A Perspective On Journalism and Kashmir

Gowhar Bhat, a journalist, was beaten up by police in Lal Chowk, Srinagar in 2010 when he was covering a street protest.

One forms a perspective based on two things: what one gets to see, and one’s own sense of reasonability, sensibility and logic. Quite often, in the case of many, it is the lack of both.

The ideas and opinions I hold of Kashmir today are based on what I have seen, mostly from afar, and the sense that I have tried to make of it. Most of these have been from the point of view of a journalist of the old school which believes that journalism is about people.

When I started out as a journalist a little more than 20 years back, Kashmir was all about militancy and a no-holds-barred proxy war between India and Pakistan – it was hardly about people. Not certainly about what we like to call “ordinary people”. In many ways nothing has changed since then, and in many others a lot has. The issue is worth a retake.

Till the Nineties, Kashmir was not a newsy place. This was before the television boom, and newspapers could only care for their respective hinterlands. Kashmir mattered as much or as little as, for instance, the Northeast did. The operative word here is “newsy”, and what this connotes is what is deemed newsworthy in a newspaper’s market area. As militancy rose in Kashmir, it coincided with the spread of 24/7 television.

Operation Desertstorm had not only set standards – by bringing war into your drawing room; it had also created a mindset among media owners – that of playing strictly to the narrative of the State. Ok, make that “narration”, for that is what it gradually boiled down to.
Coverage of Kashmir in the mainstream Indian media, therefore, remained skewed in favour of what the establishment projected as the gospel truth. There was no such thing as a “point of view”. Whatever made it to Indians through the media was the output of either embedded journalism of dubious proportions , or was flat press conference journalism.

Stories that were more about those infernal militants, slowly turned into more about Pakistan in the new millennium. This was after Kargil, and the Indian politico-military establishment kept up the offensive. The offensive was the proxy war that it played through a pliant media.

But it was not that good stories were not being done at all. A colleague of mine broke a story about a major cover-up by the Border Security Force (BSF) in Bandipore. What was bandied around as a hostage drama carried out by pro-Pakistan militants was essentially meant to cover up the killing of three persons by a constable who had gone berserk after finding out that a BSF official was having an affair with his wife. The hostage bogey was lapped up by a media ever-ravenous for a Pakistani twist. The lie was nailed by this journalist who was more interested in pursuing the truth than to fall for bogus narrarives. That was in August 1999.

A closer look will tell you that there are more such Indian journalists around. If Kashmir is being debated more (in spite of those mischievous sedition cases) across India, it is because there are more people who are willing to pursue the truth rather than an opinion. Yes, Kashmir still polarises India. Maybe 10 years back it was 99-1 people in favour of the State; today it probably is 80-20. No, don’t fret at the numbers here, but get the message. By and large, the Indian media establishment remains firmly with what the State wants it to believe.

There are many other things that haven’t changed. Press freedom violations continue with impunity. But there’s a shift in trend here that most Indians choose to ignore. While attacks against journalists in Kashmir 15-20 years back came from all quarters, today, almost without exception, these come from agencies and arms of the State. What has also not changed in these many years is a fact that makes such trend-spotting extremely difficult (and therefore, more empirical) – documentation of press freedom violations remains zilch.

If there is a change that is most welcome, it is that of the rise of an extremely bright and vibrant youth in Kashmir. The battle of guns has made way for the battle of ideas, and it is the success or failure of this generation that will probably shape the future of the Kashmir issue. This also finds its echoes in journalism – why else would you find so many youth-driven websites?

The turning point, to my mind, was the street protests of 2008. The protests achieved one thing – it ensured that if news of ordinary people did not trickle out to mainland India through the mainstream media, it could certainly gush out through the Internet. If the educated elite of India today is more aware about Kashmir (does not matter which side they are on) than they were 10 years back, it is largely because of the Internet. Things on this front can only get better.

Subir Ghosh is a New Delhi-based columnist and writer. He blogs at www.write2kill.in.

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