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Backstory: Why Was the Media So Eager to Put the Amarnath Yatra Tragedy Behind Them?

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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It has been nine days since the Amarnath Yatra tragedy and we still don’t have a grip on the death count. All we have are some indeterminate numbers – over 16 dead, over 40 missing and over 60 injured. It is only a matter of time when the last two numbers slowly trickle in and swell the first as the immensity of the loss of people with actual faces and loved ones slowly sinks in.

We also don’t have a precise idea of what actually happened at that spot in the Lidder Valley en route to the venerated cave. It was 5:30 pm on July 8. The evening weather forecast for all routes to the shrine said that there would be partly cloudy skies with chances of light rain. That was it.

So what was this bolt from the heavens all about?

Most reports claimed that it was a “cloud burst” that did the damage (a cloud burst is said to occur when 100 mm of rain falls in an hour). Knowledgeable others say that it was a “flash flood”. The fact remains that there is much about this tragedy that has defied easy categorisation.

As Sonam Lotus, director of the meteorological department, Jammu and Kashmir, observed in a media interaction: “We suspect that the region above the Amarnath cave may have experienced a cloudburst, leading to highly intense and highly localised rainfall that our automatic weather station could not catch. We have no means of measuring the rainfall there as it is a very remote area.”

Also read: Amarnath: At Least 16 Killed, About 40 Missing in Flash Floods Triggered by Cloudburst

In other words, there will always be unpredictability about the weather during the Amarnath Yatra that takes place in those rare weeks mid-year when the mists overhanging this region lift. The impact of extreme human footfall on an incredibly fragile terrain that is already ravaged by climate change make weather assessments even more complex.

One of the abiding memories that a journalist I spoke to who had covered the Amarnath Yatra in 1996, when freak blizzards led to the deaths of an estimated 260 yatris, was the chaos and overcrowding that had marked it. He pointed out that the inquiry committee headed by retired bureaucrat Nitish Sengupta had only underlined this.

ITBP teams carry out rescue work following flash floods triggered by cloudburst, near the Amarnath cave shrine. Photo: PTI

The Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is a good example of how such pilgrimages could be conducted with its specifications on the number of persons permitted as well as their minimum and maximum ages. There is monitoring of their fitness levels, besides health checks, as well as the institutionalisation of proper acclimatisation procedures before the climb. This could explain why the authorities handling this yatra seem to have been far more successful in preventing large-scale tragedies despite the fact that it is longer and more arduous.

But coming to the media question, why was the story of this tragedy rendered cold within a few days of its occurrence?

This suggests that there were innumerable vested interests working to kill it prematurely. Within three days of the catastrophe, we were being fed media images of “happy yatris” clapping and cheering the resumption of the trek. There were very few first-person reports of what actually happened.

A rare one appeared in the Times of India, which incidentally was among the few newspapers that also carried an editorial on the subject. It decried “the obsession with setting footfall records” and pointed out that while the Nitish Sengupta committee had suggested a ceiling of 3,000 travellers in any of the sectors in a single day, this time if the plans hold it would mean 18,605 a day.

Generally speaking, the media made only feeble attempts to hold those behind the arrangements accountable, although there was the occasional report that tried to break through the silence. The Indian Express reported that tents set up in the same dry river bed last year had been washed away by a cloudburst.

But since that yatra had been cancelled because of the pandemic there had been no casualties. So why were tents pitched up at the very same spot this year? Was it to accommodate the ever-burgeoning numbers of pilgrims? No answers from the authorities so far.

Also read: Amarnath Yatra Tents Were Put up at a Place That Flooded Last Year Too: Report

One of the lobbies anxious to pump up the numbers of yatris and airbrush the tragedy out of the frame is the tourism sector. As the divisional commission for Kashmir explained to The Wire, the Amarnath Yatra is “not just a pilgrimage, but also a significant economic boost for Jammu and Kashmir as the government anticipates revenue of between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 crore” (‘Srinagar Shopkeepers Claim Livelihoods Hurt Due to Amarnath Yatra Security, Police Deny Charge’, July 4).

And it is not just J&K. Tourist companies across India stand to benefit enormously. They offer trips for every pocket, ranging from the basic version in the region of Rs 12,500 per person to fancier options that could be ten times as much. In fact, the one sector in India that continues to be inflation-proof is the pilgrimage sector.

The other pressure group that is anxious to put the memory of the July 8 developments behind it is the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), chaired by Manoj Sinha, the Lieutenant Governor of J&K, which as its website maintains is responsible for the “better management of the Shri Amarnathji Yatra, upgradation of facilities for holy pilgrims and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” Interestingly, on securing the safety of the pilgrim, there is nothing stated.

Instead of insisting on accountability, the media displayed a very obvious desire to move on, leaving the dead to count their own. This was also possibly driven by a perception that yatras of this kind are being envisioned by the Modi government as a major electoral outreach.

