The Handwara incident is not the only example of how state powers and the mainstream media align in defence of what they believe is the “national interest”. The minor girl is still under police custody.
Is there a difference between lathi-charging people and shooting them dead? Well, not in Kashmir at least. Had it been so, the national media would have reported the killing of five people in two days in Kashmir instead of maintaining a deafening silence about it.
Just days back, there was wall-to-wall coverage of NIT Srinagar when some minor clashes broke out between two groups of students. Even the human resource development ministry sent a team to Srinagar to ensure that non-Kashmiri students were safe and their demands were met with. The injuries inflicted on the students by the police were broadcast on national television and there was much righteous anger at what was clearly a case of brutal and disproportionate use of force.
But when it came to the killing of Kashmiris during the recent protests in Kupwara district over the molestation of a girl, their death was a mere statistic, presented, if at all, without any attempt to tell the human stories behind the tragedy.
When we compare the two incidents, we clearly see how biased the position of the mainstream media becomes in the garb of national interest. Is this the way to address the issue of alienation in Kashmir? Even the state machinery needs to look into this incident if it has any intention to set the Kashmir problem on a corrective course.
To diffuse the tension that continued to build up after the initial round of firing, the Kashmir police released a video of the girl refuting claims that she was molested by army men. Rather she blamed the local boys who instigated the whole protests. This is a transcript in English of what the girl says on the video that found its way to the media via the police:
As soon as our school got over, I went to the nearby washroom and my friend was accompanying me.
After coming out, I tried to take my bag from my friend who was waiting outside and that when a local boy came and took away my bag saying that ‘Kashmiris are not dead yet’. The boy slapped me also.
As I was trying to figure out what went wrong, he was asking me to come to police station with him.
In the meanwhile, I saw another boy, Hilal Bhai, coming towards us and I tried to explain to him as well but he also did not take my side. I told him that I can go on my own and during this short time, lot of people started gathering around.
The national media very quickly latched on the video of uncertain provenance and the girl’s statement made under unknown circumstances. Virtually none of the channels which rushed to cite the video as proof that the army had been given a “clean chit” bothered to raise questions about the propriety of the police making the victim of a sexual offence record a video statement and then leaking this (and thus her identity) to the whole world.
It was left to the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society – to whom the girl’s family had turned to for help – to inform the media that the police had taken both the girl and her father into custody and that both had been in unofficial custody for at least two days when the video was released. The minor girl with her father are under custody since April 12, even though there have been protests by students across the Valley and concerns have been raised by the civil society groups.
When the Pakistani army released a videotaped statement by an Indian national accused of being a spy, the Indian media was quick to discount its contents since it was a custodial recording and it was impossible to know what pressures had been brought to bear on him. However, no such caution was exercised in interpreting and circulating the girl’s custodial statement.
The Handwara incident is not the only example of how state powers and the mainstream media align in defence of what they believe is the “national interest”. Even during the chief ministership of Omar Abdullah, when more than a hundred young boys and men were shot dead during protests, the media and the state were on the same page making light of this loss of human life; the latter in the streets, the former in TV studios.
The recent incidents are significant because media concerns over the lathi-charge at NIT Srinagar came just days before the far more brutal and disproportionate use of force by the army which followed in Handwara and Kupwara. Yet there was no attempt by TV anchors to put government or ruling party spokespersons on the spot for the violence. Nor did the media show any interest in the whereabouts of the minor girl and her father – complainants in the case – or ask why and under what law they had been taken into custody. If, as is being suggested in some quarters, the state wished to protect them from persons who might be angered by her videotaped statement exonerating the army, the same protection could be provided to them at their residence or the residence of a relative.
The death of protestors has also been brushed aside with the media focusing almost exclusively on whether the girl was molested or not and if so by whom. But even if the protests which led to the firing were baseless, so to say, did unarmed protestors have to be met with bullets? Can the killing of protestors be justified even if it is proved that the girl was not molested by an army man. If Kashmir is indeed an “integral part” of India, where in India are protestors shot and killed in this manner? Does being integral mean to have two different approaches as per the state’s own convenience and prejudices.
If it weren’t for social media, news of innocent young men getting killed might have never made it beyond the frontier town. The government of course was quick to impose a communication blackout, particularly on the use of the Internet.
It’s time for the mainstream media to revisit basic journalistic principles and not allow misplaced nationalist sentiment to colour its approach to news.