Kashmir’s Media experience continuum

Kashmir’s Media experience continuum

By Khalid Bashir Ahmad

About its coverage of Kashmir uprising in 2010, Pankaj Mishra wrote in the Guardian, “Indian media now acts in concert with the government” and the “choleric TV anchors, partisan journalists and opinion-mongers of India’s corporate media routinely amplify the falsehoods and deceptions of Indian intelligence agencies in Kashmir.” Six years later, when the Valley has erupted again the ‘concertinist’ fourth pillar has evolved into the fourth arm of the State. Night after night, passionate ‘activists’ in the guise of anchors and participants on prime time television debates launch fierce attacks on ‘rogue and ungrateful’ people of Kashmir. For them, there is only one version of the Kashmir story, irrespective of incompatible historical facts and ground realities.

Kashmir’s experience with partial journalism is rooted in history. In 1904, Munshi Muhammad Din Fauq sought permission to start a newspaper from Srinagar. Maharaja Pratap Singh was not pleased. He asked his Prime Minister to frame rules that would disallow even consideration of such requests in future. For about three decades nobody made another attempt until 1932 when a Kashmiri Pandit, Prem Nath Bazaz was permitted to publish the first newspaper, Vitasta, from Kashmir. So in 1931 when Kashmiris launched a mass movement for grant of basic rights, the Valley had no newspapers to report the ground situation. The mantle fell on the Lahore newspapers which were then categorised into ‘Hindu Press’ and ‘Muslim Press’ on the basis of their owners’ faith and their support to politics of the respective communities. Newspapers like Zamindar, Inquilab, Siyasat, Alfaaz and Lahore Chronicle formed the ‘Muslim Press’ that took up the cause of disempowered Kashmiri masses. At one point, these periodicals were banned from the territory of Jammu & Kashmir although some copies would reach Srinagar clandestinely.

On the other hand, newspapers like Tribune, Pratap, Milap, Amar and Guru Ghantaal comprised the ‘Hindu Press’ and were on the side of the ruler of Kashmir. The Hindu Press’ of Lahore worked as the forerunner of today’s Indian ‘nationalist’ media and treated protesting Kashmiri Muslims with as much, if not more, despise. A smear campaign was launched against them for asking from their ruler equality before law with Hindu minority. Justice system was heavily tilted in favour of the ruler’s co-religionist subjects and the quantum of punishment for a crime was directly related to the faith of the accused. Muslim peasants, 80% of Kashmir’s population, were dispossessed of their land and converted into beasts of burden, requisitioned, as they were in hordes, for forced unpaid labour. Education and employment were denied to them. Under such oppressive conditions, when they demanded equal treatment with Hindu compatriots they were seen as conspiring against their ruler. The newspapers also published special ‘Kashmir Numbers’ carrying biased reports and articles demeaning them and their leaders.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in particular was a target of vilification. Milap and Pratap published slanderous material, even scandalising his descent. He was called ‘an ugly looking person, son of a fisherman and a mischief monger’. His attire and looks were ridiculed and he, like resistance leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, was condemned as ‘the destroyer of Kashmir’s peace’. Ironically, on the one hand, these newspapers were vociferously fighting for political rights of Indians under the British rule and, on the other, were against extension of minimum basic rights to the Muslims of Kashmir under a Hindu ruler. The struggle for basic rights was projected as communal agitation and an attempt to establish an ‘Islamic State’. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, an influential pro-Kashmir voice in British India was constrained to blame the ‘Hindu Press’ for making this propaganda. Kashmiris, he clarified, “want religious freedom in the same measure as is available to Hindu subjects in Muslim princely states”. Not content with character assassination of Kashmiris, the “Hindu Press’ also advised the Maharaja on how to deal with them. In travesty of truth, unarmed protests were presented as ‘armed rebellion’ and the oppressed people as oppressors. The founder editor of the Milap in a signed editorial threatened boycott of Kashmiri goods and picketing of shops selling these goods if Kashmiris did not ‘mend ways’.

Branding a pro-Kashmir voice as ‘anti-national’ today is a reflection of what similar voices faced then. The Statesman and the Civil & Military Gazette, owned and edited by non-Muslims tried to balance reporting on Kashmir but had to face the wrath of their own comrades in profession. Like a television anchor recently advocated ban on his colleagues for being “pseudo-secular and pro-Pakistan” on Kashmir, the two newspapers were lambasted by fellow journalists for ‘anti-Maharaja writings’. The Punjab Government was asked to take notice of their reporting and a demand was made to invoke the Princes Protection Act against those who spoke or wrote against the Maharaja of Kashmir.

