Between 'azadi' and 'national interest': Half-truths on Kashmir widen the gulf of ignorance and hate

'The more biased, the better,' seems to be the credo of polarised media platforms as each seeks to pander to its niche audience.

Old-school journalism textbooks used to describe news as an acronym for North-East-West-South. News, they said, must take a 360 degree view of all sides. Facts were sacred, they added: there must be no opinion or bias in a news report. Call it a fuddy-duddy view if you will, but attempts at objectivity and trying to present different aspects of a complex reality was considered an essential part of the job of a journalist.

The flip side of the coin: journalists were respected. Their work had legitimacy. When I walked around Dyalgam village in 1994, a few days after cleric-politician Qazi Nisar was killed, to investigate whether he had been held captive there, I noticed men with AK rifles slung across their shoulders, less than half a kilometre away. They did not bother me. A journalist doing his work was okay.

Things have changed radically. During the stone-pelting of 2010, and again this year, mobs of young Kashmiris have specifically sought out journalists to assault. Children not yet in their teens have taken it upon themselves to teach “media” a lesson for not reflecting the world as they see it. Any media-person is liable to pay a price for “coverage” in general.

In 2010 too, several Kashmiri journalists were forced to get false identity cards to get to and from work. By that time the anger of the boys had taken over streets for several days, many journalists gave up trying to get to work. It helped that much of what passes for journalism today is done on the phone and net.

Perception and projection

This slide in media credibility is not limited to Kashmir, but Kashmiris have more opportunities to vent anger – and they are vehement. Their anger stems from the wide gap between their experience and what several “media” platforms present. Many of those platforms pander to the favourite shibboleths and hates of one or other niche audience. Their credo: the more biased, the better. Far from seeking a nuanced truth, many positively eschew balance as unwelcome to their “niche.”

Evil-doers are portrayed without reason or context – they are either “terrorists” and “stone-pelters” causing mayhem and damage, or “army” and “forces” – without background or cause in either case. Either the young men of Kashmir are shown as highly-charged attackers or as victims of bullets and pellet guns.

In most cases, both portrayals have some truth. Each media platform tends to focus exclusively on one sort of image. Either young Kashmiris are “pelting” in “mobs”, or they are lying injured, blinded, or dead. The complexities of the battles tend to get reduced to nonsensical two dimensions.

Those who back Kashmir's freedom tend to highlight the death of women and injuries to children the most. Hardly anyone bothers to investigate how and why horrific “pellet guns” were inducted into the security forces or by whom. That sort of investigation would have been a staple of journalism in bygone days: perhaps even before weapons such as these pellet guns caused such havoc?

What sort of havoc did earlier guns cause? Is there a difference in the pellets being used now? Is the problem the distance the guns are being used from? What has changed?

But that would not suit those who thrive on us-versus-them narratives – or the conflict economy.

Nuance and flux

Nuance and flux may find little “media” space but are everywhere on the ground. Patterns have changed over the past fortnight, and have differed in different areas. By and large, battles have been most intense in Kupwara and in Kulgam and Kokernag areas of south Kashmir.

Some observes have speculated on whether intense pro- and anti-Sajjad Lone politics may have influenced the repeated outbreaks of violence and unrest in Kupwara district, from where he hails. Lone’s emergence in alliance with the BJP in 2014 was a red rag to separatists. It has also cut the ground under those “mainstream” politicians who used to be elected from there.

All hell broke loose on July 9 across the Valley, the day after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed. That was predictable, but the police force, which carried out the operation, and the rest of the administration evidently had no idea how bad the fall-out would be. That day was disastrous – more than half the death toll so far resulted from injuries sustained that day.

That unpreparedness was flayed – deservedly. But many have been reluctant to acknowledge that the administration got its act together within a couple of days with sometimes amazing restraint. Such one-sided responses not only fail to calm public anger, they could weaken the forces' restraint.

 Danish Ismail/Reuters
Danish Ismail/Reuters

Such complexities are rarely reflected in “coverage” of either sort of biased media. Most people in Kashmir were cooped up indoors for several days, not quite sure of what was happening in other places, while liberal audiences in places outside Kashmir – Delhi and the rest of India and beyond – were given the impression that Kashmir was burning from end to end.

The gap stemmed from those “niches”. When phone and cable services in Kashmir were suspended, people only had access to word-of-mouth – or, in rare cases, satellite dish TV. But since several “national” television channels had initially provoked anger in Kashmir, the government appeared to have advised television news channels generally to play down Kashmir.

