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Kapil Sibal comes to the Rescue of Kashmir's Cable Operators

Kashmir's Cable Operators

For decades now, Kashmiri Muslims have held the Government of India responsible for all their woes. This is because the Government of India time and again allowed the ruling National Conference to rig elections and run a corrupt, uncaring and authoritarian regime in Jammu and Kashmir. Whenever Kashmiris rose in protest against subversion of their democratic rights by their State Government, the National Conference managed to convince the Central Government that it was an anti-India upsurge. This suits corrupt and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats of J&K. The Central Government joined hands with the State Government to crush such protest movements through the armed might of the Indian state.

Thus almost every protest against the misdoings of the National Conference turned into anti-India protest. Even when there is a power failure people start shouting anti-India slogans, though the fault lies with the local power supply station. The National Conference added fuel to this fire and continually fanned anti-India sentiment by raising the flag of plebiscite and the demand for “autonomy” from the Central Government. In recent years, Kashmiri Muslims began to see through this game but since they almost never got sympathetic hearing from either the Congress led Government at the Centre or the BJP, they stayed stuck with their hostility towards “India” which in effect means anger and frustration with the Central Government. But Minister Kapil Sibal helped break this vicious cycle by responding with speed and determination to the grievances of two important groups of Kashmiris.

In May 2012, the Private Colleges Association of Kashmir approached Manushi for help in communicating to Union Minister for Communications & Information Technology (now also Law & Justice) Kapil Sibal who was the then HRD Minister how the State Government was out to crush and kill private colleges through its arbitrary and hostile policies. Minister Sibal not only assured them of all help but actually flew to Kashmir with me at the invitation of the Private Colleges Association to hear their grievances. (For a full report read Love Us or Leave Us by Wahid -ur Rehman). This issue will take time to sort out and Mr Sibal is doing all he can to help them even though he is not the HRD Minister any more.

In the meantime, in the second week of March this year, the Cable operators of Kashmir approached Manushi with a horrific account of how National Conference leaders were using criminal means to destroy these small operators in order to acquire total monopoly over the media networks in J&K.

Apart from the monetary implications of this monopoly, this would help National Conference to have total control of news coverage so that any criticism of its policies or high handed actions could easily be blocked.

The following representation dated March 12, 2013 submitted to Minister Sibal provides a glimpse of the patently illegal acts of the J&K Government in wrecking the livelihoods of cable operators in the state.

Sir,

Sub: Representation on behalf of SITE Entertainment Network, cable operators of Srinagar Kashmir with regard to systematic assaults by the State Government of J&K on our fundamental right to livelihood, right to pursue occupations and vocations of our choice, right to liberty and life without fear.

We are making an urgent appeal to you because the state government is out to crush the private cable operators out of existence through patently illegal and unconstitutional means. The Government of India keeps telling the world and reminding Kashmiri people that Kashmir is an integral part of India but when we are deprived of our fundamental rights promised by the Constitution of India by our own state government, no one in the Central Government or national media pays the slightest attention to our grievances and our cries for help.

We have come to you in great hope because you are one of the very few central ministers who freely interacted with thousands of youth in the Valley who had gathered to listen to you with enthusiasm. You engaged with them without much security paraphernalia. You also told us that Kashmiris are very close to your heart and you are always there to redress their genuine grievances.

We want to, in particular, remind you of your promise made on 23rd October 2012 in Pulwama that since the youth of Kashmir yearn for peace in the Valley, you would be glad to restore all the means of communication denied to them from SMS to fast speed internet services. You assured us that as Minister of Communication and IT you will do your best to play a positive role in connecting Kashmiri youth to the rest of India and removing all the hurdles that alienate them from India. You added that since 21 century is an information age, you would like to see Kashmir get connected to people across the world and transform itself from an isolated to a high-tech region.

We, the cable service operators of Kashmir have served the cause of communication, entertainment in Kashmir Valley under very trying circumstances, including at the height of militancy. We played a vital role in linking the Valley to the rest of India via cable services and transmission. This played a major role in giving hope to the people of Kashmir that they too can be partners in a new resurgent India. It is not a coincidence that when the first young Qazi from Kashmir won the Indian Idol award on Sony TV, the entire Valley celebrated the occasion.

The private cable operators have engaged the youth, given them technical training and provided job opportunities to thousands of unemployed youth. Inspite of threats by militants to this venture, cable operators have done their best to make Kashmir a part of the digital age and reduce the isolation of common Kashmiris to national and international developments. The cable operators have paid a heavy price to keep alive and sustain this venture .Many of our operators were attacked and even lost their lives while rescuing and sustaining cable services. A major challenge was the increasing religious intolerance and attacks by hardliner groups against the cable service because they blamed us for spreading “immodesty and modernization”. 