Post-Partition, Indian Press inherited anti-Kashmir slant from its Lahore predecessor. News about major events like the movement launched by the Plebiscite Front (1955-1975), the Holy Relic Movement (1963-64), the Pandit Agitation (1967), communal tension in Anantnag (1986), formation of the Muslim United Front (MUF) and Assembly Elections (1987) and the post-1989 developments, apart from routine events, suffered conspicuous partiality and in certain cases provoked reaction outside Kashmir. Developments that suited the official narrative were selectively highlighted. Journalists who tried to strike a balance in reporting were always few and unable to break the trend.

There existed difference between outlook and perspective of non-local journalists and ground situation in Kashmir. This difference changed the context of reporting and comment accordingly. Senior journalist Mohammad Syeed Malik who has reported and written about Kashmir for over four decades, believes that the “non-Kashmiri journalists who work for establishments based in the union capital and beyond come here with a mindset shaped by the Government of India’s official line of thinking on men and matters.” According to him, psychologically most of them feel as being ‘guardians of India’s national interest’ in a troubled border state. This mindset reflects on reporting from Kashmir.

Till 1990, journalism in Kashmir, barring local vernacular press, remained a monopoly of Kashmiri Pandits, so much so that among journalists representing national, international and official media in Srinagar, one would hardly find a Muslim. Mohammad Sayeed Malik, in early 1970s, was the first local Muslim correspondent of an Indian newspaper, the Patriot and held the distinction till 1983 when Yusuf Jameel joined the Telegraph, Calcutta. The United News of India (UNI) and the Press Trust of India (PTI), two Indian wire services, in Srinagar too were manned by members of the Pandit community. According to Malik these reporters worked with the assumption of being the “defenders of India’s national interest in Kashmir.” This underlying assumption came through their reporting whenever issues and events of that kind came to be reported or commented upon. They toed the official line while reporting on events and developments. During the Holy Relic agitation and through the years of reporting on the Plebiscite Front (PF) “almost the entire crowd toed the official line even while reporting detailed day-to-day facts about ground situation”, Malik recalls. The angularity in day to day reporting on the holy relic agitation originated from these Srinagar-based reporters. Although a few editors in New Delhi like S. Mulgaonkar of the Hindustan Times, Frank Moreas of the Indian Express and Nikhil Chakravarty of the weekly Mainstream took a somewhat balanced position over the PF issue, the partial reporting by Indian Press in general had led Indian public to see ‘an evil’ in Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and when in 1975 he was returned to power after disbanding the Plebiscite Front they were taken by total surprise.

Throughout this period, local reporters of outside newspapers and news agencies remained friendly with the establishment. Mostly, they sourced information from official handouts and police and CID diaries. The State Information Department and the Coffee House, where visitors drank more gossip than hot beverage, were their favourite spots of information gathering. The negative fallout of friendly reporting by ground reporters in, what Malik calls, ‘overzealous patriotic conduct’ was that the public opinion in India was taken in to believe that things were going smoothly in Kashmir. Senior journalist Ghulam Nabi Khayal opines that during the Holy Relic Movement or the Pandit Agitation, the reporters “never lagged behind in branding Kashmiri Muslims as anti-India and pro-Pakistan community.” Kashmir was painted in dark colours whenever it hit the headlines politically. Their stories “always smacked anti Muslim bias in one way or the other”.

Yusuf Jameel, special correspondent of the Asian Age who shot to prominence through his reporting of Kashmir for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in early 1990s, too refers to bias in reporting during the period prior to eruption of militancy. He points out that much before the outbreak of insurgency, “some reporters would seek to attribute killing in police firing during street protests to cross-firing.” On numerous occasions incidents and events would be downplayed or overplayed depending on their nature. “Sometimes, an event or development worth reporting was just ignored for obvious reasons.” The reporting in most part was what columnist and author Z. G. Muhammad calls, ‘cyclostyle journalism’. Barring a couple of newspapers that had non-locals as correspondents, generally a copy drafted by one journalist would land at multiple news desks in New Delhi with different by-lines. Slant in news stories or distortion of facts on the ground related to a particular event was not uncommon. “Sometimes even ethnic and religious bias would creep in”, observes Yusuf Jameel. As for accountability, a stringer representing two widely regarded English newspapers, one each from north India and south India, got away with reporting, and the newspapers publishing in detail, two ‘major events’ that had never happened. One of these was the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to Leh and her address to troops there!

The coverage of the Pandit Agitation in 1967 launched over a community girl marrying her Muslim colleague once again exposed Indian mainstream newspapers’ bias. A personal matter between two consenting individuals, which was neither the first nor the last intercommunity marriage in Kashmir, was communalised by the Press. “Not only the day-to-day event coverage of the agitation but even the facts of the case came to be distorted in newspaper reporting, mainly those filed for national newspapers and news agencies across India”, recalls Mohammad Sayeed Malik. The coverage betrayed manipulated uniformity to shape and direct its reaction. Elaborate and out of proportion reports were filed from Srinagar, forcing Prem Nath Bazaz, a liberal Kashmiri Pandit leader, to accuse them of “circulating exaggerated and untruthful items with anti-Muslim slant.” Chief Minister G M Sadiq, a diehard Indian, was aghast by these twisted reports. So was Syed Mir Qasim who later succeeded him.

