of Ocean of Tears was not to be the one as seen by its director. It got banned minutes before its first screening on December 15, 2012 at University of Kashmir, the state’s premier institute of higher learning on the pretext that the screening might trigger a ‘law and order problem in the troubled state.’

“It was the saddest day of my life. How the university authorities prevented the screening of my film was shattering to me. Since then I have been struggling to screen this film in Kashmir but no one is interested in showcasing this film,” Bilal says.

Interestingly, the film was made under the banner of Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), a quasi-government owned organisation which is directly financed by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. “What puzzled me at that time was why did they stopped the screening of my film when it was approved by PSBT and had even received U category Censor certificate meaning unrestricted viewing,” says Bilal.

One of the clues about the possible reasons why Ocean of Tears ruffled feathers in Kashmir was the anticipation the film had built prior to its scheduled screening at University of Kashmir. On 19 October 2012, PSBT released the excerpt of the film on YouTube and within two months it received 1, 49, 000 views before it was taken down. “I was surprised with the enormous public anticipation for the film. Before the scheduled screening, a whole lot of people had seen the excerpt on YouTube. My film was the first of its kind touching the suffering of women in a conflict zone like Kashmir,” says Bilal.

Moments later on that cold December after noon, when it was conveyed to Bilal by university authorities that his film could not be screened, the mass of students patiently waiting to catch the glimpse of the film rose up in anger to protest the decision of the authorities. “The atmosphere at the university was tense and minutes after the screening was prevented, pro-freedom slogans could be heard. People from many districts of Kashmir had come to see the film. Many people from Shopian had turned up as well. There were also human rights activists and activists from APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons) in the audience. I felt this also didn’t go down well with the authorities because they feared after watching the film, the audience might be roused to protest against the government,” says Bilal.

Shopian, known as the apple town of Kashmir, was the site of a gruesome rape and murder of two young women, Neelofar (22) and Asiya (17), allegedly at the hands of Indian armed personal. Understandably, Bilal A. Jan had chosen this as a subject for Ocean of Tears. The rape and murder of these two young women shook the entire valley of Kashmir and massive protest demonstrations were held all across the region. “It is noteworthy to mention that my film doesn’t just talk about Kunan-Poshpora but other gruesome cases like Shopian double rape and murder case and a woman named Ashmal who was also raped and then died. Less attention has been paid to these other episodes,” says Bilal.

The cinematic representation of this gruesome reality of horrific violence against women was something the state government wouldn’t be comfortable with, Bilal acknowledges. “But I had no idea that my film would meet this fate as it was produced by PSBT and it had cleared the censors,” he says.

Women in Kashmir have been the worst sufferers of the counter-insurgency methods employed by the State to weed out the popular revolt against Indian rule and in this atmosphere; justice to the survivors of rape is not only rare but impossible.

For Insha Bashir, a Kashmiri student of Political Science at Aligarh Muslim University, New Delhi rape and assault of women in Kashmir has always been used as a war-weapon to subdue its people who are fighting the occupation of their land. “Rape and sexual violence in conflict areas is not incidental but is ordered clandestinely to subdue the nations without engaging in regular battle. It is used to destroy the social honour of the resisting populace,” Insha says.

“Ocean of tears gives us a bizarre insight into the administrative, legal and judicial apathy the women of Kashmir are victim to. Unfortunately no one in India is ready to swallow this reality. The film remains under an unofficial ban. This unofficial ban on the film raises many questions. It is struggling to find a place in the country where it could be screened. The reason? Its sensitive content has made the govt. change its mind on allowing a free exhibition of the film in the country,” she says.

Kashmir had seen three violent summers of mass protest in 2008, 2009 and 2010 in which over a hundred young Kashmiri men including a few women and children as young as eight were shot dead by police and Indian paramilitary forces to quell the demands for Azadi (freedom) raised by millions of Kashmiris on its streets. Thousands others were injured and maimed for life while thousand more young men were put behind bars under draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), which Amnesty International has described as a ‘lawless law.’ Perhaps the memory of this mass rebellion was still fresh that the authorities in Kashmir saw it fit to ban the film under the usual alibi that ‘it could foment violence in Kashmir’.

In the old fascist way which Italian novelist Umberto Eco speaks of, government in Kashmir had precisely done what fascist government of Italy through its Ministry of Culture Popular Culture would tell newspapers during inter-war years, “Don’t write about suicide because the mere mention of suicide might inspire someone to commit suicide a few days later.” This injunction sees media as the source of rebellious sentiments from which erupt mass movements but in Kashmir, its actual violence committed against the populace which sees widespread demonstrations and protests all across the state. With the banning of Ocean of Tears, the government seems to be saying, “Don’t talk about the violence we inflicted upon you because it might trigger people to come on streets and protest and then we will have to kill them too.”

It is in line with this argument that State government in Kashmir has banned the broadcasting of news on local cable networks and repeatedly shuts down mobile-internet services. Short Messaging Services (SMS) on pre-paid mobile phones were banned in Kashmir for over four years until the ban was lifted in May 2014. This state surveillance over media and communication in Kashmir offers no arguments for its justification except to control information. “What is taken for granted in the rest of India as an inalienable, fundamental right of citizenship, has been in Kashmir under constant threat of being withdrawn abruptly for both short-term (on periodic intelligence reports of security threats, as, for instance, on every other Republic Day) as well as protracted periods (as in the case of prepaid mobile messaging services) – significantly, with no regret ever having been expressed to ordinary, non-combatant citizens for the inconvenience. In effect, Kashmir faces a clampdown on communications of the kind that young people elsewhere in India may not be able to live with, with ease, for even a day.” (Chitralekha, Censorship for Counter-insurgency, Economic and Political Weekly, May 24, 2014)

It is no wonder than that a film like Ocean of Tears, which brings to fore several cases of violence committed against women in Kashmir, most notably Kunan-Poshpura mass rape, will not go down well with the state government which has continuously denied mass rape of these women, even though it released compensation for the rape survivors. “It’s continuous discussion about Kunan-Poshpura and other cases of violence against women by the state forces that makes the State uncomfortable. I think Kashmir is the only place on earth where protesting wrongful death of men in a fake encounter by Army can lead to several more deaths. Ocean of Tears is anyways just a film which state has effectively banned to prevent any discussion on its brutal acts of violence against women,” says a media student at University of Kashmir.

