‘National Media Stories on Kashmir are Pre-scripted’’

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After a 30 year tryst with journalism, Rajdeep Sardesai, who is one of India’s most acclaimed journalists and also one of television’s most recognizable faces, opens up to Kashmir Observer about the jingoistic way in which Kashmir has been narrativised by the National media, especially over the last few years.

What do you think is currently happening in Kashmir?

It is a serious crisis of legitimacy; legitimacy of the Indian State, the separatists as well as this whole notion of Azadi. There is also the crisis of the citizenry who is caught in the midst of all these elements. Someone once likened it to a bull, writhing in pain because it was being pulled in all directions, while no bystander was willing to address the pain.

So you wouldn’t term it as a war or a conflict?

Conflict seems to be like a fair word to use. Apart from the physical violence, the conflict seems to exist in the minds of everyone trying to understand Kashmir.

War, I’m not very sure. War might indicate that there are actually no stake holders pushing for a resolution, whereas in Kashmir there are people asking for a peaceful solution. On the other hand one could argue that there is an on-going war between the terrorist and the State.

So you would address them as terrorist, not militant?

This is an interesting question. If you’re in Delhi you’re supposed to call them terrorists and if you’re in Kashmir you’re supposed to call them militants. To me, anyone who uses weapons to strike at non-combatants must be called a terrorist. Militant represents someone who is part of a certain movement that targets only the army or CRPF. The moment an innocent man is caught in a cross fire, you lose the right to be called a militant; because then you’re trying to rationalize your violence. To my mind, violence is unacceptable.

By your own definition of a terrorist, if a stone hits an innocent, then wouldn’t that classify as terrorism?

I will not justify or rationalise the stone throwers because I believe you’re using violence. If you have a cause, it must be fought through democratic methods.  But then again, the idea of the stone thrower is a dilemma. I can also see where their anger and frustration is coming from. I can appreciate their actions but I am not willing to legitimise them.

Violence comes from the side of the State as well, right?

Of course, there are forms of State terrorism as well. When you pick up people, kill them in fake encounters you are a State terrorist.

In your article in Scroll.in you say: Maybe we don’t want to seek answers any longer for fear that it will expose our individual and collective hypocrisies. Maybe we want to take polarized positions because we find comfort in black-and-white portraits rather than shades of grey, in being caricatured as liberals and nationalists rather than as truth seekers? Who is we here?

I’m talking about the citizenry both in Kashmir and outside who are unwilling to take a hard look in the mirror.

What do you think a hard look in the mirror will produce?

It will produce all the failings and flaws made over the years that have led us to this situation. Why is it that after quarter of a century, the gun is still playing such a major role in the Kashmir Valley? From deposing government in 83, the rigged elections in 87, , Mufti Sayeed’s swap to save his daughter, the killing of Kashmiri Pandits, the rise of these terror groups and Pakistani terror outfits, the failings of every government to provide efficient governance for the people, all of which have indefinitely affected the Valley. So when you look in the mirror you’ll see just how scarred the Valley is because of repeated failings.

Do you think the National media has contributed in hiding these hypocrisies?

For a long time the National media played a relatively responsible role but in the last 4-5 years, I sense the National media has got caught up in this narrative of extreme jingoistic nationalism, where a Kashmiri stone thrower is now a terrorist.

The conflict in Kashmir manifests in a vernacular format. The national media usually translates it to English or some other language. Do you think something is lost while translating a vernacular conflict and relaying in from a studio in English?

A studio in Delhi looks at Kashmir through the prism of the Centre. It is more of a Centre versus state problem in which language is a small issue.The media from Delhi has a sense that they’re representing the Indian State and therefore you’re unwilling to give the kind of space that the Kashmiri deserves. His voice is essentially seen by us as a peripheral voice or a voice that has to be stifled or condemned.

For me more than language, the problem is about where the talks in the studios are coming from. A studio in Delhi looks at Kashmir through the prism of the Centre. It is more of a Centre versus state problem in which language is a small issue.The media from Delhi has a sense that they’re representing the Indian State and therefore you’re unwilling to give the kind of space that the Kashmiri deserves. His voice is essentially seen by us as a peripheral voice or a voice that has to be stifled or condemned.

Is there a false sense of entitlement that National media holds while talking about Kashmir?

Of course. No doubt.

Is there a way to break out of this false sense of entitlement?

Yes, by realising that journalism is not about nationalism. When you’re a journalist, you’re not wearing a tri-color. Most journalists have conflated nationalism and journalism. Such journalists become a studio warrior, not a studio journalist and the Kashmiri in that sense is the victim of your warriorhood.

On panel discussions regarding Kashmir, where is the most affected common Kashmiri? Why is it always an ER Rasheed or Shabnam Lone?

I have no answer to that but it is true of journalism in general. We usually get representative figures to represent a community.

Then again, Delhi decides who these representatives are?