Till about eight years ago, Kashmir valley’s cable operators had direct dealings with companies like Zee, Star, Sony. Our troubles started when Mr Devinder Singh Rana and Mr Subhash Chowdhry, close associates of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who already had a monopoly over Jammu region began spreading their tentacles in the Valley. They joined hands and floated a joint venture named ‘Take One J K Media’. As they had secured distributorship of various companies, they began to use their political clout to pressure the 26 odd cable operators and nearly 600 sub-operators of the Valley to become their “dealers” and play their channels. We consented under pressure even though it meant financial losses for us since they charge us not only for paid channels but also for free channels. However, we realised soon that their game plan was not limited to economic monopoly but also political monopoly for which they use sinister ways, including the coercive might of the state machinery against us.

For example, when we contacted some of the national channels, they willingly agreed to give us direct dealership. However, in order to obstruct the direct dealing ‘Take One JK Media’ began to recall our old set-top boxes under the false pretext that they had some technical flaws. In return they gave us new set-top boxes which were connected to their user ID. In June 2012, the telecasts of Zee, Sony etc were blocked from our cable networks without any notice to us. When we contacted their head offices in Delhi, they informed us that the Take One JK Media had blocked the through their set-top boxes because they had cancelled our user Ids and routed all channels through their user ID in order to deny us direct access. This is how without knowledge, they snapped our direct business links with companies in Delhi.

We had approached ‘MediaPro’ directly and met Mr. Pankaj Satlana, the regional head who again tried to push us to work with JK media. When we refused to be bullied, he stopped meeting us altogether. The country head Mr. Hemant Sandhu even proposed us for separate distribution in Kashmir province which we are ready to undertake. But since August 2012 despite several attempts to talk to executives at Delhi office we have been denied appointments.

We approached the distributor JK/Take One Network backed by Devinder Singh Rana and Subhash Chowdhry and they bluntly told us that we don't exist anymore as the Decoders are no more in our name. After we resisted, he started deactivating our services/ packages and threatened us by saying that instead of Rs.3.70 lac (what we were paying for Star India and Zee Turner) we have to pay Rs.7.50 lac per month to our distributor or else we will be totally shut down.

DSP Farooq Zargar (CID), a close friend of Subhash Chowdhry has positioned renegade goondas in our areas who have been assigned the task of laying down cables of his monopoly network and illegally uproot ours. The police do not entertain our complaints saying they are under political pressure. Many of our operators have been beaten up by these criminal elements. Instead of registering our complaints, the police have filed repeated trumped up F.I.Rs against our men and locked them up in jail. We got them released on bail with great difficulty.

Even though all these companies were willing to give us new set-top boxes as direct dealers for the Valley, they have been pressured by Devinder Singh Rana and Subhash Chowdhry not to do so because they want monopoly control over the state and wipe out small entrepreneurs with their own network of politically pliant dealers. This is an old tried and tested game of the National Conference. They manipulate recruitment in government jobs by inducting only loyal party members into government, systematically overlooking merit. Similarly, they do their best to crush businessmen, whether in the education sector, or industry or print media who are not pliant enough to give them whatever bribes and pay offs they demand. But extorting money is not their only game. They are as obsessed with political control.

For example, the day Times Now news channel carried a news story critical of the state government, they blocked Times Now from the state. They did the same with ETV when it carried news which exposed JK government misdoings. They use the state police to threaten and arrest those who carry any news questioning the state government policy.

It is with a view to acquiring total political monopoly over local media that the current regime is determined to snuff out our right to employment and business entitlements through the use of police and other coercive measures. Under the guidance of their political bosses, the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar has illegally and unconstitutionally sealed the office of our network rendering thousands of youth unemployed. We are all in a state of limbo.

Hundreds of cable operators staged protest demonstration against these illegal repressive acts. We were forced to take to streets and some of our operators even went to the extent of attempting self-immolation during the protest in Srinagar on Feb, 26 2013. But the state government remained unmoved. Sadly, even the national media failed to take notice of our protests.

The state government policy of clamp down on private cable operators is aimed at achieving corporate monopoly over cable networks with a view to using it in the coming elections to block all independent news coverage of electoral malpractices which alone can help NC win elections.

