The media’s code of silence on Kashmir

The Indian media boasts an illustrious history. Born during the freedom struggle against the British colonial rule, it quickly mastered the rules of the game, working around the stiff curbs and acute sensitivities of the colonial masters. If the Independence movement saw popular newspapers provide intellectual leadership and direction to the country, the post-independence era saw them really thrive, mirroring the aspirations and dreams of a young nation. Except for the dark interregnum of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency when, in the words of Lal Krishna Advani, it chose to crawl when told to bend, Indian media has been fiercely independent and free-spirited. Never shying away from speaking truth to power, it has jealously guarded its freedom under successive governments.

My former newspaper, the 'Indian Express', has by far been the most fearless of them all, perpetually defying the government of the day with its brilliant reportage, incisive commentary and groundbreaking investigative stories. Celebrated for bringing down governments with some of its brilliant and famous exposes, the Express chose to defiantly print blank sheets in place of editorial and news columns when told to submit them to government scrutiny during Emergency years. I wonder what happens to this celebrated independent streak of Indian media when dealing with the conundrum called Kashmir. Except for few courageous voices, most journalists lose their mojo, as it were, as they obsequiously toe the official narrative and adapt themselves to the line of the security state and demands of nationalism. The broadcast or electronic media is even more hopeless. While issues of human rights violations and humanitarian suffering elsewhere in the country are promptly reported and played out a zillion times in 24/7 media, they are swallowed up by a cold silence of indifference and apathy when similar things happen in Kashmir. Worse still, they are portrayed as a Pakistani plot to sow seeds of strife in Kashmir and tear it away from the unwilling hands of mother India. If only Indian journalists were able to see Kashmir not as a piece of territory with a predominantly Muslim majority, claimed and obsessed over by our pesky Western neighbour, but as a people of flesh and blood very much human like us, would we still be so indifferent and insensitive to their predicament and the appalling humanitarian tragedy that is Kashmir? In 2011, the State Human Rights Commission of Jammu and Kashmir released a report documenting more than 2,000 unidentified bodies in 30-40 odd mass graves and essentially verified other similar reports from local organizations, most notably the International People’s Tribunal of Human Rights and Justice in Indian Administered Kashmir. DNA testing subsequently confirmed that these bodies belonged to Kashmiris. And we are not even talking about the hundreds of rapes and thousands of routine staged encounters and humiliation that Kashmiris go through on a daily basis at the hands of security forces at ubiquitous checkpoints. Do you know that between 1989 and 2011 alone there have been more than 8,000 documented disappearances and at least 80,000 Kashmiri deaths? Then there are those thousands of 'half widows' who do not know whether to wait for their missing husbands or mourn them. Even through the off and on 'dialogue' that New Delhi has held over the years with Kashmiri separatists, these extrajudicial killings and other methods of persuasion have never stopped. In the presence of draconian laws like AFSPA, which allows the security forces to get away with murder in conflict zones, what do you expect? Even otherwise, AFSPA or no AFSPA, Kashmir is a special case and ‘occasional violations’ by troops are seemingly understandable and something that we in the media have learnt to live with. This even after the Supreme Court in 2016 came down heavily on the abuse of AFSPA by security forces and the practice of ‘fake encounters’. The top court blew apart the concept of immunity for the armed forces saying there is no such thing as “absolute immunity” and that the security forces could be tried by normal criminal courts for “use of unwarranted and excessive force to kill a person even in a disturbed area.” Wani was barely 16 when he was first apprehended in 2010 along with his friend in Tral and brutally assaulted by the troops. His young brother was subsequently killed by the troops, giving birth to the legend of the man who is now being painted by the media as the poster boy of the Kashmir jihad. Young Kashmiris like militant commander Burhan Wani who was killed in a staged encounter are forced to take up arms, not just for what they call ‘azadi’ but also for freedom from fear and daily humiliation at the hands of the men in khaki. Unfortunately, no lessons have been learnt from 2010 when Kashmir was last rocked by violent protests or many such repeated bouts of violence, unrest and mindless killings. It has been a familiar pattern over the years. All it takes is a small incident or provocation, real or imagined, to light the fuse and blow up the powder keg of frustration and all-pervasive anger. Yet few of us in and outside the media are prepared to listen to the Kashmiri side of the story and understand why so many of them are ready to brave bullets, throwing away lives full of promise. What will it take for all those in authority to heed the SC warning that “the rule of law applies even in disturbed areas and even when dealing with the enemy”? To most Indians, especially the neo-rich and upwardly-mobile middle classes and the self-anointed protectors of national interest in the media, Kashmir is an integral and inalienable part of India. Period. The Kashmiris, their angst and aspirations, long and documented history of a free existence and all the fine promises that were made to them by independent India’s leadership at the time of accession be damned! It hardly matters what the Kashmiris want even if this has been their homeland. It is we who will decide what they should want and deserve. As Jhuma Sen argues, “New Delhi has been the self-appointed arbitrator in determining Kashmiri aspirations and claims to freedom.” And the Indian media and establishment dutifully follow the same unwritten policy, telling Kashmiris ad nauseam what they should want and get. “The policy of denying Kashmiris the right to articulate what they want has been successfully carried forward by Indian media, where a prime time debate on Kashmir after every periodic unrest usually includes everyone but a Kashmiri with the anchor repeatedly thundering: “But what do they want?”

Why do you think the Kashmiris – five generations of them since 1931, the year of the first revolt against the Maharaja – have been fighting and dying for all these years? All that the Kashmiris want is the same inalienable rights that you and I enjoy. I know this is not something that is palatable to the majority of proud and patriotic Indians, especially under the current dispensation that endlessly dreams of Akhand Bharat, extending from Afghanistan to Burma. Kashmir will continue to bleed as long as we do not accept that the Kashmiris deserve the same rights, freedom, and dignity that we so love and cherish.

The writer is an independent writer and former editor.


Twitter: @AijazZaka