Reliving the story

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It may yet to have come of age, but journalism in Kashmir has grown beyond anybody’s imagination over the past two decades – its share of controversies and failures on many counts notwithstanding. A place which had no press worth its name till the end of eighties has now a media industry that is bustling, livewire and happening. Ahmad Riyaz  retraces this remarkable journey

 

(AP photographer Rafiq Maqbool in Afghanistan.)

If there is an image that can sum up the growth of journalism in Kashmir, it is a crowded press conference with scores of camera men looming over the object of their story followed by a posse of reporters shooting questions at random. The number is only getting bigger with the launch of more newspapers and news channels, both at the local as well as national level. The growth seems more vibrant at the local level with many more newspapers, magazines and channels springing up and unleashing a new intrepid generation of reporters and lensmen on the Kashmir streets, chronicling political turmoil, covering gun battles and  running after stone-pelters.

Of course, conflict has been the biggest driver of media growth in Kashmir. With Valley becoming the fairly identifiable news spot of the world, a reporter on the ground in the state has become a necessity. This reasoning, however, doesn’t fully explain the indiscriminate growth of the local media. But then except for a few with readership others – and there are several hundred of them – operate obscurely with little to do with the daily business of news.

But despite its share of controversies, its failures on many counts, media in Kashmir is a huge success story. A place which had no press worth its name till the end of eighties has now a bustling media industry. Though it will be still very premature to say it has come of age, Kashmir media is nevertheless evolving fast.

Journey for the past two decades has been remarkable: For the first time in our history of journalism, we have a robust English press – thanks to pioneering Greater Kashmir – which despite many shortcomings has conducted itself broadly along professional lines. It may have struggled with balance, under-reported the stories and exaggerated some incidents and events, but the overall job is a job done well.  More so, when we consider that the Kashmir press had to jump headlong into action without the necessary means and resources to do it.

There was only a rudimentary media infrastructure to build upon and little professional reporting talent to count on. But these drawbacks didn’t faze the press in Valley. It soon acquired a tone and tenor, frame and sense that was essentially Kashmiri and gave vent to an intrinsically Kashmiri outlook on the unfolding momentous situation – albeit with all its contradictions.

The job may have left a lot to be desired but it was not an easy job as well. The events that broke around the media still learning its ropes were cataclysmic and world-altering in their scale. A whirlwind, violent separatist movement in Valley, a raging jihad in Afghanistan continuing from the eighties leading to the collapse of the superpower USSR and the end of the cold war. Along the way, Afghanistan fell to Taliban, India, Pak battled on Kargil heights followed soon by 9/11 and its huge fallout. These were the kind of events which presented the world with a new geo-political reality after the end of cold war and challenged mortally the theses like Francis Fukuyama’s End of History.

Kashmir’s news space, though not directly involved, sizzled with the fallout of these events. Kashmir got sucked into this evolving complex geo-political reality which not only made the state a seamless extension of a destabilizing state of affairs stretching from Kabul to Srinagar but also turned it into a battleground for the contending political narratives of India and Pakistan, and their respective ideas of nationhood. And then of course, there has been this sweeping undercurrent of the political aspirations of the Kashmiris themselves.

But through all this, journalism in Kashmir remained steadfast. There may be some questions on the quality of reporting and the inadequate focus on some aspects of life, but the conflict in the Valley has been extensively covered. This cannot be said about India’s other conflicts in Northeast or in the state’s wrecked by Maoist violence. Kashmir press may not have explored all angles or reflected every dimension, but it has recorded every event and incident in their literal, raw detail. So, a place which has had little history or literature of its own to make sense of its complex situation, has in the form of its local newspapers a day to day account of its immediate troubled history. Of course, it is debatable if we can seriously call any of Kashmir’s newspapers a journal of record. But what the local press has done is making us engage intimately with our present. Now, in retrospect, it evokes for us this near past in its impressionistic and sentimental aura. It preserves the facts in the form of the empirical proof of the incidents having happened and events having unfolded.

(Media persons on a protest in Srinagar’s Partap Park.)

We have a far more intimate description of the situation than what was available to us before nineties. And this description, with all its inadequacies, is the only credible narrative of our struggle – or struggles – and the attendant repression. And in many senses, these papers also adumbrate a fairly sufficient reflection of our collective conscience.

And then it is not only about stories. We now raucously debate, discuss and disagree – albeit sometimes it bears the resemblance to a gruelling physical duel rather than a refined intellectual engagement. Result has been an intense community consciousness and a high degree of political and social awareness of the issues confronting us.

True, media in the Valley cannot alone be credited for bringing about this change. It will be an oversimplification. Global media revolution which has reduced the world into a 24×7 two dimensional television spectacle has made people everywhere myriad minded and cognizant of their own situation in a particular place  and its relation to the world.

