21 years of conflict has made the Kashmiri media topography both challenging and confusing for journalists to traverse.
The general belief is that conflict only brings destruction. That is true looking at the colossal human and material losses a place goes through. But in some cases it comes as a boon or a “blessing in disguise”. Jammu and Kashmir is one such place which has been reeling under conflict for the last 21 years. Thousands have been killed, orphaned, widowed, disabled and displaced in the bitterly fought battles between separatist militants and government forces. There may hardly be any extended family not affected by the consequences of the conflict. Sometimes, the consequences replace the real cause for conflict thus delaying an amicable solution.
While there are endless traumatic stories to narrate and describe the bloody conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, some changes with a difference cannot be overlooked. The media in Kashmir has become vibrant in the past 21 years, courtesythe conflict. As they say that conflict serves as a “green pasture” for journalists, this can be truly seen in Kashmir. For a long time, Kashmir hogged the international headlines. Journalists who would have not imagined getting a break in the national media could splash their stories across the pages of The Washington Post, The Guardian, New York Times et al.
Journalism flourished – from eight newspapers to 800 newspapers. It is slowly becoming an industry and the source of permanent livelihood for thousands of people. There are scores of graduates from the Media Education Research Centre in Kashmir University who not only man the newspapers but also reach international universities after bagging prestigious fellowships.
Despite all the “positives” of this conflict seen in the flourishing of journalism, the institution has faced tremendous pressure from both state and non-state actors. So far, one or the other side has killed 13 journalists and many journalists have faced jail, harassment, intimidation, restriction and much more. But by all accounts, amid the difficulties, journalism in Kashmir has survived and has served the people’s interest to a very large extent.
There have been some negative effects as well. Mushrooming of newspapers by almost anybody and everybody has cast a shadow over the genuineness of the institution. Blackmailing and exploitation by those who easily get the registration for a newspaper from the Registrar of Newspapers of India and who do not have a commitment to the profession have brought a bad name to it. They are unfortunately encouraged and promoted by the government in one way or another. For genuine newspapers, the Government of India has banned Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) advertisements – which are the biggest source of sustenance – and those whose print run doesn’t cross more than a few 100 copies are bestowed with huge revenues. Over the last three years, three main newspapers – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and Kashmir Times- have been blacklisted by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in regard to DAVP advertisements. This has been done in view of an Advisory issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. No reason was given for this, but it is believed that MHA thinks that these newspapers “promote secessionism”. This does not hold much water as the media in Kashmir has been doing a balancing act and reflecting the situation on the ground, and blocking the advertisements on this premise is unjustified and uncalled for. It surely pushes the media to the wall and strengthens the feeling that Kashmir is discriminated against. In the North East, insurgency has been on for 50 years but newspapers have not been choked like this even as they do the same job.
Journalism in Kashmir has, however, not remained apolitical. Its history, political instability and sense of betrayal have played important roles in defining certain benchmarks. When the armed rebellion began in 1990, there was hardly any Kashmiri who could distance himself from the “dominant sentiment” prevailing in the valley. A 1000-odd IAS and Kashmir Administrative Service officers shot off a memorandum to the United Nations seeking intervention in pressurising Government of India to put an end to human rights abuses in Kashmir. Five senior officers were dismissed and thousands of employees went on strike for three months and returned to offices only after they were reinstated.
So the narrative for the journalists was also well-defined. They necessarily did not become the part of the “struggle for liberation”, but they surely promoted the cause as it remained the dominant sentiment for people. Reflecting the sentiment and the gross violation of human rights was their duty as journalists and they could hardly avoid it. That is why many of them faced the wrath of the state that blamed them for being part of the rebellion. Journalists could not delineate themselves from the suspicion with which the government saw every Kashmiri. It was impossible as they were born, brought up and lived here. It is true that in many cases the journalists did not take the lid off the “excesses” by non-state actors. But this was largely due to the pressures and the fear of reprisal from these same non-state actors. They could draw a line between a uniformed man and someone who was not donning a uniform. But that in any case did not certify their “antecedents” as being “pro-movement”.
