Kashmir’s media story
18 July 2014
Media narratives on Kashmir tell stories of competing nationalisms.
To analyse media in relation to the Kashmir conflict would mean to look at broadly three different narratives emerging from the Indian media, Pakistan media and Kashmir media. They tell distinct stories of competing nationalisms – dwarfing or magnifying the human element to suit their differing interests. Interwoven in the media story of Jammu and Kashmir are the regional sub-nationalisms, turning it into Jammu versus Kashmir, as the two regions of the state pull in different directions.
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Looking at just two of the narratives – in the Indian and Kashmiri media – it is apparent that the complexity of the Kashmir dispute has thrown up immense challenges. Mainstream media, caught in the throes of an armed conflict amidst a precariously balanced geopolitical and socioeconomic scenario, has embarked on a rather complex journey. There are difficult choices to be made – from newsroom decisions to editorial policies – necessitated by different political as well as militaristic pulls and pressures. Media persons in Kashmir and those working on Kashmir have grappled with the reality of walking the tightrope amidst the threat of the gun, political arm-twisting and the enhanced policy of co-option by both state and non-state actors. In an age where financial and political control holds sway, the course of the narrative tends to enhance the divisiveness of the discourse on the conflict, rather than act as a bridge or perform the task of truth telling.
Truth can be distorted in various ways – through blacking out events, dwarfing them or adding layers of interpretations to them. Human-rights violations and coverage on separatist groups is an important focus for print and electronic media in the Valley, but the Indian media mentions these either in passing or completely ignores such issues. Much of the latter’s focus on Kashmir has either been on mainstream politics or militancy related violence. Essentially catering to the Indian nationalist perspective, these versions are carried out unquestioningly. The Army and security forces appear to have understood the power of media after the Kargil war, which aided the Army in earning a moral victory. Although, even in the years prior to the Kargil war, various security agencies had been using the media – through various strategies of co-option and intimidation – to project a one-dimensional view of events and to promote its official versions. This power of the mainstream Indian media, both electronic and print, has been used effectively to project the ‘benign’ and ‘humane’ face of the Army and other security agencies against the demonisation of the militants, secessionists and even ordinary protestors.
This has sometimes been tricky with different security agencies contesting certain events, an example of which is Operation Sarp Vinash. The operation is considered to be one of the most high profile offensives launched by the Indian Army (along with the local village defence committee members) against alleged terrorists in the Surankote area. The shoddy and inflated official claims in this case were challenged in a news report in Frontline, highlighting the fraudulent nature of the reporting that took place around the much publicised and celebrated encounter.
In 2000, the excessive media coverage of the Chattisinghpora massacre of Sikhs by unidentified gunmen was followed by stories of the ‘heroism’ demonstrated by the security forces and the state police in the Pathribal ‘encounter’ in responding to the attack. This version of events was countered by locals who came out in protests, arguing that the encounter was stage-managed and demanding that the bodies be exhumed. Some identified their family members who had been unaccountably picked up and gunned down. The media, in this context, had to re-visit the Chattisinghpora massacre in a new light. Two years later, it was a national Indian daily, the Times of India, which first broke the news about how the DNA samples were fudged to maintain the fallacy that the innocent slain men were actually ‘foreign militants’. The reports were withheld by the state government because the Forensic Science Laboratory in which the samples were tested sent back a report stating that the samples were tampered with, and that one of the samples was that of a woman. Subsequently, a fresh round of tests proved conclusively that the men had only been innocent civilians from Pathribal. Such stories, however, have been exceptions rather than the norm. Yet, these were rare occasions when the national media was forced to point out the gaps in their narrative and ask serious questions.
Media and armed conflict
Professionalism in journalism and objectivity in reporting took a backseat when the armed conflict began in 1989. Guerilla groups began operating in the Valley and some other parts of the state, allowing India to heavily militarise civilian areas by using security and counterinsurgency as its pretext. It fostered a culture of unverifiable arm-chair stories shaped by two factors – respective nationalistic loyalties and in a greater measure the fear generated in an atmosphere where physical intimidation from all sides became common. Militant groups regularly killed, attacked the homes and offices of journalists, and banned the publishing and circulation of certain newspapers. On the other hand, security forces compounded the constant harassment with many incidents of detention and targeted violence against journalists. Most notable among these are the killings of Lassa Kaul, station director of Doordarshan Kendra in Srinagar in 1990, Mohammad Shaban Waqil, editor of Al-safa in 1991, ANI photographer Mushtaq Ali, and the murderous attack on senior journalist Zafar Meraj who was picked up by Ikhwanis and shot in 1995.