Mr Devinder Singh Rana, who is well known to be the right hand man of CM Omar Abdullah has gone to the extent of labelling us as “anti-national” elements in order to mask his own illegal actions. History is witness to the fact that we have done our best to promote national integration at great personal risk and cost. During the worst of times, we kept people of Kashmir connected to the social, cultural, political and economic developments in the rest of India. But the NC government does not want peace and harmony in the state. Disturbed conditions suit them because this way they can convince the Central Government that their authoritarian and repressive measures are necessary to keep Kashmiri people under control. They run a police state in order to silence all criticism of their uncontrolled corruption and criminal acts.

This kind of politics may suit the partisan interests of National Conference and the Abdullah Dynasty but it does not suit the interests of Kashmir. It alienates Kashmiri people and turns them against India because they are led to believe that all such oppressive measures against them are adopted at the behest of the Central government. The silence of Central Government and national media against the misrule of Conference is invariably interpreted as a sign of its complicity in repression of Kashmiri people. This game needs to be halted. Only someone like you who understands our anguish and listens to us with an open mind, can start this process.

We therefore appeal to you to intervene personally and direct all concerned media corporates including Media Pro, ESPN, TAJ TV Network to issue direct IRD connections and services to our network. 

Yours Sincerely,

Amjad Meer and Shaukat Ahmed 

For SITE Entertainment Network (SEN), 

Srinagar 

After receiving this letter and getting all details from the cable operators, Minister Sibal acted with lightning speed and personally talked to the media companies who appoint cable operators on a contractual basis to let them know that they should not succumb to illegal pressure tactics of ruling party politicians of Jammu and Kashmir. This is the letter he wrote to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah: 

I had visited your state in October 2012 at the invitation of Private Colleges Association of Kashmir and was very moved by the warm reception I got. I was literally given a red carpet welcome and showered with flower petals. A huge public meeting had been organized to enable me to engage with the youth of the Valley that included students and teachers. They showcased their singing and dancing talent to me with great pride. Over 4000 young people had gathered in an open ground to listen to me about the HRD ministry’s new policy initiatives. Far from raising any anti-India slogans, all their questions to me were whether these new initiatives the HRD ministry was taking would also reach Kashmir. Their desire to be better connected with the rest of the country and be part of India’s growth story was palpable.

At that time too, I was disturbed when educationists who had invited me gave worrisome accounts of the many ways in which private educational institutions are being throttled due to hostile policies. These colleges have played a salutary role in keeping the flag of education flying during disturbed periods, at a time when even government schools and colleges collapsed due to militancy. The professional colleges of the Valley have provided affordable education to the youth of the Valley and directed their energies into creative channels. I had promised them my support. But I could not deliver on my promise because of obvious reasons.

However, when a delegation of cable operators of Kashmir came to meet me on 12th March, they had an identical story about determined attempts to crush these micro entrepreneurs, who have played a very important role in keeping the people of Kashmir Valley connected to the rest of India as well as developments in the rest of the world. The representation of SITE Entertainment Network regarding shutdown of private Cable Service in valley narrates a very worrisome story. I enclose a copy of their representation. 

I am concerned about use of police force to harass entrepreneurs and their employees. I am sure that the people of Kashmir are entitled to pursue legitimate business activities without harassment. I know, you will never allow such harassment to take place.

Unemployment of youth is a huge problem in India, including Jammu & Kashmir. The Government is not in a position to provide jobs for everybody, nor is the corporate sector willing to invest in the Valley given its conditions. Therefore, we need to promote avenues of self-employment and encourage modest entrepreneurial endeavours.

I am sure, you will, in the light of the representation made, take appropriate steps to remedy the situation.

Signed, Kapil Sibal

After two months of back and forth due to attempts by vested interests to sabotage Mr Sibal’s intervention in favour of cable operators, an agreement was finally signed on May 15 between MediaPro and Kashmir's cable operators.

Mr Sibal’s prompt and determined redressal of the grievances of the two Kashmiri groups who approached him through Manushi marks a major turn in Kashmiri politics. It is the lack of faith and hope in the State and Central government that have made Kashmiris adopt nihilistic forms of politics. If the Central Government is seen to be responsive to the legitimate grievances of Kashmiris, and Kashmiris begin to carefully sift the problems created by the Central Government from those created by their State Government or local politicians, Kashmiri politics is bound to become more realistic and less explosive.

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Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is an Indian academic and writer. She was a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based in Delhi, and the Director of the Indic Studies Project based at CSDS which aims to promote the study of "Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization".