Tazia processions during Muharram in Kashmir have rarely been event-free in the last three decades. This year however marked a departure for another reason.
As clashes erupted between mourners and the police in Srinagar on the ninth and tenth day of the Ashura on August 29 and 30, teargas shells and pellets were fired, slogans of Azadi were raised and stone-pelting broke the calm of the procession, the local newspapers responded with a conspicuous silence even as the scale of brutality surpassed those of previous incidents.
In the past, claims and counterclaims have been common after processions have gone awry. The recurrent cycle where the police and the locals blame the other for the provocation – effectively reducing the debate of whether police brutality preceded the sloganeering and stone-pelting or vice versa to a chicken and egg story – has come to occupy the columns of local newspapers in recent decades.
This year, the story all but disappeared – interestingly on the day that the world observes as the Day of Enforced Disappearances – instead papered by bold headlines of ‘Religious fervour’ of the Muharram processions. Evidently, many believed that the story didn’t merit any further coverage or was reduced to a footnote.
What was glossed over by the local newspapers, however, was splashed across social media on the evening of August 29 with appalling images of pellet riddled bodies and faces. The story figured prominently in some sections of the national and the international media the next day and was pursued by many others the day after that.
Since last year, particularly after the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill was passed, Article 370 of the constitution was scrapped and a stringent lockdown accompanied the developments, local journalism has been in a state of stupor. While many professionals have struggled to keep the news alive and ward off any attempts to suppress the flow of information despite a communications blockade in place, multiple forms of intimidation and the launching of an Orwellian Media Policy 2020, the Valley’s leading newspapers have chosen to keep their publications alive by killing news stories and burying all morals of journalism.
For over a year, I have grappled with the question of ethics – whether as an editor of the newspaper Kashmir Times, I might be crossing the principled stand of commenting on the content and conduct of ‘rival’ newspapers, and thus held my peace.
But a race driven by purely material considerations is not my line of work. More importantly, when the actions of some affect a trend impacting journalism as a whole – and perilously so – it is important to speak out. In Jammu and Kashmir, the powerful dailies dictate the kind of journalism that the rest are obliged to follow, unless they choose to be out of sync with the rest and face consequences.
When a bevy of newspapers agree to fall in line, without a whimper, the going becomes even tougher for the rest, including weekly and monthly publications as well as freelancers, many of who are courageously struggling to speak out and facing risks.
Notable is the case of the editor of The Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, who was summoned by the Cyber Police and twice faced an interrogation for one particular report. I do not intend to take any high moral ground. As journalists, we go about the daily rigours of negotiating multiple challenges, including occupational hazards and deadlines for work, imperfectly. The excessive risks media professionals, particularly Kashmir based editors, are exposed also deserves acknowledgement. But when the very foundational principles of journalism stand compromised, there is a need for introspection. The idea behind writing this article is to initiate this much-needed debate.
Needless to say, it has been a tight-rope walk for media personnel in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the Valley, since last year. But despite the logistical impediments of operating without a communication system and in an intimidating climate of partial bans where journalists are criminalised or summoned repeatedly, many brave journalists have resisted all kinds of pressures to ensure that news about Kashmir does not absolutely spiral down the black-hole. The counter to the state’s narrative has made headlines in the national and international media due to their admirable efforts.
Are the pressures more exacting on local media organisations which have largely preferred to remain silent and submit to the powers that be over pursuing ethical journalism? The consideration of advertisements and finances apart, in July 2019, editors of two Kashmir based newspapers were grilled for several days by National Investigating Agency (NIA) as part of an investigation into a case of “terror funding”.
When August 5, 2019, descended, with the gagging and muzzling of dissent, newspapers completely lost their voice, even as some continued to be printed in their truncated forms and with content that was out of sync with the existing situation of the time. Setting aside the arrests, torture and human rights violations, the absence of reporting on the impact of a stringent lockdown on the day-to-day lives of ordinary humans and the devastating blow to the health and education sector was so pervasive, it ended up legitimising the myth of ‘normalcy’ that the government was labouring to showcase.
Even as editors were caught in a situation with a lack of choices, with two essentials vital for the existence of newspapers – local news and political comment – gone, the publications were reduced to mere shadows of their former selves. A year on, while some of this has been salvaged, the readers are judging the newspapers, not on the basis of what was reported but what was not.
The absence of the news on pellet gun injuries becomes an important case study in assessing the state of media in Kashmir and the interplay between journalism and its readers. What disappeared or appeared in a muted form on August 30, after the first day of the brutal crackdown on the Muharram processions, resurfaced, mostly apologetically on August 31, after the newspapers faced a severe backlash from Kashmiris on the social media.
One of the leading dailies, Greater Kashmir, in a report on August 30 titled ‘Ashura Today’, detailed the significance of Muharram procession in the opening paragraphs, and dismissed in two small paragraphs – which figured at the fag end of the report – that “the police used tearsmoke shells at Hamdania Colony Bemina” to disperse the procession leading to “injuries to mourners”. It also added that “The mourners alleged that metallic pellets were also fired on them. A couple of youth sustained pellet injuries.”
The Rising Kashmir blacked out the Muharram procession completely, neither carrying the ‘religious fervour’ associated with it, nor the disruptions to it. The Kashmir Reader published on August 30 dismissed in six small sentences a news item titled, ‘Restrictions in parts of Srinagar to prevent Muharram procession’, barely mentioning some barricades manned by police and CRPF.
What was missing on August 30 found a cautious and guarded presence in print the next day. The criticism on social media surrounding the lack of coverage of pellet injuries by local newspapers brought the news into focus the next day, even though the report about the ‘religious fervour marking the 10th day Ashura procession’ dwarfed the violent scenes on the road.
The Greater Kashmir published, on August 31, the news titled, ‘Two dozen mourners injured as police use force to stop Muharram processions in Kashmir‘ and a strap that read, ‘Our men too received injuries: SSP Srinagar’. It said that two dozen mourners sustained injuries from police action and two youth sustained pellet injuries. It went on to mention:
“The authorities imposed restrictions and blocked the roads to stop processions in some parts of the valley.
Several main Muharram processions have been banned by the government in Kashmir since 1990.
The clashes started after police deployed in huge numbers in Zadibal tried to stop a large procession. The mourners in turn clashed with the police who restored to tear gas shelling and fired pellets. The police also lathi-charged the mourners.”
The rest of the news article (about nine paragraphs) was dedicated to the police version of the events.
The Rising Kashmir, in its edition of August 31, carried the Muharram story titled ‘Amid COVID-19 restrictions, curbs, Ashura observed in Kashmir‘ and straps that read, ‘Clashes reported in Zadibal areas, Police officer among several injured; Rich tributes paid to Hazrat Hussain (RA) and other Karbala martyrs’. The news, an overall round-up of various Muharram processions in Jammu and Kashmir and Kargil, also made a cursory reference to the violent happenings of the day by saying:
“Later in the day, mourners gathered at Kathimaidan and tried to come on the main road in shape of the procession. Police used tear smoke shells and disperse them.
A Police official said that the mourners resorted to stone pelting at Kathimaidan.
A Selection Grade Constable Showkat Ahmed (1007/s) from Police Station Soura sustained head injuries.”
The Kashmir Reader on August 31 published a report ‘Restrictions mark Ashura’ as its second lead story and a smaller box item under it, with a detailed news item titled ‘Mourners hit by pellets in eyes writhing in pain’. The report was based on the version of some eye-witnesses, a doctor, and pellet injured victims including a man who said, “I have forty pellets inside my eyes”.
Last year, the news about a protest in Soura, a locality in Srinagar, where hundreds of demonstrators had occupied a park with banners opposing the ‘abrogation of Article 370’ and an incident of violent clashes between protestors and security forces, was first broken by the BBC within days of the imposition of restrictions.
The Indian government responded to the report with an abject denial. Some Indian and foreign media organisations reported the same, one reported on how young men were using the mosque to mobilise the public in the area. Few others reported about young men being wounded by shotgun pellets and another reported that a young man had jumped into the Jhelum river that flows through the city to rescue himself. Some outlets also reported about cases of those who had been injured by pellet and were refusing to visit hospitals and were being treated by self-trained locality experts working with basic antiseptics and crude blades. The Indian state called these reports fake.
The handful of newspapers being printed from Srinagar maintained silent – they were cautious enough to even avoid reporting on the contested claims of both sides and instead cherry-picked ‘safer’ things to talk about. A contested incident about Kashmir and the controversy surrounding it, that garnered headlines in the foreign and national media, was not considered newsworthy enough in Kashmir.
They got away. Locked up in their homes with no internet connections or phones – probably also without any knowledge of the controversy or the incident – the readers made no public display of their disappointment.
What local newspaper organisations took for granted last year may no longer be possible. The overall shock and sense of fear that germinated last year has begun to wear off. The two days of coverage on the latest spree of pellet gunshots demonstrates that even a slight rebuff from readers and the general public is enough to compel media-houses to stop ignoring local voices and incidents.