Back-breaking restraint on security-forces was already in place when some local newspapers ran red banner headlines like “bloodbath”. The administration needed to exercise restraint in how it handled the press. In trying to contain circulation of what they considered inflammatory, they ended up banning all newspapers for three days after raiding presses and confiscating plates from which newspapers are printed, a full week after the killing of Wani.

Both efforts – directed at “national” channels and local newspapers – were ostensibly aimed to calm tempers. But the result was that there was little information in Kashmir, even to piece together from “media extremists” of either sort.

The web editions of these papers, however, seemed to be reporting as usual. But because only a few in Kashmir with broadband connections could access the internet, their main audience was outside the Valley.

Meanwhile, the social media remained abuzz with posts about horrific death and injuries. Most liberals in the rest of India and abroad were rightly shocked by images of gory violence (in some cases older videos and photos were recycled). Sadly, some azadi activists in social media circles seemed intent on exploiting deaths, injuries and violence to energetically promote a narrative of genocide and repression.

Most of those who come across that narrative have little idea of the parallel story: the restraint that many of the forces have shown in several places over the past several days. This restraint may be uncharacteristic, but that makes it all the more noteworthy. Narrating this year's events as a continuation of 2010 is blindness, if not mischief.

Whatever be the reason for this cussed pickiness about truth, the platforms and vehicles of partial truth on both sides deserve to be called evil nautanki (farce).


One-sided narratives

The chasm between narratives is dangerous. It divides. It undermines consensus.

Those who highlight killing by the forces often do so with a reflexive narrow focus. So, for example, they turn a blind eye to the army’s apology for firing from an army vehicle that faced stones and a roadblock at Qazigund. They would generally neglect to mention that several army convoys have remained stuck on highways for several hours, but faced stones with only aerial fire that caused no injuries. Nor would they mention the recent instances when a convoy of police and para-military vehicles backed away from a roadblock in reverse gear while those who had got down to remove a roadblock of large stones were hit by a barrage of stones. When a CRPF man shot the tyre of a motorcycle that sped past a roadblock in Downtown Srinagar, a local “news” portal reported that the “trooper” shot at the rider, missed and so hit the tyre.

Some of those who promote an “azadi” narrative are as xenophobic as the Brexit campaigners, a few are as openly racist as Donald Trump. Not one mentioned the teenaged domestic worker whose eye fell out of its socket when she was hit by a stone when her Kashmiri employers sent out to look for bread during the stone-pelting of 2010. Her religion and national identity did not suit their narrative.

Tauseef Mustafa/AFP
Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

On the other hand, the hyper-nationalists who flay boys who pelt stones without sympathy can be as bigoted. They are generally oblivious to the vicious torture, abuse and extortion over the years that have driven them to explode with anger. They ignore – if not approve – the torture extending from extortion to burns, electrocution and sodomy which several teenagers experienced in 2010-11. At one level, the Machil murders in 2010 and the killing of the extraordinarily popular Burhan have only been the spark – the tinder had piled up over several years.

Dangerous chasm

Part of the problem is that it’s not just the lines that once separated news from opinion, and both from advertising, that have blurred. The line between mass and inter-personal communication too has collapsed. What the boys in those mobs see on their phone texts, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook feeds – from “friends” focused on common narratives – is what they expect on television. For, most of those who pelt stones don’t read printed material. Their impressions of a wider world often consist of two-dimensional slivers.

Another reason is the almost manic competitiveness in what passes for “media”. Some hyper-nationalist television channels have adopted a black-and-white, good-versus-evil discourse. On the other hand, from around 2008, a slew of Kashmiris have taken to their computer keyboards (or camera and social media) to promote a narrative of azadi. Many did it in the garb of news.

The coverage of both has often been one-sided – either exaggerated or muted. This one-sided good-versus-evil narrative on either side presents unprovoked aggression or victimhood without reason or context. Both narratives are lapped up by those who want to believe that side of the story. The irony is the element of masochism: large numbers in Kashmir also watch and then spend hours griping about those “national” channels. Either way, “coverage” that passes for news deepens divisions.

Similarly, the gap between the media houses operating from Jammu and Srinagar has become a deep chasm since 2008. Even outlets owned by the same company have at times given different versions of “news.”

Over the past two weeks , this abuse of “coverage” has fallen to an appallingly surreal level. “National” television channels have given very little detailed news about Kashmir. On the other hand, the liberal press has been abuzz with a horror scenario from Kashmir. Each sort of audience is getting what it wants. The gap is widening. The chasm could become unbridgeable.

David Devadas, a senior journalist in Srinagar, is the author of In Search of a Future: The story of Kashmir.

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