Basharat Ali, a Kashmiri student of Conflict Analysis and Peace Building at Jamia Milia Islamia Univeristy in New Delhi is of the view that Kashmir is the only place where no discussion on Kashmir is allowed. “Even if it’s allowed, it’s controlled in a manner that terms and conditions are dictated by the State”, he says. “Banning a film, in this case Ocean of Tears is indicative of state control over information and knowledge. Also, this is how states slow down process to take away from people their ability to think.”

Three winters have passed since the botched screening of Ocean of Tears at University of Kashmir, but Bilal A. Jan sees no hope in being able to show the film to the people of his home region. The film continues to suffer under the un-official ban imposed on it, of which the state authorities have offered no explanation so far. The viewing of this film in Kashmir is a far away dream for Bilal and he feels that the un-explained censorship on his film doesn’t bode well for the future of film-making in Kashmir. “Censorship is the greatest challenge a documentary film-maker faces in Kashmir. I try to be neutral in my films, even this is not appreciated in Kashmir,” he says.

When Bilal A. Jan started working on Ocean of Tears, he had faced no prior hiccups in getting the approval from Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), the organisation that funded the film. Availing the Censor Certificate took some time though, says Bilal. “Normally you would get a censor certificate in fifteen days, but my film was given a censor certificate only after 45 days with the directive to put a disclaimer in the film, which I did. After OT got the unrestricted viewing certificate from the Censor Board, I and my editor were delighted.”

But Bilal’s joy in getting the film approved and receiving an ‘unrestricted viewing’ certificate was short-lived as the state government disallowed the first screening of the film at University of Kashmir. “From then onwards it has been a struggle to garner support for the first screening of my film in Kashmir and nobody has helped,” Bilal says, ruefully.

Notwithstanding the un-official ban on Ocean of Tears in Kashmir, the film has travelled to several film festivals all over the world and earned Bilal A. Jan some sort of fame which he humbly accepts.

“One of the things I did was I sought permission from PSBT for non-commercial screening of my film, which meant I can show my film anywhere, whether it’s a park or a studio,” Bilal A. Jan explains.

The film was successfully screened at Federation of Film Societies of India, Kolkata in March 2013, which Bilal has called a ‘welcome exception.’ In April 2013, the film was shown at the Al Jazeera film festival in Doha. In April 2013, the film was screened at Third Human Rights International Film Festival in Nepal. The film had a special screening at the Oklahoma University in the summer of 2013 and also at FIC Puebla Guatemala, Mexico in September 2013.

“It’s a great feeling that my film has gone out into the world. In a way, I want to thank those who banned my film,” says Bilal.

To screen the film in India has been continuously frustrating for Bilal. The film was prevented from being screened at Aligarh Muslim University in New Delhi. “I was shocked when one of the organisers of the Aligarh Film Festival wrote in the comments section of a magazine article that a call from the home ministry had forced them to withdraw the film,” Bilal A. Jan told Firstpost (an online news website based in India), in October 2013.

In February 2014, the film faced a stiff right-wing opposition to screen it at VIBGYOR Short and Documentary Film Festival in Kerala, but the film was later shown after the festival organizers and audience stood up in support for Bilal and his film.

“In India, there is danda maar (baton charging) response to critical documentary film-makers. Even my organisation (PSBT) didn’t support me. They are all giving away to communal agenda of BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, is the party in power in India at the moment, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi),” says Bilal.

In order to get the permission to screen his film in his home state Kashmir, Bilal A. Jan complained to United National Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) but the Commission responded that ‘it cannot do anything with the matter and its helpless.’ “They told me to write to the Indian chapter of UNHCR and I did that as well, but nothing happened.” Bilal A. Jan later wrote to Secretary General of United Nations, Ban Ki Moon and again nothing happened.

The unofficial ban on Ocean of Tears begs several questions. Bilal says that if the Censor board has already passed the film with ‘unrestricted viewing’ certificate then why is the government disallowing it and preventing its screening in various festivals in India. “I want to ask if there is a second censor board above the censor board which passed my film. If there are experts appointed by the same government which banned my film giving me an ‘unrestricted viewing certificate’ how can the government say that my film will create a law and order problem,” he says.

In the words of Basharat Ali, the state wants to put a lid on Kashmir and want nothing to come out. “By censoring films and media, they want to achieve a kind of narrative control which automatically serves its interests and in absence of an alternative, challenging discourse allows it to feed to people its own version of history and its ideas of peace and development,” he says.

In this atmosphere of surveillance and censorship, Kashmiri film-makers are left with no options but to explore their art in altogether alternative ways. “With this kind of atmosphere of censorship and curbs, there will be no growth of art in the region,” says Bilal. A Jan. But Bilal is also optimistic that the younger generation of film-makers in Kashmir will eventually make use of technology and social media to make art.

Basharat Ali says that social media has its perils too. “And in recent times, the State has also cracked down on people using social media to dissent. But the kind of political space we live in demands that our actions, in the form or art or films, should challenge the state and its narratives. I think we can make great use of social media, like YouTube and Facebook in disseminating to the world what the mainstream media would not tell them or be allowed to tell them,” he says.

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