In 1989, most journalists could not escape the euphoric sentiment of ‘azadi’. Some journalists, however, chose to side with the Indian state. For this, they sought and were provided official security. However, their independence was curtailed by the restriction of movement imposed on them. Further, official agencies were also in a position to push their own narrative in exchange for the security cover which they provided. In any case, journalists became inadvertently involved as agents of advocacy for India, unmindful of the complexities and difficulties they were getting themselves into; a realisation that came much later when it was near-impossible for them to escape the web created by the formation of a slew of militant organisations, splinter groups fighting both Indian armed forces as well as each other, and the Indian security agencies who used clandestine strategies involving surrendered ultras, as well as co-opting civilians in their war against militants.
The fallout was disastrous. Newspapers were reduced to ‘scoreboards’ of the number of violent deaths in a day and reporters to keeping ‘score’. In many Valley-based newspapers, the role of the editor was almost eliminated, or at least vastly reduced, as threats, intimidation and situations dictated what would go as the lead. In those days no English-language newspapers were published from Kashmir Valley and the only popular English newspaper, Kashmir Times, was published from Jammu. There were as many as 24 major Urdu dailies operating in the valley before the conflict; however, only 14 survived until 1995. These largely contained statements made by militant groups, the government and its security agencies.
There was nothing by way of news reports in January 1990 to highlight what exactly happened when Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley and exactly how many were part of the exodus in different phases. Nor do they reveal anything about the corresponding slew of massacres inflicted by the Army, Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) starting with the Gawkadal massacre on the morning of 21 January, which left at least 35 dead and hundreds injured which resulted in more deaths. The newspapers only offered some sketchy details. It was only in subsequent years that the massacres were written about.
Press statements were sent by both militant groups and Indian security agencies with ‘requests’ to publish them unedited and media organisations felt compelled to do so. For a reporter, it was an arduous task trying to craft a language that appeased both sides: militants objected to words like ‘foreign mercenaries’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘halaq’ (slain), whereas the Army was uncomfortable with words like ‘martyr’, ‘janbaaz’ and even the Urdu translation of militant commander ‘sipah-e-salar’ as they felt that such words valourised the militants.
In this context, investigative journalism died completely. Few, like Yusuf Jameel, reporting for the BBC at the time, managed to avoid controversy and maintain credibility by giving as many statements and versions of a single incident as possible, without questioning the gaps in these versions or other inherent contradictions. The weekly Chattan, however, gradually took a far bolder position as it began to ask some critical questions – like it did during the Hazratbal siege in 1993. While it did publish the narrative put forward by Mahmood-ur-Rahman and police chief M N Sabherwal that because “militants were trying hard to break open the room, where the holy relic of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was kept, the security forces laid siege around the shrine,” it also questioned the failure of Rahman and the police chief to explain how militants could have gotten past the armed forces personnel who guard the rooms where the holy relic is kept in the first place. During the same period, the weekly also published an article titled ‘Hurriyat Conference in testing times’ and commented on the weaknesses in Hurriyat as an organisation, and its failures in dealing with the changing situation on the ground. Chattan also took on the challenge of reporting on the Bijbehara massacre in October 1993 in which over 40 civilians were killed and 150 injured because of the BSF firing on protest demonstrators at Bijbehara, Anantanag. They gave extensive coverage, providing eyewitness accounts and different official and non-official versions of events, thereby subjecting the incident to deeper analysis.
The Indian media, meanwhile, became patronisingly nationalistic in its discourse about Kashmir. The big stories were always about the valour of security agencies, or the encounters and the surrender of militants. Human-rights abuses and excesses by these forces were either completely blacked out or mentioned only in passing. Bone-chilling stories of militants leaving people dead with beheaded bodies or torture cases involving the slitting of ears and the chopping off of noses were regularly carried in the nationwide print and electronic media, but never of similar, and sometimes worse, atrocities by security agencies. (The Valley-based regional press, on the other hand, gave little or no space to any excesses by militant groups.) A shocking example of the national media’s bias was the banner headline on 2 August 2000 in Pioneer, which said: “100 Amarnath pilgrims killed in militant attacks.” 32 people were killed in Pahalgam that day and of these 23 were Amarnath pilgrims. The rest of the killings had occurred in other parts of the state and those killed were mostly civilians, militants and some security personnel. Later, an official committee, headed by Lieutenant General J R Mukherjee set up to probe the Pahalgam incident castigated the CRPF for using ‘excessive firing’ to control the situation.
