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Not a black-and-white story

The various shades of the Indian media when it comes to reporting the Kashmir issue

Not a black-and-white story
Journalists in the Indian-held Kashmir protesting against the ban on the media in Kashmir.

On the afternoon of July 13, Shah Faesal wrote in the Indian Express earlier this week, the “adjacent curfewed street had been rattling with a sinister medley of azadi slogans and tear-gas explosions since daybreak”, and his child was finding it difficult to sleep.

The sounds are enough to send Kashmir’s first man to crack the Indian Administrative Services — entitling him to become a card-carrying member of the national bureaucracy — to the recesses of memory. Faesal remembers how his own father used to put him to bed three decades ago, when “mortar shell were pounding the hills in our backyard,” a reference to Kashmir’s struggles in the late 1980s and 1990s, sandwiched as it was between Pakistan’s proxy war and Delhi’s determination not to let it go at any cost.

Now director, school education, Kashmir, Faesal allows the moment to overtake his present circumstance. He realises that he is a role model for young Kashmiri men and women, perhaps even an advertisement for national integration.

But by the exact same logic, several tv channels from other parts of India have questioned not only his identity, but also his loyalty.

With the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8, and the violence that has since gripped the Kashmir valley, Faesal realises that he has unintentionally become a big player in the bloodthirsty and divisive charge for TRP ratings that sometimes passes for news in India these days.

Read also: The Wani factor

Don’t get me wrong. It would be unfair to condemn my entire tribe as being unfit for the sacred profession of journalism. But the fact that I am accusing news channels like Times Now and NewsX — that too in a Pakistani newspaper — for refusing to portray the shades of grey in a complex story like the one presently unfolding in Kashmir, has of course made me fair game for the hyper-nationalist trolls on Twitter.

That is what is happening in Kashmir as well as the rest of India these days. As the media takes sides, it falls victim to its own oath, which is to report all parts of the story, fairly and objectively. Several newspapers have refused to fall for the bait laid out by the security establishment, which is that all those who report critically of the establishment are declared ‘anti-national’.

But in the face of the rising civilian death toll — more than 50 people have been killed so far, proving former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s somber prophecy, that Burhan Wani will do more damage from the grave than he did in real life — as well as civilian anger against security forces, large sections of the Indian media have begun to parrot the “us vs them” approach, condemning Kashmiris wholesale and once again asking them to prove their loyalty to the nation.

It would be a mistake to believe that this hyper-patriotic media — especially on social media — belongs to the pro-BJP or Hindutva brigade. In fact, check out any story or cause that reflects a roiling of caste or underclass or gender and the trolls have saved the choicest abuse for you. Perhaps, this ugly flotsam is a reflection of the breakdown of civilisational values. Perhaps, this is just an excuse for bad manners. For these men and women, cyberspace is an excuse to manifest their ugliest impulses.

Even for large parts of the mainstream media, the Burhan Wani story and how it could be emblematic of the anger, pain and frustration Kashmiris have suffered over the years can only have one colour. Flying the flag has become the first principle for these journalists, not telling the story. Territory, not its people, has become the only truth. From here it’s a short step and jump to “Go to Pakistan”.

The interesting thing about the ongoing crisis in the Kashmir valley is that it has hardly been impacted by the several statements made by the Pakistani establishment — the marking of ‘Black Day’ or no ‘Black Day.’ Of course, the government of India has been highly critical, but its almost as if both governments are speaking, once again, to their own audiences.

The Kashmir story, about promises broken, about Kashmiriyat, about the confluence of Hinduism and Islam, and what this paradise-that-sometimes-becomes-hell really means, has become almost incidental.

In a sense, the Hindutva trolls have liberated several other journalists across India. When they tell their stories, there is no guilt about the fact that they are reporting that there remains a burning rage in the Kashmir valley and its not going away. How leaders, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Atal Bihari Vajpayee have betrayed the people of Kashmir by making them so many promises — and breaking each one of them.

That’s why the story of Kashmir remains so important. The fact that it is a dispute and contested by Pakistan — especially since the Indian state is never going to give it up — or that Pakistan will take advantage of the crisis in the Kashmir valley are all truths, but they are only partial truths.

The Indian media must return to telling all sides of the story about Kashmir, however unpalatable. They must stop demonising people like Shah Faesal and treating him like Burhan Wani. Kashmir has never been a black-and-white story. It would be unfair to condemn it as one.

Jyoti Malhotra

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