Many journalists became the targets of militants, newspapers were banned and reporters were abducted and shot at. This was a situation where you could not keep all sides happy. The initial years of conflict were a testing period for the media in Kashmir. Direct threats had become the order of the day. For many years the journalists worked under that shadow. However, with the changing dynamics in militancy, the foreigners took control and they were less media-savvy than the locals. Except for the latest threat issued on March 15, 2012, the past few years have been calm.
This threat was issued jointly by Tehreek-e-ShariatIslami, Save Kashmir Movement, Al-Nasreen, Al-Arfeen, Al-Mansooreen, Jehad-ul-Islam Askari, Al-Jabar raiding team and many other militant outfits. A local news agency quoted the spokesman saying that the meeting of commanders of these outfits was held under the chairmanship of Abdullah Ghaznavi. “The media men have been warned to remain away from security agencies and police officers. Those journalists should stop strengthening the occupation and instead highlight the pain and suffering of Kashmiris due to oppressive state sponsored policies”, the spokesman said. As the conflict continues, threats – both visible and invisible – continue to loom over the heads of journalists. However, the veracity of this statement coming from the “real militant organisations” has not been verified.
For a Kashmiri journalist it was difficult to name the armed rebellion as “terrorism”. And in equal terms it was not digestible for the government to see it as the “jihad” and call them “mujahideen”. So the middle-path of “militants” was somehow acceptable to both. Except for the opinion pages, that too in the last part of the two decades of militancy, the journalists could not voice a direct opinion on the contentious issues of “terrorism” or “separatism”. It was perhaps with the internal strife in Pakistan that the meaning of the word “terrorism” started changing and in some cases it became acceptable for the readers in Kashmir as well.
However, the newspapers have not changed their terminology as yet. Palatable (to both India and Pakistan) terms like Pakistan Administered Kashmir continue to be guiding journalists and newspapers here. It is different in mainstream media in both India and Pakistan who continue to call this Kashmir as “Indian Occupied Kashmir” and the Indian papers call the other side as “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir”. Kashmiris have distanced themselves from this war of terminology and sought to follow a “safer path”. It is very difficult to make out, to what extent the media in Kashmir has downplayed or overplayed the terrorism or separatism. It depends largely upon the situations and so far the Kashmir press has confined itself to reflection of the situation, of course in the background of the volatile political conflict that has been raging for two decades now.
Indian nationalism has always been a matter of debate in Kashmir. And the media is not an exception. With political blunders pouring in from Delhi right from 1947, it has hardly been seen as immersing itself in the Kashmiri society. Betrayals on the part of successive Indian governments have made a huge dent to this concept in Kashmir. Not withstanding the doling out of favours and packages, there is hardly any change on this front. As discussed earlier, the eye of suspicion on an average Kashmiri has further distanced him or her from the mainstream. The demand for a political resolution of the problem of Kashmir has dominated the political discourse for the last two decades, thus pushing the concept of Indian nationalism to the background.
I am reminded of how Kashmiri journalists were treated during the Kargil war in 1999. While their entry was banned from Srinagar, the journalists based in Delhi were allowed (rather their entry was facilitated) to visit Kargil by taking direct flights to Leh. This was ample proof of how Kashmiri journalists were seen by the Government of India, which has always been swearing that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India.
This state of affairs has virtually divided the media in Kashmir and Jammu. It is a fact that media in Jammu is more slanted towards the “national mainstream” and talks about Kashmir’s “struggle” openly as terrorism. Unfortunately the lines have been drawn on communal lines. This sense has been actually drawn from the politically-motivated differences which have put the regions at loggerheads. This has resulted in loss of representation to Muslim-dominated areas of Jammu and to an extent to the minorities in Kashmir valley. The coverage of the Amarnath land row in 2008 is a case which could define how the media is divided on regional and – more so – communal lines.
In Kashmir, however, the media has a difficult job to draw a line. While the separatists who either nurse the pro-Pakistan or the Independent Kashmir ideology cannot be wished away and have a reflection on overall functioning of institutions, even the so-called pro-India and mainstream parties have been toying a “well crafted” policy of “appeasing” the separatists and Pakistan to avoid a backlash in the elections. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s assertion in the state assembly in 2010 that, “Kashmir had acceded and not merged with India” brings loads of explanation to this situation. So does the soft separatism policy of opposition People’s Democratic Party. It is important to see the functioning of the institutions like that of media in this politically-motivated and sometimes confused background.
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