Similarly, Jammu-based newspapers sharpened the traditional regional divide by playing to Indian nationalist sentiment in their commentary and reportage. Every January, for instance, the different tone of the headlines carried in Jammu-based newspapers and Kashmir-based newspapers reflects the two different realities about Kashmir. While ‘holocaust’, a term used by some rightwing Kashmiri Pandit organisations for their exodus in January 1990 is frequent in Jammu-based papers, the Kashmir-based newspapers tend to only recall Gawkadal and other massacres. The worst display of this Jammu versus Kashmir discourse was seen during the 2008 Amarnath land row, when newspapers on both sides fanned the communal fire and local television channels particularly became agents of provocation.
The corporate and industrial sectors have never really managed to make substantial inroads into Jammu & Kashmir. Thus the financial dependence of the print media has relied mostly on government advertisements. The state government, however, does not appear to have any rational policy for distributing advertisements; choosing to allocate a lion’s share to its favourite newspapers rather than thinking through ways to enhance the circulation and credibility of newspapers. Even these few advertisements eventually disappeared and while some newspapers totally shut down, others began relying on various militant organisations for support. The Kashmir Times, for example, was deprived of advertisement support for ten years, because of which its circulation was massively affected in Jammu. Political parties such as the Shiv Sena, affiliated to the Saffron Hindutva brigade, unleashed its propaganda to brand the newspaper ‘anti-national’ after it published an interview with the imprisoned leader of the JKLF Yasin Malik in 1992. Srinagar Times, similarly under pressure from militant organisations and the state government at different times, was discontinued at least eight times. The editor-proprietor Ghulam Mohammed Sofi’s house was repeatedly raided by security personnel on false pretexts. He was even fired at by militants in 2002. Some newspapers such as Aftab, the state’s oldest Urdu daily, had it even worse. Not only did it face bans, its printing press was burned down, its editor-proprietor Sanaullah Aftab was attacked, and many staffers were kidnapped.
A major consequence of the biased media reportage and the stifling atmosphere within which journalists operated was the complete silence on development-related issues and daily problems faced by the public. For the Valley-based press operating under extreme threats, these issues were seen as distractions from the cause of ‘azadi’. However, post 1996, these issues gradually began to find some space in newspapers and the notion that stories about development are opposed to Kashmiri nationalism began to be questioned.
The Indian national media too is little concerned with development-related news in Jammu and Kashmir. But, of late, we have seen an obsession with tourism and large-scale enterprises such as the Amarnath pilgrimage. The latter, as we have seen, is a much-hyped and politicised seasonal yatra with the potential of communalising everything in its wake, both in Kashmir and beyond. Editors prefer pushing stories about Kashmir’s tulip gardens rather than the number of protests, cases of unrest and how these are dealt with in the Valley. The explicit aim appears to be towards projecting an idea of normalcy and confusing calm for peace, apart from peddling the misplaced notion that tourism is the mainstay of Kashmir’s economy.
Apart from the many political considerations which shape narratives about Kashmir, the corporatisation of media has allowed for more brazenness when pushing its own biases. It manages this through a certain slickness, by obfuscating facts with seemingly cautious interpretations. This is easily facilitated by electronic media’s culture of airing half-baked debates where news channels invite a lot of panelists who all struggle to have their voice heard on a platform with little moderation.
On 15 September 2010, Sagarika Ghose ended her Face the Nation Debate titled ‘AFSPA: Is Army needed to govern Kashmir’ with the comment that “both the Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits from the Valley here on the panel want pretty much the same. They say, Kashmiris do not want to be with Pakistan. They want greater stakes for Kashmiri youth in India…” During the almost hour-long discussion, neither of the two Kashmiri panelists – Sanjay Saraf (a social activist), or Hameeda Bano (an English professor at Kashmir University) – came anywhere close to stating that Kashmiris wanted any stakes in India or that they wanted to be closer to the Indian mainstream. Although such a reference did crop up in the discussion, the point was articulated by Lieutenant General (retired) V G Patankar, not the two Kashmiri panelists. The wrap up of the debate with this kind of misrepresentation cannot have been a mere faux pas. It is, in fact, indicative of how Indian newspapers and television channels tend to report the Kashmir conflict.