But then even this fact doesn’t take away from the media in Valley the special uniqueness of its role anywhere in the world. And what is this role: an articulation of the complex local reality of Kashmir as against what Islamabad and New Delhi tell the world it is. Kashmir has three, rather four versions of its story. One is the all-encompassing New Delhi version followed by that of Pakistan and still further along by that of the world at large. And then there is an intrinsic truth of Kashmir, the truth of its own people. And it is this truth that local media has reflected if not articulated.

Of course, these several narratives on the state conflict and overlap throwing up a heterogeneous fifth version, which ordinarily rules the roost. But the local media with its exclusively Valley-centric focus has helped uncover the shades of the truth that has found little resonance in the larger Kashmir debate. Reporters have gone in the direct line of fire covering bloody gun battles, massacres and grenade throws. They have chronicled the plight of widows, recorded disappearances and reported missing. And now they are on the trail of the zealous mobs of stone-pelters. Some really great stories have been broken and some have been overlooked.

But the uncovering of this truth hasn’t come easy. It has extracted blood. Several journalists have lost their lives. Some have narrowly escaped the death. Many others have been assaulted. Many more have put their lives on line pursuing a story.

Looking back at the past two decades, there are several such personal stories that not only recapture for us the horror of the times but also give us a sense of what Kashmir journalism has had to go through to get the story. One of the most sensational of such episodes that jolted the journalism in the state was the assassination of the editor of Alsafa Muhammad Shaban Vakil in the 1990. Alsafa was then a leading daily of the state – the paper continued its great success run till the turn of millennium. Vakil was dragged out of his office and shot dead. There were many more such hits to come. Saideen Shafi of Ankhon Dekhi was also shot dead, so was Parvaz Sultan of Kashmir News Service. The people behind these murders may not have been identified – and never will be – but the truth about those killings is a common street knowledge in Kashmir.

It is not that only one side of the political and ideological divide in Kashmir has stalked and hunted down journalists.

Sandwiched in a shadow war of the agencies, journalists have been sitting ducks in a place where murder has become an easy, effortless pastime. Yusuf Jameel, one of the pillars of Kashmir journalism, has experienced this treachery first hand. A burqa-clad woman dropped by his office with a parceled ‘’gift’’ for him. But before Jameel Sahib could open it his photographer Mushtaq Ali did. The gift was a bomb and it went off in the hands of Ali killing him on the spot. Despite more than a decade going by, Jameel Sahib has hardly recovered from the shock and horror of the incident.

Habib Naqash, Jameel Sahib’s colleague and Asian Age photographer, has escaped death four times. He was by the side of Ali when bomb blew off in his hands. He was taking pictures of the ambassador car on Residency Road in 2000 when it suddenly exploded killing nine people and a photographer of Hindustan Times. And he was sitting with the defense spokesman Major Purshotum in latter’s office at 15 Corps headquarters when fidayeen stormed the sprawling cantonment killing Purshotum. But minutes before his death, Purshotum had hidden Naqash and some of his journalist colleagues in his bathroom.

Zafar Iqbal was just starting into journalism when he was shot at by the unidentified gunmen while working at the office of a local English language newspaper Kashmir Images. Mercifully, Iqbal survived. He is now one of the prominent faces of the journalism in the state, reporting for NDTV from Jammu.

Notorious counter-insurgent Kuka Parray once took the editors of the prominent local dailies and some corresspondents hostage demanding a favourable coverage of their activities in return for their freedom. Media had no choice but to fall in line. There were also pressures from the militants who at times dictated the editorial content of the newspapers: which stories to report, how to report and where to display them. Security establishment was no less tolerant. However it preferred – and still does – more covert means of coercion than the crude, in your face approach of the militants.

Worryingly enough, there seems to be no end to this approach in sight. The effort to control, direct and muzzle Kashmir journalism is on.  And now there is a new entrant to this business:  it is sophisticated, it is effortless and it is more successful. But ironically it doesn’t need coercion to control. It controls by extending favours and attention. Though never a threat for the media freedom in Kashmir earlier, it suddenly learnt the art in 2002 and perfected it in a fairly short period of time. And ever since it has not only tamed the media but also completely dumbed it down, distorting news priorities and focus, getting the media to churn out stuff that creates an artificial sense of feel-good.

It is only when the actual ground situation in Valley itself rebels and revolts against this cover-up that some shades of the reality force themselves to the pages. And this all-powerful, all-encompassing behemoth is Government of Jammu and Kashmir itself. Compared with its swooning spell on the media in Kashmir, one can’t help but feel nostalgic about the bad old days of Kuka Parray. It is really a tragic surrender for a media that has withstood the all-round assaults in the violent nineties to get the story.

It is high time that the media in Kashmir gets its priorities right again. It owes it not only to the people of Kashmir but also to its own sterling reputation for having been a by and large clean mirror of the troubled times over the past two decades. There is an urgent need for a deep, uneasy introspection, drawing of correct lessons and moving on. It is time for rededicating and re-pledging ourselves to the people of the state who hardly have an alternative articulator of their grief.

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