This moral policing, however, has limitations. As long as involved readers expect the media to function and seek accountability with positive results, it may be fine. But at what point can this readership activism morph into mob-rage? In the last one decade, Kashmir’s media has dealt with its share of mobs setting newspapers on fire or disallowing selective journalists from entering certain areas on allegations of deliberate blacking out of the news of public protests and campaigns or human rights abuse.
When democratic spaces vanish, the dangers of a venomous and unstoppable mob are enhanced with a probable future of the thin line between reason driven criticism and irrational, vitriolic vengeance blurring. The only thing that can avert such a danger is a responsive media, guided purely by the principle of informing and enriching informed opinion. The realm of fear, real as it is, cannot be used as a perpetual excuse by editors of newspapers to defend their silence.
An unidentified editor of a Kashmir based newspaper was quoted in a report in The Telegraph on August 31, as having said, “the Kashmir dailies were ‘gradually reclaiming the space’ they had conceded last year after the clampdown.”
What can be reclaimed after they chose to turn a blind eye to the horrifying spectacle of over 200 injured men, many being sprayed with pellets on their bodies, faces and eyes?
According to the same report, another editor claimed the newspapers had been discreetly told to give the most extensive coverage to “developmental activities” by the government.
About two months ago, senior Indian journalist Ajaz Rashid, while researching about J&K’s new media policy, asked me whether journalists and editors would be willing to speak freely. I told him I had doubts about the latter. The editors who are part of the Editors Guild of Kashmir haven’t made a murmur as yet, and newspapers are carefully dropping anything that the government would be uncomfortable with. A day later, after trying to speak to some editors, he messaged back, “you were right. Either they don’t speak or speak little but do not want to be identified.”
That editors begin to speak to journalists on conditions of anonymity is telling enough about how they are caught in the grip of haunting fear. L.K. Advani’s famous retort to journalists after the dark days of Emergency, “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled” rings true in the Valley today.
Kashmir’s media is not new to the realm of fear. In the 90s, caught between the gun of the security forces and a hundred militant organisations, journalists chose not silence but the path of cautious balancing as they negotiated the multiple powerful stakeholders that spoke from behind the barrel of the gun and ensured that journalism survived, even though in a battered form. The years of calm that dawned with the new millennium saw the rise of a vibrant media in the entire state, mushrooming growth of newspapers, weeklies and magazines and a young breed of immensely talented and courageous journalists who enriched journalism with a nuanced narrative of all the regions.
In Jammu, the nascent development of professional journalism remained short-lived as, post-2008, in the wake of the Amarnath land row, editors and some reporters succumbed to the deepening religious and regional polarisation and inter-twined with that a venomous idea of ultra-nationalism in which loyalty to the state was deemed as the only sacred duty of media. Other than media being guided by the idea of being on the right side of the government, nuisance became an important ingredient in some publications and television channels.
Reportage, at par with the studios of Sudhir Chaudhry and Arnab Goswami of the television world, turned into a jarring discourse laced with expletives, religious hatred and character assassination of the ‘victim of the day’ in some of the newly started local newspapers. In Kashmir, the media story was both encouraging and disappointing. In the last few years, while some journalists continued to bring out path-breaking stories and enriched comment spaces with informed opinion pieces and brilliant articulation, many others, particularly editors, gradually began succumbing to pressures from the government which started using its weapon of advertisement revenue to the hilt. The complete surrender by August 5 came easily in this backdrop.
We live in an era where finances are extremely important for the existence and survival of the media. Technology, talented reporters, marketing strategies, circulation – everything requires money to keep the mare going. The traditional model for generating newspaper revenue is disproportionately dependent on government advertising.
When newspaper editors, guided by considerations of both fear and ambition of turning their publications into robust commercial enterprises by expanding space for government advertisements, squeezing news space and blanking out news reflecting ground realities, they become extensions of the public relations department of the government and journalism ceases to be what it ought to have been – the fourth pillar of democracy, an enterprise that holds those in power accountable and also one that brings voices of the marginalised people into the public domain.
Resisting what senior journalist Yusuf Jameel calls as the present moment of “Undeclared Censorship” requires not just overcoming fear but also searching for alternate models of revenue, without which the choice is either of ‘silence’ or of struggling to continue in keeping with the true spirit and ethics of journalism, at the risk of sagging circulation, downsized staff, poor quality of production and even the threat of closing down.
When the dictum comes ‘Fall in line or Perish’, the choice is not between survival and persecution, the choice is between saving a business enterprise or journalism which certainly cannot be reduced to a pamphlet fed on advertising.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the executive editor of Kashmir Times.