Sadiq, was not the only Chief Minister to lament on partial reporting by the ‘National Press’. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah once told Yusuf Jameel that in early 1950s he was often “misquoted and misrepresented” by these journalists and that “the main reason for the bias against him was the Land Reforms Act” which returned land to Muslim tillers in Kashmir. Ghulam Mohammad Shah had to swallow lot of bitter reporting by a ‘motivated’ press before his ouster by Rajiv Gandhi. Farooq Abdullah had the worst experience. In 1987, news about the burning of State Congress Party office in Srinagar was editorially captioned by The Hindustan Times as “Srinagar on fire” and a PTI report accused him of leading his supporters to the Congress office insinuating that he was behind setting the building on fire. Farooq was camping 70 kms from Srinagar in south Kashmir when the incident happened in Srinagar.

Developments during 1986 and 1987 again brought to fore serious breach of impartiality by Indian mainstream Press. In February 1986 communal tension gripped Jammu following unlocking of the Babri Mosque and an issue arising out of allotting a store room for Muslim employees in the civil secretariat Jammu for offering prayers who could not do so in the open during inclement weather. Several Kashmiri Muslims were attacked which caused reaction in Kashmir amid rumours that some truck drivers from Anantnag had been killed in Jammu. Property and religious places of the minority community came under attack by miscreants at a few places in Anantnag district. Media blew these incidents out of proportion, presenting the situation as highly explosive and suggesting that scared Kashmiri Pandits were migrating from the Valley although the Parliament was informed that no individual or community migration had taken place. The Hindustan Times reported the allotment of a store room as “an old temple in the Jammu Secretariat which was in disuse had been converted into a mosque”. It also published an unsubstantiated report that “an attempt was made to burn a family of a particular [Pandit] community” in Srinagar. Alarmed by newspaper reports, noted social activist Baba Amte rushed to Kashmir only to find “a vast gap between what was reported and what he found on the ground”.

In 1987, the media repeated the act when some political parties including the Jamat-i-Islami, Itihadul Muslimeen and Ummat-i-Islami joined hands to form the Muslim United Front (MUF) to fight assembly elections as a united opposition. The development unnerved the ruling coalition of the National Conference and the Indian National Congress. In the form of the MUF, here was a political alliance led by leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the present Chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (G) coming forward to embrace electoral politics and the media, like the ruling coalition, not ready to give it any space. An impression was circulated that the MUF was anti India and, once in majority in the State Assembly, would annul the accession of Kashmir to India. It was also criticised for asking Muslims to “follow the tenets of Islam”. The media dubbed the alliance as a combination of ‘fanatical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ organisations and helped this impression go around and gain strength.

The Hindustan Times in an edit-page article ‘The Rise of Fundamentalism in Kashmir’ described the MUF’s electoral battle as “more of a war between Islam and Kufr [infidelity].” A picture of Kashmir overwhelmed by Islamic fundamentalism was sought to be circulated. The media failed to take notice of contradictions it was committing in reporting. Qazi Nisar’s Ummat-i-Islami, a constituent of the MUF was simultaneously “fanatical and fundamentalist” and “clear that the accession of the State [J&K] to India was final.” An atmosphere of suspicion and contempt was created against the MUF, only to be followed by large scale rigging in elections in which its candidates were not only defeated by electoral fraud but many along with their election agents, including the later day insurgent commanders like Syed Salahuddin and Yasin Malik, arrested and tortured in police stations. To build a narrative that Kashmir was slipping into pro-Pakistan hands, the reporters proved themselves to be far removed from facts and history. In order to prove that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was on “tenterhooks” due to pro-Pak elements, the instances quoted to substantiate the point were “emergence” of the Al-Fateh and the People’s League. The Al-Fateh had been neutralised half a decade before Farooq’s father Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had returned to power in 1975 and the People’s League had been set up a year before that, in 1974.

With the eruption of armed insurgency in 1989 and migration of Kashmiri Pandits, Kashmir became an emotive issue for Indian media as never before. A dominant section, without a second look at facts, circulated stories and perceptions creating an awful image of a Kashmiri Muslim. Statistics quoted by vested interests about the number of Kashmiri Pandit migrants and casualties suffered by them, without any regard for facts, were played over and over again to accord them legitimacy. Media liberally disseminated false and misleading stories that Hindu temples in hundreds were razed in Kashmir, names of places and institutions were Islamised and that Kashmiri Muslims were hand in glove with militants in driving the Pandits away. Premeditated killings by State agencies like in the case of Pathribal and Machhil were also passed on as ‘encounters’ until years later when agencies involved in these murders admitted these being fake encounters.