It’s a variation of the old bread and cakes axiom: if they don’t have jobs, if the economy is going south, if the rupee is gasping, at least allow them their pilgrimages. How else can it be explained that despite serious objections from environmentalists, the government continues to be fixated on its Char Dham highway widening intervention that will eventually connect the shrines at Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore.

Major forest loss will result from this project with hundreds of thousands of trees fated to go under the axe. An analysis in the science and environmental magazine, Down to Earth, points out that the “Ruthless harvesting or uprooting of vegetation in the widening of roads can prove to be perilous for the biodiversity and regional ecology.”

The stability of river slopes, it points out, is crucially dependent on the vegetal cover.

The media are sleepwalking through this real and present danger and even something like the recent calamity on the slopes surrounding the Amarnath cave has not proved to be a wake-up call.

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LIVE…from Sri Lanka

For weeks now, some of the most compelling television footage in the world has come from a tiny island shaped in the form of a tear.

The worrying unraveling of Sri Lanka, once the envy of the South Asian neighbourhood for its human development indices, will remain a universal lesson about how authoritarian, ethnic-centred, hate-fuelled governments can destroy countries in incalculable ways.

The Rajapakshas may have retreated for now, but they are representative of a type of leadership that has unfortunately become all too common in the South Asian neighbourhood and the world.

Demonstrators run from tear gas used by police during a protest demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, amid the country’s economic crisis, near the president’s residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 9, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte.

This is the fourth month of this great unraveling – the ‘Occupy Galle Face’ stirrings of April have now led almost organically to the storming of the presidential palace and the prime ministerial office and the fleeing of the president.

Amidst the fear and potential terror of the moment were improbable scenes of playfulness – young men and women diving into the president’s private swimming pool, or sniffing out vestiges of what his kitchen shelves may have once held. There is also the imitative grand gesture by protestors.

The signing of resolutions before cameras, the addressing of press conference, and the capture of state television briefly all indicate how important media coverage has become in this tableau of protest. Lacing such footage are ever-present intimations of impending terror – with soldiers in fatigues always on stand-by. Their parents may well have been part of the Sinhala army that flattened Velupillai Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers on the killing sands of northeast Sri Lanka.

 Watching a young correspondent for NDTV reporting the story even as she struggles with a tear gas assault came as a reminder of the frontline nature of such reporting. Over the last four months, the media corps has often become collateral damage in this battle between angry citizens and a deeply entrenched, militarised regime. So badly were journalists of Newsfirst.lk – one of the island’s largest non-government news networks — roughed up by the police that Ranil Wickremesinghe had his office to express regret:

“Freedom of media is paramount to Democracy in Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister requests both the security forces and the protesters to act with restraint to prevent any violence and ensure the safety of the public.”

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa was far less inhibited in a tweet, “I wholeheartedly condemn the brutal inhuman attack on @NewsFirstSL journalists by police officers stationed to protect @RW_UNP. SHAME ON YOU, illegitimate Prime Minister.”

Both the Rajapaksha and the Wickremesinghe regimes took recourse to emergency powers that specifically targeted the media. On March 31 night, as protestors marched to the Presidential residence in Colombo, the security forces lighted into journalists who despite revealing their professional identities were so badly mauled that some landed in hospital.

In those early days, journalists working for the mainstream media in Sri Lanka which were unabashedly pro-Rajapakshka had to face the wrath for their employers for their coverage or their private tweets. It was around this time that a social media activist disappeared mysteriously. It later transpired that he had been whisked away by the police to an unknown location.

It was social media practitioners like him who kept the media narrative going even when journalists from the mainstream had to silence themselves in order to be able to survive and report for another day. Veteran journalist Lakshman Gunasekara has been tracking this phenomenon ever since the janatha aragalaya (people’s uprising) began. He writes,Social media messaging has infused political language throughout society as everyday patois. This must be welcomed as a maturing of the public discourse and general political culture: political action now a generic dimension of citizen behaviour, a patriotic duty, complete with the correct activist language.”

There is much that mediapersons in other countries in South Asia can learn from the courageous Sri Lankan journalists in their most challenging hour.

Twitter did the right thing  

Social media giants in India have adopted the mantra that discretion is the better part of valour and meekly, and most times discreetly, obliged the BJP government when it came to its social media agendas. So in approaching the Karnataka high court to address its disquiet over the highhandedness of the Government of India (GOI), Twitter displays defiance that is refreshing.

Although not new to court proceedings, this time it made sure that it had a substantial case that went beyond narrow self-interest and in fact spoke to the national constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. It seems a time does come after all when an institution that sets a mission for itself “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers” is forced to publicly defend its avowed role. In just one year — between February 2, 2021, and February 28, 2022 — the GOI issued orders to block as many as 1,474 accounts and take down 175 tweets. It’s a task that certainly demolishes any sheen that a mission statement may have!  