Yes, absolutely. That’s tragic but that’s the way it has been. Not just with Kashmir but all contentious issues. We get people who fit into the stereotype.  So Shabnam Lone is the raving, loony Kashmiri woman who can effectively speak what we see as the voice of Kashmir. We’re not going to get a shikarawalla who speaks Kashmiri.

But wouldn’t his mere presence on the screen, along with subtitles, make a big symbolic difference in the conversation?

I think it will and I entirely agree with you that we don’t do it simply because it suits us.

And how does succumbing to that make you feel as a journalist?

What can I say?

You don’t think you’re fitting into the jingoistic nationalist conversation and contributing to it?

I think I am. I often try my best to be more empathetic but yes, that’s about where it ends. Therefore in a strange way I try and avoid debates on Kashmir because they’re so predictable.

Are you suggesting that National media stories on Kashmir are pre-scripted?

Of course it is. In each story on Kashmir, we’ve already decided who is right and who is wrong. And most often every story on Kashmir is a score board on how many jawans or terrorists are killed.

Let’s talk about the word anti-national, how do you define it?

To my mind an anti-national is someone who chooses to use violence to deliberately and consciously undermine the Indian State. I don’t believe that speaking is anti-national.

But speech could be violent as well…

Which is why the whole notion of sedition is troubling to me. One can believe that the Indian State is rotten and should be dismantled and that doesn’t make one anti-national. I would try and engage with someone who says that. I believe that, that’s where the Indian State has failed. And journalists have complied with the State.

In a democracy should the word anti-national even exist?

Ideally, no.

How would you define your term Supari Journalism?

Agenda journalism.

When people use journalism to fix other people or promote the agenda of political parties I call them a Supari journalist. A Supari journalist is my Indian version of a propagandist.

Would having Er Rasheed or Lone on a panel discussion all the time classify as Supari journalism?

It sure could. The danger definitely exists that a journalist could knowingly or unknowingly become a propaganda weapon.

Have you been party to it as well?

I try to stay out of it. Even if I get one of them on a panel discussion, I’m not going to get them on each instance of a Kashmir discussion so that they can become representative of some kind of villainous Kashmiri. Occasionally, I would bring them in because I do want to hear their viewpoint. They have every right to express.

But what about the layman in Kashmir and his view point that ought to be heard?

That’s right. That is where journalism has failed because it has blurred the lines between news and opinion.

The resistance in Kashmir has been largely masculine. Where are the women in all this discussion on Kashmir?

Right, it is a huge gap.

Even in your Ground Zero report during the 2014 elections, you talk to locals on the street. Again, most of them where men, where were the women?

That is also true of who is on the street in Kashmir. If you do a street report there, you won’t find many women. But I do remember going to the flood affected areas and talking to many women. That is also when I realised that maybe in our own mind we stereotype that the separatist is the man and the flood victim is a woman.

But when you covered the floods, you inevitably met the women and it suited to help portray victimhood. It wasn’t a search for her independent voice, was it?

Yes, you’re right, it hasn’t been done. Also, stories of the youth have not been done. I intend to do that soon.

Doesn’t the National media also classify the youth into the stereotype of being a male stone pelter?

Yes, guilty as charged. These notions must be broken.

Your ground reports happen when you travel from Delhi to Kashmir. Do you think you’re missing nuances because you’re not living and reporting from Kashmir?

Absolutely, the best journalism is always done from the ground.

Isn’t there a falsesense of authority that journalists imbibe when they travel from elsewhere to Kashmir and report a proclaimed truth?

I’m very happy to go on record and say that I don’t know enough when I talk about Kashmir. For me, it is simply about curiosity.

But an audience at home, who doesn’t know you’re confused, believes what you’re saying to be the ultimate truth.

One of the reasons why I didn’t go to Kashmir last year was because the Aaj Tak, India Today’s Hindi news channel, felt that if I went and spoke the language of the people there, it would be viewed as an anti-India rant. They were also worried about how it would be seen by their core audience in UP or Bihar.  I knew that I would have found it unacceptable if I went to Kashmir, did an honest report and my channel censored the voices at the edit table. So I thought that I’d rather not go at the moment than go there and hear them say that their UP and Bihar audience can’t digest this.

Agreed. One of the reasons why I didn’t go to Kashmir last year was because the AajTak, India Today’s Hindi news channel, felt that if I went and spoke the language of the people there, it would be viewed as an anti-India rant. They were also worried about how it would be seen by their core audience in UP or Bihar.  I knew that I would have found it unacceptable if I went to Kashmir, did an honest report and my channel censored the voices at the edit table. So I thought that I’d rather not go at the moment than go there and hear them say that their UP and Bihar audience can’t digest this.

So then you silently complied with the Nationalistic discourse?

Well, that’s one way of putting it. I believe, that I didn’t allow myself to be trapped in the nationalistic discourse.   –Interviewed by Nidhi Suresh

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