In 2010, during the five-month-long agitation that started over human rights and fake encounters, nearly 120 people were gunned down on the streets by policemen and security forces on duty. However, the Indian media, unwilling to look into the genesis of the unrest, simply lapped up the official versions like it was gospel truth and treated the protests as yet another ‘proxy war’ on behalf of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Pakistan. Some even blamed separatists and the opposition Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party. No questions were asked, no evidence was sought.
An alleged mobile-phone conversation between members of the Kashmiri separatist group Hurriyat Conference was aired by Indian news channels in July 2010. The channels claimed that the two of them were discussing how “Ten to 15 more protesters must die during fresh protests”. The translation of the transcript was dutifully carried without even verifying whether it was authentic. Another translation widely circulated on the internet challenged this version, elaborating that the two people in question were only cracking a joke and made no mention of instigating mobs. This version found no space in the news channels that carried the initial propaganda.
Some news channels and newspapers belatedly provided space to the tragedies suffered by the victims and their families. This, however, was balanced out with projections that there were tragedies on both sides. Barkha Dutt, group editor NDTV, who spoke of the victimised children and teenagers and the families left grieving their dead, was, however, quick to equate their trauma with that of a CRPF personnel with a broken jaw (due to stone pelting) recuperating in the hospital. Even when it comes to expressing compassion over human tragedy, it is done with caution. No fingers are raised against security agencies, who ought to bear responsibility, but have simply been turned into icons of ‘nationalism’.
The media within Jammu & Kashmir, has witnessed a gradual tilt towards official-speak, obliterating the difference between the discourse churned out by the Indian national media and local Kashmir media. Although in the peak of the militancy years, the media in Kashmir had begun to come of age and was maturing into a strong and credible institution, displaying courage and independence in functioning. Things have begun to change very drastically. This is due to the increasing dependence of newspapers on government support, government advertisements and even clandestine aid. In 2010, an order served by the Union Home Ministry blocked the advertisement support for several Valley-based newspapers. This included all of the Kashmir Times publications – both its Jammu and Srinagar editions, as well as its Dogri and Hindi newspapers. The advertisements were restored for some of these newspapers a year ago; however those who did not fall in line continue to be deprived of their due share.
Interestingly, while local media in Kashmir Valley has become rather silent on issues of human rights or their coverage of the politics of separatist leaders, the media both in the Jammu region as well as the Valley have become increasingly divisive. The worst case was observed during the 2008 Amarnath land row, with newspapers from both regions highlighting the communal faultlines of the culturally different zones. This division is further exacerbated by government patronage. Take, for instance, the case of local television channels. The Kashmir television channels have been facing restrictions since 2010 and are barred from covering news events or discussions besides a bulletin of fifteen minutes every day. The government maintains that this is because news channels operating in the Valley are not duly licensed and registered. However, news channels in Jammu have been given a free hand even though they have not conformed to basic norms of registration.
The dominant reality today is the placement of excessive curbs on the media. With no advertisement revenue coming forth, the circulation of newspapers in the Valley is dwindling and their survival is at stake. In 2010, newspapers were forced to suspend their publications for about two weeks. In 2013, after Afzal Guru was hanged, a curfew was imposed across the Valley and newspapers were not allowed to be published for almost a week. The power of the alternative media, including mobile SMS services and social media networking, remains limited and subject to the onslaught of whimsical official decisions. The ban on SMS services has only recently been lifted after four years. The Internet is often barred fully or partially on the pretext of security issues; and Facebook and other social networking sites remain well within the radar of official scrutiny. Young men and women have been picked up routinely, detained or released after sustained interrogation for charges that range from ‘spreading Facebook terror’ to ‘sedition’. The politics of control is in full swing, and in this scenario not only do we need to struggle to maintain clarity and not be blindsided by the many versions of events that are handed to us, but also refocus our attention on what traditionally goes underreported. Some of this includes news from remote areas, often inaccessible because of the region’s tough hilly topography; and questions of gender, which does not, amongst other things, sit well with a still largely male-dominated media empire.
~This article is a part of ‘Growing media, shrinking spaces’ web-exclusive package.
~ Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times.