March 1999 News

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Valley Stage to New Morality Play

8th March 1999
The Hindustan Times
By: Rashid Ahmad

Pan-Islamic outfits in Jammu and Kashmir have found a new target in the cable TV operators of the state.

On February 15, three persons were shot at by unknown gunmen in a downtown locality in Srinagar. On the face of it, this is not an unusual incident. Ever since 1989-90, when guns and grenades came to dominate the Kashmir scene, bullets have been flying thick and high. However, what makes this incident phenomenally rare is that all the three victims were associated with cable television and were shot in their legs, an indication that the assailants did not intend to kill them, but just sound a warning.

Little is known about who targeted them and why. In fact, people waited in suspense like the audience of a film thriller and heavy speculations and rumours. Until after three days when the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a powerful pan-Islamic militant outfit, cleared the mystery surrounding the incident. The Harkat did not own direct responsibility for targetting the cable operators. Instead, it asked those associated with the cable business to block TV channels showing "obscene" and "immoral" programmes.

The hostility of the Harkat was distinctly clear. "People are fed with vulgar and bawdy programmes in the name of entertainment," it said, "spreading moral corruption and impurity." The organisation asked people to adhere to Islamic values and ethic in their day to day existence.

Interestingly, the Harkat maintained a studied silence over the firing incidents. It pretended as if it knew nothing about it. The cable operators however, knew that the outrage expressed by the group had deep trouble in store for them.

Next day the outfit came out with a statement proclaiming that they would block MTV, Star Movies, Asia Music, Channel V, Zee Cinema and host of other channels which, according to them,were beaming immoral and obscene programmes. Since then all these channels have gone off the air.

The cable TV network was introduced in the valley only a year ago. Even then militants belonging to Shore-e-Jehad, had declared a ban on them. Subsequently, however, they were allowed to go about their telecasting business after the All Party Huriyat Conference chairman Sayed Ali Geelani intervened. The association of cable operators had then assured Geelani that they would not allow the "immoral" and the "unIslamic" to telecast their programmes. But after sometime, the cable operators released all the available channels to their subscribers.

The fresh Harkat initiative is viewed as a reaction to the "breach of agreement" by the cable operators. Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which is the new name of Harkat-ul-Ansar, is believed to be a foreign-dominated militant group and its directive to adhere to Islamic principles is seen by senior state officials as attempt to "Talibanise" the Kashmiri society. Says a senior police official, "It has many Afghans and Pakistanis in their ranks who are heavily influenced by the Taliban." He adds, "An their ban on what they describe as un-Islamic TV channels has roots in Kabul's new but hard version of Islam."

Some people outside the government also believe that Harkat-ul-Mujahideen is actually a "Kashmiri version of the Taliban." This conception stems from another directive of the Harkat to the people of Kashmir: Wear Islamic clothes. It, in fact, warned people of dire consequences, if they dared to flout this dress code. Senior Army personnel also maintain that the outfit must have been directed to impose the ban on cable TV from across the border.

Common people, however, hardly agree to the above view. They see it as an overall religious belief of the people. Says Mohammed Taran, a head preacher at a local mosque, "Our religion strictly forbids immoral and obscene behaviour and actions. And what the Harkat has declared is a plain religious fact, and does not amount to what you call Talibanisation of our society."

College student Mohammed Faisal agrees: "Religion is not the property of a particular party of people. It belongs to all those who believe in it. If you follow a particular faith and if you are asked to abide by its code of conduct, why should it offend you?"

In fact, Kashmiri militant groups, inhabitants of the valley say, also campaigned against the evil and unIslamic institutions in the early Nineties by banning all liquor shops, cinema halls and beauty parlours. Allah Tigers, a small local militant outfit, was then in the forefront. This led to the closure of all such establishments.

Hizbul Mujahideen, the strongest Islamic militant group, disallowed entry of women into hotels while Dakhtaran-e-Millat, a woman reformist group, solicited women to observe purdah. Jamiatul Mujahideen, a breakaway faction of the hizbul, actively campaigned against "obscene" programmes on Doordarshan. Even cigarette smoking was banned in the valley by the militants.

Al Baraq, an Islamic insurgent group, comprising mostly of Gujjars, Paharis and Bakarwals from distant border areas, was the vanguard of the movement against smoking.

The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, perhaps to project its secular credentials, in the beginning opposed such campaigns. Amanullah Khan, who was its chief then, publicly castigated Allah Tigers, Hizbul Mujahideen and other militant outfits for forcing the closure of liquor shops and cinema halls. But when the public seemed to favour the move against 'unIslamic' institutions, the JKLF decided to keep quiet on such issues.

Cinema halls, bars and beauty parlours continue to be closed. However, the state government last year tried motivating one of the cinema hall owners by paying him Rs 32 lakh as subsidy to commission the hall. Situated in the high-security Badami Bagh cantonment area, this is the only cinema hall which has been functioning normally since September last year.

All other cinema halls have either been turned into godowns or are being occupied by the security forces. One of the leading hotels, which is located near Raj Bhawan, is also reported to have thrown its bar open.

In this backdrop, the ban on some TV channels has not come as major surprise for the inhabitants of the valley. Even cable operators do not feel disadvantaged as long as they are allowed to run other channels. Says one of the 25 odd Srinagar-based cable TV operators, "We don't have any problem if other channels, considered to be proper, are not banned."

However, there are, of course, some voices of dissent, though most of them are weak and at a low pitch. Avers student Junaid Ahmad, "Din(Islam) is single religion and we should not project it as unreasonable and unrealistic just out of misconceptions."

Ahmad questions the dress code imposed by militants on the residents of the valley: "Any dress which covers your body reasonably and fairly is an Islamic attire. Of course, women are not supposed to wear male clothes and vice-versa. Besides, that is something which is generally abhorred. Even by followers of other faiths."

To him and his four friends, who stand by every word spoken by him, television is great source of education and entertainment. "We learn a lot from it (TV). Why should it be banned?" asks he.

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