By its voluntary dependence on government sources and ignoring the ‘other side’, media in India always allows public a controlled view of the ground situation in Kashmir. It selectively highlights developments that suites the official narrative. Objective reporting done by few journalists like Harinder Baweja did on lies about temple destruction or Pankaj Mishra did on Chhatisinghpora is too little to change the trend even as journalist Parvez Bukhari believes that “nobody has reported these incidents as objectively, extensively and in proper perspective”. The lowest point in credibility touched by Indian media on Kashmir was B. G. Verghese’s report on Kunan Poshpora mass rape and the media turning it into the strength of the State Narrative. The microphone wielding journalists in particular have removed the difference between a civilian protesting against State terrorism and a gun-wielding militant fighting for freedom. Today, hardly anyone questions “nationalist’ media’s penchant for looking for a militant in every unarmed civilian killed by army or para-military forces in Kashmir.

After the Pandit migration, the Kashmir reporting beat literally fell vacant. The void was filled by Muslim boys and girls freshly passed out from Media Education Research Centre, Kashmir University. They wrote about the other side of Kashmir which scarcely got reported earlier. According to Mohammad Sayeed Malik realism was the most striking feature of this reportage and these “young home-grown professionals were able to establish their skill and also make a mark”. Majid Maqbool, one such promising scribe, feels that the young Kashmiri journalist have “realised [that] there is a lot to write about Kashmir, and there are many untold stories that need to be told and which will not be written about by others.”

The challenges of objective reporting from a conflict zone like Kashmir could be serious. Several journalists have paid for it, some with life. Yusuf Jameel escaped couple of bomb attacks, including one in which he was seriously injured and his colleague, Mushtaq Ali, killed. Another unique situation faced by local journalists working for various Indian media outlets is that in many cases their news desks do not trust their copy if it challenges the security narrative or the stated position of the establishment. In situations like mass protests and civilian killings or elections in Kashmir when ground situation and the State Narrative are at variance, the newspapers and TV channels send journalists from New Delhi to do reporting. During September 2014 floods, the electronic media’s reporting was pathetic, to say the least. Its whole emphasis was to project army as the saviour of ‘ungrateful Kashmiris’ and playing the footage of its rescue sorties which, the eyewitnesses alleged, were concentrated on airlifting non-locals, mostly tourists. On such occasions, a local reporter might even be asked to take rest. During the Amarnath land transfer row in 2008, Rashid Ahmad, then Srinagar correspondent of the Hindustan Times, was asked by his coordinating editor to take rest “after working so hard without a break”. Given the “dangerous proportions the situation was taking I continued reporting only to find my copies being ignored at the desk. The newspaper stopped mention of Kashmir situation after the call”, Ahmad recalls in one of his recent Facebook posts.

Altaf Hussain, former correspondent of the Times of India recalls his copy being dropped in favour of PTI story in 1991, when at least 23 civilians were killed by the CRPF at Chota Bazar in Srinagar. He reported the incident based on facts and eyewitness’ account that “the CRPF had resorted to unprovoked firing”. However, the newspaper carried the PTI story which reported the incident as ‘cross-fire’ and death toll as 32. In another incident, 18 persons including 3 policemen were killed in army firing in Kupwara district in 1994. The Times of India carried its correspondent’s copy, corroborated next day by the Divisional Commissioner and the Inspector General of Police. The army also announced probe into the incident. However, an Indian Express’ four-column front page PTI-circulated story screamed “Militants fire into market place killing 21”.

Sometimes, journalists reporting for international media also face issues for filing copies that the establishment back home is not comfortable with. Yusuf Jameel was asked by two Gulf newspapers to discontinue writing for them after succumbing to “pressure from Delhi”. “The then Khaleej Times editor, an Indian and my former colleague at Reuters, in writing asked me to stop filing stories from a particular date. I responded with a single line resignation letter.” Jameel recalls. However, he had a different experience with the Telegraph Calcutta, where on two occasions intru of his copies and a quote of a politician were changed. He put his foot down and the editor, now himself a politician and a minister, agreed with Jameel and reprimanded the sub-editor.

“The national press”, wrote Tavleen Singh, “out of misguided patriotism, has always chosen to tell the national public less than the whole truth about Kashmir.” Altaf Hussain, however, feels that print media in India is still better than electronic media which has “abandoned journalism for drama”. He considers as positive development the debate emerging within Indian media itself on whether journalism should be patriotic or professional. In the meanwhile, as the current mass eruption is already in the second month, Kashmir continues to endure a partial, in fact hostile, Indian ‘nationalist’ media.

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