header
Media

Backstory: How to Get the Story Through Towering Walls of Hyper-Nationalism?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

For the professional Indian journalist, covering Kashmir in a way that unearths the objective truths of the region, has always been a fraught exercise. Since August 5, the Modi’s government’s three-fold manoeuvre in the state – reading down of Articles 370 and 35A, the bifurcation of the state and its down-gradation to union territory status and the communications lockdown – makes that task near impossible.

This is for three reasons: one, the wall of hyper-nationalism is now towering over us, with most of the mainstream Indian media talking it up by the day; two, the demolition of the only state in India with a Muslim majority has come to be the new signifier of Hindutva politics; three, middle ground narratives are no longer anchored to anything remotely viable, politically speaking.

History is replete with instances of journalism being trapped in similar mazes. The British media were faced with an analogous situation in Northern Ireland right from the 1920s to the 1990s. Reproducing the British government’s narrative was the price that media persons – even those who privately questioned it – had to pay for access and acceptance.

The pro-government slant hardened once the British army entered Northern Ireland in 1969, and coverage became even more polarised with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) framed as a sinister force and the military as an agency of patriotism and nationalism. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall, in his 1974 book, Deviance, Politics and the Media, has observed how the IRA was portrayed as ‘a known, labelled, stigmatised, extremist group, committed to the policies of armed insurrection and physical force’ and how this has ‘powerfully crystallised and simplified the complex problems of signifying the Ulster crisis to the British public’.

In the US of the Vietnam era, it needed the steady flow back home of body bags carrying slain soldiers and an “enemy” as implacable as the Vietnamese, to change the media narrative. The tipping point came when the journalist “America trusted”, Walter Cronkite, argued after the Tet Offensive, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems to be the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.” What is striking here is that it was not the innumerable military atrocities that the US war machine had rained on the Vietnam which had convinced the mainstream US media to alter its narrative about Vietnam, but the clear “unwinnability” of that war.

The point to note though is that in both Northern Ireland and the US of the 1960s and ‘70s, there were journalists who defied the official line and whose work hastened the eventual cessation of hostilities.

For us, now, there is an immediate question: In the face of a brutally controlled media in the Valley, can media professionals in the rest of the country and the world step into the breach and tell the Kashmir story? Many international media entities, including BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and The New York Times, beat the Indian mainstream media far behind on Kashmir.

The BBC and Reuters also resisted the hectoring of the Union home ministry over their coverage, by standing by it while the ministry tied itself into knots, first denying their stories and later conceding to their veracity. HuffPost India was among the first to report on a death of a young boy fleeing from the CRPF, and on at least 13 patients with pellet injuries being in public hospitals (‘Srinagar Boy Dies after Being Cornered by CRPF: Report’, August 7). The J&K Police denied any deaths and tried to get away with the fiction that no bullets were fired, only to later admit that pellets had been deployed.

Indian security forces personnel patrol a deserted street during restrictions after the government scrapped special status for Kashmir, in Srinagar on August 7, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Commendable was the performance of many smaller media platforms in being able to capture this brutish interregnum through ground reports far better than the “nationalist” big guns with their multi-core media empires. This was possible because they were unburdened by corporate agendas and government appeasement policies.

In the process, the world could catch a glimpse – it was only a glimpse – of what was really happening in a region barricaded by the military. Two days after the scrapping of the two Articles, The Wire could capture the anger in the voices of the young and the trauma of migrant workers scrambling for buses to take them out of the state (‘Ground Report | In Kashmir, Clampdown on Movement and Communication Fuels Anxieties’, August 8).

By the next day, one of The Wire’s founding editors was reporting from Ground Zero with hard evidence that “at least 21 young men and boys were brought in to Srinagar’s main hospital for treatment for pellet injuries in the first three days after the Modi government abrogated Article 370 (‘Ground Report | Pellet Blindings Back as Protestors Challenge Centre’s Kashmir Move’, August 9). A companion video captured scenes from the hospital and people with their shattered faces, broken voices and raging despair (‘In Srinagar Hospital Ward, Pellet Victims Belie Official Claims of ‘Calm‘’, August 9).

Over the following days, The Wire also brought to national attention several other reports that together told the overarching story of state terrorism. Akeel Dar (‘This 17-Year-Old Was the First Pellet Victim of the ‘Union Territory’ of J&K’, August 10) heard slogans being shouted in the street outside and went to find out to see for himself what the commotion was about: “Even before I could figure out what was happening, I saw one CRPF man already in a position to shoot.” He was left with 90 pellets in his body, including nine in his right eye and four in his left. It could draw the agony of Bilal Mandoo with his stillborn baby in a small box by his side into the frame (‘Stuck in Hospital After Losing a Child, Waiting 3 Days for 1 Call: Life in Kashmir Today’, August 12). When his wife developed complications, there was no transportation available – they had to make it on foot. It was too late by the time they reached the hospital.

Demonstrators shout slogans outside a hospital emergency unit during a protest after the government scrapped special status for Kashmir, in Srinagar August 9, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Insha Ashraf, living on the outskirts of Srinagar, was luckier. She went into labour on August 8, during “one of the most repressive moments in Kashmir’s history”. Her mother and sister rushed to their neighbour, an autorickshaw driver, at 5:30 am. Midway, they were stopped, security personnel did not allow the autorickshaw to proceed. The women had to walk, pleading with security personnel all the way. It was around 11 am, and they were 500 m from a private hospital when Insha experienced severe contractions. They rushed to it and within 15 minutes of reaching here, Insha became the mother of a baby girl.

