Country Summary

Assaults and restrictions on journalists in regions torn by separatist wars continued to tarnish India’s vaunted tradition of press freedom. And the lack of a strong central government following parliamentary elections in May allowed powerful political leaders to attack the press with virtual impunity.

Two journalists were murdered during the year in Assam and Kashmir—states that have been marked by internecine warfare between Indian troops, separatist militias, and Indian-backed counter-insurgency forces. Parag Kumar Das--editor of Asomiya Pratidin, the leading daily in Assam, as well as a human rights activist and outspoken proponent of self-rule for the state--was shot dead by suspected counter-insurgents in Guwahati, the state capital. In Kashmir, Ghulam Rasool Sheikh became the sixth local journalist to lose his life since the beginning of an armed uprising against Indian rule in late 1989. The editor of two minor Kashmiri newspapers, Sheikh was abducted and slain by men whom his family describe as members of an Indian-backed militia.

Parliamentary polling in Kashmir, conducted for the first time since the insurgency began, was marred by a press gag imposed by the federally appointed state government and threats from pro-Pakistan separatists. In a directive sent to local newspapers, state authorities warned of criminal prosecution of editors who published material that was “prejudicial” to the state’s unity or integrity, or indicated a lack of faith in the state or federal constitutions. Following a counter-threat by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen--the most powerful separatist group in Kashmir--to take severe measures against editors who published government statements or advertisements, the local press suspended publication for two months.

The parliamentary elections themselves marked a watershed in Indian politics: the routing of the long-ruling Congress Party, after several years of steadily waning support. But the result was a precarious alliance of regional and leftist parties rent by pronounced policy disputes. A coalition government was also mandated for Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, after elections there produced a hung state assembly. Frenetic negotiations between parties, aimed at forming a government in Uttar Pradesh, gave politicians with important vote banks unprecedented authority. This was borne out by the federal government’s inaction when Kanshi Ram, head of the Bahujan Samaj Party and a leader of India’s dalits (untouchables), and several supporters assaulted a group of journalists who had gathered outside his New Delhi home, hoping to obtain an interview. Authorities refused to press criminal charges against the assailants, while police harshly suppressed subsequent protest marches by local journalists.

Regional parties also behaved with unchecked hostility toward the press. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), more than 500 activists from the ruling Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party attacked the offices of the Marathi-language daily Mahanagar, one of the few vernacular publications in the city that openly criticizes the Shiv Sena and a repeated target of organized assaults by Shiv Sena party members. Police arrested six Shiv Sena members in connection with the attack, and then released them on bail.

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