In Depth

Beyond the ‘Sorry, Kashmir is Happy’ narrative, Indian journalists’ ‘tightrope walk’ in Valley

Indian media’s portrayal of Kashmir has always fuelled the war of narratives over its protracted conflict. But there is a difference between reporting from ground and seeing Kashmir from New Delhi.

A year after the pro-Burhan Wani protests would once again engage New Delhi in a ‘war of narratives’ over Kashmir, a journalist from West Bengal came to the valley to write a story on the music of protest and dissent emerging from the state.

But Shamik Bag had no hunch that he would need to additionally prove his credentials as a ‘fair and unprejudiced’ journalist on the ground. Such was the prevalent ground mood, that even local journalists would be subjected to a greater public scrutiny.

“My valley visit came in the background of totally lopsided and sinister television ‘journalism’ from the likes of Republic, Times Now and Zee,” Bag says. “Having spoken to a lot of people, I sensed that these channels have been particularly successful in creating rifts between mainland India/Indians with Kashmir/Kashmiris. I would often be seen through the prism of such malicious journalism and had to take additional pain to break the ice with my subjects.”

The debate between a Kashmiri reporting the issues of Kashmir and an Indian parachute journalist coming with an already formed opinion to cover a story is a long-standing one.

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India Today’s executive director Gaurav C Sawant and his special report about revealing the ‘truth’ about stone-pelters post-2016 uprising is a classic example of parachute reporting and often justifies the bone of contention faced by Shamik Bag on his visit to Kashmir. Even Manu Joseph’s much-debated and castigated story, ‘Sorry, Kashmir Is Happy’ in April 2012 seems to peddle the similar patriotic perspective.

Amid this scenario, few Indian journalists have made Kashmir their base of work, either for Indian media or for Kashmiri organizations.

Their national identity plays a crucial role while working on ground.

“Few feel that being an Indian, I am exploiting Kashmir situation, treating them as my subject. Well I oppose strongly,” says Rima Mondal, an Indian journalist who has worked in Kashmir during the 2016 uprising and also in the summer of 2017.

“If my Kashmiri friends or journalists, as one may define, can travel to every part of India freely, writing and covering stories about everything including Kashmir, then they are playing the same ball game as I do,” Rima continues.

“When I go out and meet people for stories, a lot of anger is directed towards me because people locate India over my body. On the other hand, there is also a lot eagerness from people to explain to me where exactly the anger comes from. I would sum up my experience as being – Beautifully confusing. I would be scared of myself the day I sound too sure about what is happening in Kashmir. As an outsider, I try to remain confused in a way that let me listen different takes on the same issue,” opines Nidhi Suresh.

Nidhi Suresh.

Nidhi, being born and brought up in Bangalore, has made Kashmir her base for journalism. She worked for Kashmir Observer previously and at present is working as the Kashmir correspondent of Newslaundry, a Delhi-based online news portal.

The challenges these journalists face is not only limited to their Indian identity but also how they practice journalism in this conflict-ridden valley where every word spoken in public plays an important role.

Zishan Amiri, from Mumbai, working with Kashmir Monitor, expresses the same feelings as Shamik Bag regarding reporting any issue in the conflict zone. For Zishan, regular mundane words like ‘claim’, ‘reveal’ metamorphoses into something completely different when one places them in the Kashmir context.

“In one instance, I used the previously mentioned words to write a report where a policeman provided information about a certain militant and his whereabouts. When I saw the report next morning, I noticed that all of these kinds of words were changed to ‘says’ or ‘said’,” says Zishan. “When I asked my senior the reason behind this editing, he mentioned that words like ‘reveal’ or ‘claim’ are quite problematic because it shows my support for one or the other group. If I use ‘reveal’, it means I am accepting the state apparatus and if I use the word ‘claim’, I show that I do not believe them. Hence from now on, I use words very carefully.”

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The usage of words like ‘terrorists’ instead of ‘militants’ by the Indian media represents their agenda of demonizing the struggle, Zishan says.

The 4th March 2018 civilian killings in the Shopian district of South Kashmir witnessed the kind of demonizing reporting that Zishan points out.

That day, four civilians and two militants were killed by Indian army in the Pahnoo area of Shopian district. The four civilians were immediately passed as Over Ground Workers (OGWs)—“who were helping the slain militants”—by the army.

The Times of India reported the incident as “a terrorist and three accomplices” being killed after they attacked on the patrolling army. Whereas the report by Greater Kashmir uses the words like ‘militants’ and ‘civilians’. Kashmir Life, another Kashmiri media house, while mentioning the term OGW in their report about the firing, also mentions that it was a claim by the army.

This clear distinction shows how vocabulary plays a crucial role in defining the Kashmir conflict and what these media houses strive to represent.

All this merits a question as how the Indian journalists in Kashmir have been negotiating between their identity and the societal distrust towards them while performing their duties?

“It is problematic and difficult to be completely representative [of the Kashmir issue and Kashmiris] but I try by going directly to the people,” says Freny Manecksha, the author of the book “Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children”, who has been visiting Kashmir regularly and contributing articles about it to different media houses.

Freny Manecksha

“I try to represent situations as seen from the prism of both insider and outsider,” Freny continues. “I try to faithfully record the experiences of the people and then try to bring in the perspective of an outsider.”

Nidhi and Rima are of the similar opinion. They both speak about documenting the issues of Kashmir in the truest manner possible.

“I do not approach my work as a journalist with the aim of having an ‘effect’. I stay away from words like ‘change’, ‘impact’, or ‘help’. Impact is a wonderful by-product of journalism and can definitely be accounted as some part of journalistic success, but the moment I, as a journalist, approach a story thinking that I’m going to cause a change then I assume a position of moral superiority. I do not want to do that. I see my role as archiving and documenting stories to the best of my ability,” Nidhi says.

As per Rima, her mother didn’t know about half-widows in Kashmir, neither did many in her immediate circles. Her aim is to document issues like half-widows or Bengali brides in Kashmir.

“I want to share as many such stories with people around me as possible. I want people to come out of the narrative of either a conflicted Kashmir or a paradise with envious lifestyle of valley dwellers. I want to people to get over with their romanticisation,” she says.

But Shamik Bag approaches the issue in a different way.

For him, a greater inclusion of journalists from different parts of India and also inclusion of Kashmiri journalists in different parts of India will make for a better journalistic environment in media houses.

While he feels that a non-Kashmiri journalist or a non-local in any part of the world might not be entirely equipped with dealing with the nuances and subtleties of local issues and sentiments, “but it should not dissuade journalists to travel outside their local domain to report.”

For him, a fair and objective journalist can shine an outsider perspective which might escape a local journalist, “who, with their lived experience, can often be found to be carrying a baggage of agendas and opinions.”


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