In April last year Suhail Naqshbandi quit as creator of the popular Inside Out editorial cartoon daily feature for Greater Kashmir, citing pressure on the newspaper. Months later India’s government revoked the special autonomous status of the Jammu & Kashmir region and in the ensuing crackdown on civil liberties all telecommunication and internet service was disrupted. It has been extremely difficult to verify the whereabouts and welfare of colleagues in Kashmir and elsewhere across the country as internet blackouts have continued.
We present an exclusive essay by Mr Naqshbandi, describing his experiences prior to and in the months after the intervention in Kashmir, circumstances that have effectively ended his career. Suhail has made significant effort to file this and we appreciate his courage and determination in doing so.
We thank our colleagues at Cartooning For Peace for providing a full French translation.LIRE L’ESSAI EN FRANÇAIS
CENSORED INTO SILENCE
On August 5th 2019 I drew a cartoon that remains unshared. Lying still somewhere in my computer, it was my last drawing, mourning the demise of whatever little semblance of special status was left for Kashmir. It was a visual about the greatest betrayal done to us. I wanted to share it with people but couldn’t do so as every line of communication had been shut down twelve hours before, around midnight.
Kashmir in its entirety was placed under an unprecedented lockdown by the government run from New Delhi. It was preceded by an extraordinary influx and deployment of thousands of additional troops. This development was itself prepared for with a week-long exercise of “psy ops” in the form of rumour-mongering, ranging from talk about war and abrogation of special status to splitting the state into a union territory. Coupled with it were mass arrests on an unusually large scale; separatists, businesspeople, lawyers, journalist, activists, students, thousands of youngsters and even minors were detained as well as pro-establishment politicians, including the three former chief ministers of the state.
The troops were placed in every nook and cranny of the valley to enforce this lockdown on the people. Kashmir felt like a massive open-air jail. It was cut off from rest of the world in every sense. The only news that we could access was state-run tv & radio stations, nothing more than official propaganda. The so-called independent press was subdued into toeing the official line. Newspaper editorials vanished. So did any real reportage. No news was allowed to go out of Kashmir.
All of this ensured that the siege was felt mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Despite a glut of suitable content on a daily basis I could not bring myself to draw even a single cartoon. An effective prisoner in my home, my agency to express my outrage seemed somehow arrested too. However I was able to make watercolour studies, depicting the landscapes that make Kashmir beautiful, a natural history in contrast to an ugly, tragic saga of bloodshed, violence and the worst human rights abuses. Contemplative art helped me survive this horrible time and now I realise that on a subconscious level the siege that kept me confined forced my mind to wander the land, just like an innocent prisoner who would want to breathe freely in the scenic lap of nature. Though of course my troubles were nothing compared to the condition of those thousands detained arbitrarily and who continue to suffer unspeakable treatment.
The crisis begins
To return to political cartoons, the curb on my freedom of expression started many months before, in the run up to the general election. In February last year the government in New Delhi issued a notice to the Jammu & Kashmir administration, requiring them to report all instances of what they termed “resistance art”. Basically any form of art made in Kashmir and critical of government had to be stopped. This translated into my cartoons being withheld from publication in the local daily newspaper more often. These frequent refusals by my editor became a headache. Management cut the already paltry salary in half. And so before it got any worse I decided to withdraw as mark of protest against this censorship and quit the paper in April.
But I did not stop making cartoons. I had an audience, many of whom purchased the newspaper solely to see my work. The first thing they would do was to go to the editorial page to check my cartoon before reading the rest of the paper. Hence I received a massive response upon my resignation. I felt a moral obligation to cater to them, as they felt I was giving voice to their emotions during this period of unrest. That is true for every political cartoonist. So I kept on putting my work out via social media channels. Without a job there was no any monetary return but at least I was able to express my opinion directly without having to worry about editorial approval. But with the disruption that ensued on August 5theven this space was closed. We’ve had no internet access since then.
Kashmiri cartooning started sometime in 1940s when my late father was one of the first people to introduce this art form to regional journalism. Many cartoonists came on the scene but were forgotten in due course, not because their work was sub-par but they were never given their due. A researcher recently showed me scores of cartoons from those times, the creators of which are completely unknown beyond their by-lines and so untraceable. Such is the apathy cartoonists are dealt with in Kashmir, mainly by the newspaper owners and editors. This changed with Bashir Ahmed Bashir aka BAB who became extremely popular for his cartoons’ wit and “street humour”. He has been churning out cartoons for more than four decades now, a constant in our political cartooning although perhaps not very well known outside. The reason for his longevity is that he is also the owner and editor of his newspaper, giving him quite an edge over those who must depend on others for a platform.
I started working for the largest English daily in Kashmir in 1998 as their first political cartoonist, moving on nearly four years later to pursue other career opportunities and rejoined in 2016 after their persistent requests. I found a world of difference between my first and second stint at this paper. Earlier there had been complete freedom. The importance attached to the cartoons was such that I used to make two cartoons for the coveted front page, a pocket sized one and a three column one. Correspondents and reporters would jostle to have their stories published on such a sacred space. Remuneration was extremely low but that was understandable since the paper was still in its infancy.
By the start of my second stint the paper had become the largest circulated daily but things had changed for worse for the cartoon. For commercial reasons it was relegated from the front to the editorial page. The front page became a space reserved for paid advertisements, half or even three quarters hogged by them. The editor said he felt that cartoons had become passé the world over, and yet he still wanted them. Later I realised these mixed messages were a tactic for bargaining on remuneration. But freedom to create and express freely was curtailed; I was clearly told to avoid making cartoons of high-ranking ministers, military, police and political friends of the newspaper’s management. This led to self-censorship and made my job tougher as I had to find other ways to transmit my message, using indirect satire through allusion and tropes.
An editor for a competing news magazine inadvertently revealed the truth about how he and his fraternity treat cartoonists in one of his opinion pieces. According to him cartoonists sit at the base of the journalistic hierarchy, somewhere between a junior reporter and a stringer. Hence they are paid accordingly i.e. peanuts. Such limited understanding of the medium and its influence was Ironic, as he was speaking to me in pursuit of a story based upon the brilliance of cartoons and the vitality of their reaction to news and yet belittled the cartoonists who make them in the same breath.
Sadly this is the attitude of many journalists who don’t consider cartoonists their peers. In fact cartoonists are pariahs of journalism in Kashmir. We are a rare breed of creative who have a nose for news and an artistic touch. It is not easy to make a political cartoon, and that should be acknowledged. The late R.K. Laxman, that giant of Indian political cartooning once remarked that it is agony to create a new cartoon every day. And in a place like Kashmir it is even more agonising; besides the low wages and censorship there is an extra factor of real risk to life and limb.
Editorial indifference in our news media, official censorship across all art in Kashmir and the internet shut-down have rendered me without a creative or expressive space and on the brink of persecution. To check my email I must travel more than 500 miles. With the exception of CRNI, which has been constantly checking in on me, my approaches to some other organisations who protect and safeguard persecuted artists worldwide have been blankly refused, which makes me wonder if there is a certain politics behind how this works. If I were a persecuted cartoonist from the Middle East seeking help from the Western artists safeguarding organisations, would it have made my case stronger?
I ask those reading this, do not forget about me: though I may go silent that is not by choice.