Also read | In a Ravaged Kashmir, One Woman’s Fight to Give Birth

When justices of the Supreme Court counsel patience under such circumstances, they are deliberately shutting their eyes to the ground situation and expecting Kashmiris to do the impossible – keep their lives on hold. Meanwhile, anxieties, bitterness and rage at a mass level rise to the surface (‘I Am More Afraid Than I Have Ever Been’: A Personal Account From Kashmir’, August 12). This period has brought out extraordinary acts of kindness and connection among ordinary people (‘Amid Communication Blackout, How One Kashmiri Connected Distressed Families’, August 12) and created political awareness at a mass level unknown in most parts of India.

As a young man, who uses his old radio set to stay abreast of developments, put it to a Wire correspondent, “In a stroke of a few hours, we had lost something precious that was guaranteed to us under the constitution” (‘As Eid Arrives, People in Kashmir Still Don’t Know What the Future Holds’, August 12). We are talking about an extremely literate and politically aware community, whether men or women. This was an aspect that struck the fact-finding team of Jean Dreze, Kavita Krishnan, Maimoona Mollah and Vimal Bhai (‘Across Kashmiri Villages, Talk of ‘Oppression, Excess, Betrayal’: Fact-Finding Team’, August 14) forcibly.

As journalists, we need to keep our gaze on Kashmir – not just today, but in the long term. How will this story evolve? Will Kashmir reconcile itself to being absorbed within the Indian state or will the demand for azaadi grow into an unstoppable roar? To do justice to this story would demand reportage that defies the barbed wire-and-blockade tactics of the government of India, and stands the test of media history.

Heartbreak in Kashmir …

A lot of mail focused on Kashmir, over this fortnight. They ranged from trepidations about movement and connectivity, to what it means to be in a region that was once the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

A student studying in NIFT Srinagar wrote in to say how they were left in limbo on August 5, after the state was in lockdown: “We continuously asked about the situation to our authorities and plans for our evacuation. Other institutions, like NIT, Polytechnic and IHM evacuated their students as per the government orders but NIFT authorities hadn’t taken any safety measures as they were waiting for conditions to get worse. Even our parents continuously asked them about the situation but got no reply, instead, we were given a time table with continuous classes from August 5.”

When things started getting serious and there was panic among students, the authorities withdrew into their residences and didn’t bother to visit the students or reply to their parents. Finally, the students themselves went to the airport and asked for help from the Indian army in order to make it back to their homes.

§

Karman Ali mailed on the situation in Kargil: “Kargil has been witnessing a major lock down from the past two days all the shops and establishment have been closed in the headquarters of Kargil district and the day-to-day functioning of local people came to a halt. While the major political parties played safe by not taking any firm stand on the issue, the student associations continuously tried to assemble in order to stage peaceful protests but were prevented from doing so by the district administration. The bigger question before the people was the fate of 1.5 lakh citizens and the future of students.”

Also read | ‘What Did We Do?’: Kargil Seethes At Centre’s Bifurcation Decision

“The earlier surety that government jobs would be provided under the J&K constitution through district level reservations, is now gone. Ladakhi students will now have to compete with students from the whole of India for local jobs. This is an impossible task for them given the poor infrastructure, resources and educational exposure. Kargil, especially, will be affected since it is predominantly rural, and most of the aged population is illiterate. It is very hard for local people to comprehend the seriousness of the situation. The whole country believes that Kargil is totally in favour of the biggest blunder in the history of this country – ie, the revocation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the state, but the truth is that people in Kargil don’t welcome this move. What’s more, the betrayal of the trust of the people of J&K is heartbreaking.”

§

In view of the situation prevailing in Kashmir, the J&K Students Association (JKSA) – a body of Kashmiri students outside Kashmir Valley – established help lines and online platforms to address the issues students outside the Valley face because it “can feel the vulnerability and panic among all the Kashmiri students outside”.

JKSA has now set up a “proper bridge for students in consultation with the authorities of different states, journalists, activists and allied departments”, so that the problems of these students can be promptly addressed. It also appealed to the students to “lodge their grievances openly so that meaningful solution can be found.” Requesting the students to remain patient and calm, a JKSA spokesperson requested those with problems to get in touch on the following numbers: 9149676014, 7006037530, 9682367066, 9634336937, and 7006903341. The email id is: jandkstudentsassociation1111@gmail.com

…and an open letter from Kerala

While Kashmir was the crisis zone of the moment, there were other places in the country facing serious challenges. Rejeesh Palavila from Kollam District, Kerala, shot off an ‘Open Letter to the Home Minister’.

“Respected Home minister, It is noticed that you had visited flood-hit areas of Karnataka and Maharashtra and tweeted on it. Good job! I now write to remind you about my state which is not on your map. In the southwestern part of India there is a state which has the Western Ghats, on one side, and the Arabian Sea on the other. It shares a border with Tamil Nadu to the east and south, and Karnataka on the north and northeast. It is spread over 38,863 km and has more than three crore people who speak Malayalam. It is called Kerala. This state, sir, is struggling to survive from heavy rainfall and floods, many lives including that of children, have been lost, with many villages and town washed away. The impression we have is that you forgot about our existence because the government of Kerala not under the lotus flag. However, as a taxpaying community, Kerala now demands its dues from the Central government – not as a favour but as a right. We hope you update your map with Kerala and do the needful. Thanking you, etc…”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in