By Altaf Hussain
Indian media is, at present, torn by the worst-ever conflict between patriotism and professionalism, which is casting its shadows on the country’s socio-political landscape. It too has consequences for peace in the Indo-Pak sub-continent or may be even beyond. Kashmir is central to this row. That makes the Kashmir perspective more relevant to the debate on how Indian media should redefine itself.
Journalists in Kashmir, like me, had a major challenge: we were reporting our own conflict. If somebody died in a bomb blast or was gunned down by the militants or by the security forces, they could be my relative, my neighbour, my friend or my acquaintance. I and my colleagues may have, on many occasions, felt outraged by an act of the security forces or the militants, but never did we allow ourselves to be carried away by such feeling. We didn’t use adjectives. We jealously guarded our objectivity when each party to the conflict used fair means and foul to have the media on its side. A number of journalists were killed, both by the security forces and the militants.
But perhaps I would not have survived as an unbiased reporter had it not been for the support of the organizations I worked for. My immediate boss in the Times of India, then, was Mr. Swapan Dasgupta. He was known for his tilt towards Hindu nationalism. But I found him a thorough professional as a journalist. He indulged me a lot. The only advice he gave me, which I have followed throughout my career, is that I should use mild language while reporting bitter facts. Swapan once took up the cudgels with our resident editor Mr. Ajay Kumar for using a PTI story in place of mine. It wasJune 1991. I reported that the CRPF had killed 23 civilians in unprovoked firing at Chota Bazar in Srinagar. The PTI reported a false figure of 32 dead and also said that the killings had happened during a firefight between militants and the paramilitaries. I remember Swapan telling Ajay Kumar at a TOI conference the next month “My correspondent’s copy is sacrosanct.”
My editor, Dileep Padgaonkar was equally supportive. After his resignation from the TOI, he shared with me how he had often received calls from the PMO or the Home Ministry against my reporting. He said he would always ask them to send a complaint in writing, which they never did. A senior JK official who lodged similar complaints against me quoted Mr. Padgaonkar as saying “National Interest is alright but we cannot suppress facts.”
Had my seniors not been professional, I would have quit the TOI and, perhaps, journalism too. They never once told me to use the word terrorist for militants, let alone asking me to distort facts.
There were occasions, no doubt, when I felt that there was a tug of war in India’s national media between professionalism and patriotism. The TOI was no exception to this. But professionalism won, most of the time.
The print medium in India is even today more professional than not. But the private TV channels, with a few exceptions no doubt, have become patriotic with a vengeance. The anchors of these channels wear their biases on their sleeves and do so with pride. Journalism has, thus, become a casualty. There is never an attempt to analyze a situation so the viewers could become wiser. Instead, most of the TV debates only whip up passions among ordinary people. The current uprising in Kashmir is a case in point. None of the ultra-nationalist channels has ever invited experts to explain why the whole Valley has erupted after the killing of a militant, Burhan Wani. It didn’t happen overnight; it was building up for quite some time. We saw a three-day long fire-fight between the militants and the security forces in Pampore town early this year. For exactly three days, the local youth protested on the streets and clashed with the police. They showed solidarity with the militants. It is important to note that the militancy itself has been steadily declining in Kashmir for the past one decade and half and the number of militants has dwindled to as little as six per cent. There used to be as many as 3000militants in the state at one time; now there are hardly a couple of hundred. What then explains this sudden outpouring of public support for the militants? Well, that is what anybody interested in Kashmir or affected by developments in the state, would want to know. But, who will tell them? The NDTV.com carried an in-depth analysis “Decoding Burhan Wani” A couple of TV channels telecast historic interviews like the one with former union home minister, P. Chidambaram who said Kashmir was a saga of viswas ghaat or trust betrayed. But those were exceptions drowned in the boisterous and false propaganda carried out by most of the private TV channels. If these channels were not deliberately misleading their audiences, then they only exposed their ignorance.
So blinding has been this bias that even India’s most trusted loyalists in Kashmir have been subjected to suspicion and scorn. Former chief minister, the late Mufti Mohammed Saeed was known in Kashmir as an Indian- by-conviction. He had full support of the then prime minister ,Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he first launched his healing touch policy (in 2002) which was an emphatic directive to the security forces not to commit atrocities. But, when the same Mufti became chief minister for the second time, he found himself totally helpless, although this time he had strengthened his nationalist credentials by forging an alliance with the BJP. India’s radical TV anchors branded him a separatist just because he had released a separatist leader, Masarat Alam, from jail. Such was the tirade against him as the BJP was made to see the PDP (People’s Democratic Party) as a liability and PM Modi was encouraged to snub the late Mufti at a public rally in Srinagar. The Mufti had simply asked Modi to initiate dialogue with the separatist leadership in Kashmiri leaders and with Pakistan.
It is interesting that these same TV channels have not accused Vajpayee of treason for resuming dialogue with Pakistan so soon after the kargil war , in which a large number of Indian soldiers had died.
Today, most of the private TV anchors in India have become war mongers. They spend all their energy in emphasizing that the current unrest in Kashmir is a militancy situation. They do not want to see it as a public uprising, for which Burhan’s killing was only a trigger. It is the uprising of a people, particularly the youth, frustrated by the absence of a political initiative to resolve the Kashmir problem. It is an outburst of public fury against attempts or perceived attempts by the BJP-led federal government to change the Muslim-majority character of Jammu and Kashmir. Even Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had such fears which were articulated in an Urdu booklet titled “Conspiracy to turn Jammu and Kashmir’s majority community into a minority.” Authored by a senior National Conference leader, Abdul Rahim, the booklet was published by the party barely a few months before the Sheikh’s death. Today, an average Muslim in Kashmir is wary of the Indian government’s efforts to set up exclusive colonies for Kashmiri Pandits who fled the valley in 1990 and after. Ordinary Muslims in the valley are suspicious of the government’s plans to set up a Sainik Colony for soldiers and temporary shelters for non-local laborers. The ultra-nationalist channels have little sense of Kashmir’s history and are, as such, unable to understand the psyche and the pain of an average man in the Valley. The channels are not allowing the peace constituency in India to grow. And if the drift continues, they may soon make it impossible for the political class to talk peace in Kashmir without attracting the label of anti-national. In fact, some anchors have already started accusing fellow anchors of pseudo-liberalism and anti-nationalism just because the latter have reported the current unrest in Kashmir as the independent media should have.
The silver lining is that a debate has already started within the Indian media as to whether a journalist should be , first and foremost , a nationalist or a professional who brings facts before his/her audience and tries dispassionately to put those facts in perspective. A senior Indian journalist, pointed out in a BBC Hindi radio programme the other day that when 26/11 happened, the Pakistani media were the first to report that Ajmal Kasab was, indeed, a Pakistani national. If any media person in India were to do something similar today, the ultra-nationalist channels would, surely, call for his arrest.
Majority of Indians may perhaps be liking the ill-informed TV debates on Kashmir and other issues. But, actually, they are being deprived of an informed analysis of a situation and an insight into it. More and more TV anchors are choosing to become performers rather than journalists. The stranglehold of such a media on politics and politicians in India is likely to have disastrous consequences.
Voices are being heard that the Indian media needs to rededicate itself tosatya dharma. But these voices need to grow louder, before it is too late.
—The author was formerly with BBC