Many interesting aspects of these blocking/take down orders emerge in Twitter’s pliant before the court. The starkest of course is the way the government has been contravening the procedures it needs to follow while blocking online content. Section 69A of the IT Act requires an officer designated by the government to first examine the content sought to be taken down within 48 hours of the takedown order. It also allows the person, whose content is being acted against, to provide clarifications. The takedown recommendation is then supposed to be sent to the Secretary of the Department of Information Technology who then forwards it to the concerned intermediary. Twitter claims that the GOI, while maintaining that a particular tweet is not in the interests of public order, has not cared to follow the required due diligence specified by the IT Act.

What is fundamental to the case is differing notions of what constitutes freedom of expression and what could violate public order. As The Hindu reminded its readers, in its editorial of July 14, over the years the GOI has expanded its powers of overreach through the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which added “onerous requirements such as traceability of online conversations and new oversight functions that are weighted in the Government’s favour.” It argues that Twitter’s case should lead to greater scrutiny of these Rules.  

Mind your language, MP!

After stopping journalists, even those with valid parliamentary accreditation, from accessing Parliament, this government has now come up with a list of “unparliamentary” words which Members of Parliament must not take recourse to.

Read the list and you will understand why the opposition is up in arms – words that have been routinely deployed to convey the state of the country and the incompetence of the government in power have now been proscribed.

Some of them have even emerged from the mouths of those in the ruling party. After all, it was Union home minister Amit Shah who popularised the term “jumla”. Now ‘jumlajeevi’ can no longer be pronounced on the floors of both Houses.

Words vital to make a point about current repression such as ‘taanashahi’, or current politics betrayal such as ‘Jaichand’, or current fraudulent behaviour, such as ‘corrupt’ are in the list of verbal no-no’s. Some are important descriptors like ‘Khalistani’, while others are as common as the air we breathe – such as ‘drama’ or ‘ashamed’.

All this would have been the stuff of comedy if it did not have such serious repercussions on democratic functioning. Incidentally, does the ban on the use of ‘Snoopgate’ translate into the government’s desire to put the Pegasus scam on ice? +++

 Readers write in…  

Some questions

Shiva Iyer, who describes himself as a global citizen, writes in: “I have been following the work of Arfa Khanum Sherwani with great interest and admiration, particularly her clarity of thought, command of shudh Hindi and occasional forays into chaste Urdu. As a practitioner of Islam, she understandably leans towards minority topics and takes the Muslim side on issues, but generally she manages to remain logical and balanced.

“On the Nupur Sharma case, Sherwani rightly pointed out that, both as an Indian citizen and as a spokesperson for the ruling BJP, she was wrong in offering offensive remarks on Prophet Muhammad. We can agree that Indian Muslims hold the Prophet in high regard. Merely asking Indian Muslims to ignore such offensive references as the opinion of non-Muslims is unacceptable. Their religious sentiments should be respected, be it in the spoken or the written word — past, present or future.

“Likewise, we can agree that Indian Hindus equally passionately consider idol worship essential and ubiquitous to their religion.  Any language, written or spoken, that denigrates idol worship is deeply offensive to Indian Hindus.  Therefore, we can agree that merely asking Indian Hindus to ignore offensive references to idol worship in the Quran, in any recitation of the Quran, or in any mosque sermons in India, simply because they are non-Hindu, is unacceptable. Would she publicly support the redaction of denigrating references to idol worship in all copies of the Quran in India, as well as all its Indian recitations and academic references?”

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National Human Rights

Delhi-based Rakesh Raman, editor, Editor, RMN News Service (website) and Power Play Lok Sabha Election 2024 (microsite), who has sent a 12-page petition on the NHRC chairman to the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva, argues thus: “As the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Justice Arun Kumar Mishra, has completely failed in his responsibility to protect human rights in India. He must immediately be removed from his position…”

+++

‘We don’t suffer from amnesia’

Mustafa Khan writes: “Apropos ‘Backstory: Teesta’s Arrest Points to Media’s Deliberate Amnesia Over Gujarat Pogrom’ (July 2), many of us did not suffer amnesia over the Gujarat violence – amnesia was thrust upon us. I, for example, wrote manuscripts of at least two books that could have been published, but I backed off after being warned by the authorities that it could get me into trouble.”

+++

 Broken link
Anna Gryshko wants a correction made: “I was reading your Page: https://livewire.thewire.in/campus/five-reasons-chinese-students-may-stop-studying-in-the-us/ and found a broken link referring to a proclamation suspending a range of visa programs. It looks like the document no longer exists, and after browsing for a while, I was able to find the same proclamation in PDF format here: Working link: https://templatelab.com/presidential-proclamation/

“Maybe you could update the link on your page to help other users.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in