We have created an unlikable Muslim out of a Kashmiri: Karan Thapar’

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Karan Thapar

Karan Thapar is one of India’s foremost journalists. He has cemented his legacy as a formidable television presenter through memorable interviews and newscasts. The award-winning journalist who anchored the programme called ‘To The Point’ for India Today, left the channel this April. In an interview with Kashmir Observer’s Nidhi Suresh, Karan Thapar examines how the national media has narrativised Kashmir over the years.

What is the term you would use to describe the situation in Kashmir?

Deeply upsetting, possibly tragic. Undoubtedly the result of the fact that, both the State government and, more importantly, the Central government are simply not paying the attention that the state deserves. The Central government doesn’t seem to be able to understand what is happening and what needs to be done. We seem to treat Kashmir, particularly at the Central government level, without sensitivity, with preconceived notions of what the problem is and with a determination that somehow a tough rigid response can achieve the desired result rather than reaching out, negotiating and accommodating.

Would you use any of the words: ‘war’, ‘conflict’, ‘dispute’ or ‘crisis’ often associated with Kashmir?

No, I wouldn’t use any of those words. What we must not forget is that politicians themselves seem to use words rather loosely and carelessly, occasionally provocatively, sometimes deliberately to attract attention. Their inability to fully understand the situation could explain why they would use such terms. While I won’t deny that words are important, I do think that more important is the attitude that lies behind it. There are moments when what’s happening in Kashmir could be called a war, there are moments when it could be called some form of insurrection but I think those are exaggerated ways of looking at it. Such words are only justified if you use that exaggerated language to attract attention.

So what do you think is the most apt term?

In Kashmir there are serious problems that are not just law and order but suggest a dangerous alienation. The people of Kashmir are sometimes distancing themselves or turning their back on the rest of their country. On the other hand, Kashmiris feels like the country has turned its back on them. What word you use to describe the situation is not as important as the broader picture made to bear in mind.

Is that alienation further encouraged by national media?

Certain television channels that look at Kashmir and constantly question it’s allegiance to India are the ones who deliberately, not just fail to understand but refuse to understand the distrust and sentiment of Kashmiris who want a greater say in their own lives.

Yes it is, mainly by certain television channels that look at Kashmir and constantly question it’s allegiance to India. They are the ones who deliberately, not just fail to understand but refuse to understand the distrust and sentiment of Kashmiris who want a greater say in their own lives. These are journalists who are unaware of the history, the terms on which Kashmir acceded to India and how that accession has been not just been encroached upon but eroded by successive governments. Most of these violations were done by Congress led governments and it goes back to Nehru as well as Indira Gandhi’s time. This is not something that the BJP has done.

What do you think media has done to this discourse?

Media has polarised it (Kashmir discourse) and presented it irresponsibly, in black and white terms. Thus, pushing the majority of the India, who don’t understand the complexity of the Kashmir situation, to see it only in one particular way and therefore to misunderstand it. Most of this audience is led to believe that the Kashmiris are greedy, ungrateful, untrustworthy, unpatriotic, and pro-Pakistan.

Media had polarised it and presented it irresponsibly, in black and white terms. Thus, pushing the majority of India, who don’t understand the complexity of the Kashmir situation, to see it only in one particular way and therefore to misunderstand it. Most of this audience is led to believe that the Kashmiris are greedy, ungrateful, untrustworthy, unpatriotic, and pro-Pakistan. This narrative is something the media has encouraged and is substantially responsible for. Although media has a huge responsibility, don’t blame the media alone. Blame the politicians and the fact that most of us, south of the Bannihal line, are people, who over the years, have developed a sort of aversion, suspicion and even dislike for Muslims. We have created an unlikable Muslim out of the Kashmiri. The media has played a big role in causing this divide and difference between what I call mainland Indian and Kashmir

Do you think you’ve ever been compliant in contributing to a polarised view of Kashmir?

No, not at all.

Mr. Chidambaram in an interview with you, said, “The very language with which the centre narrativizes Kashmir shows that centre is only keen on emphasizing that Kashmir is an integral state of India. Hence, it is more about the land and less about the people”.Once again, do you think the media is guilty of the same?

Actually what you should quote from that interview is that At the core of Kashmir’s alienation is that India had gone back on grand bargain. He was talking about the terms of accession and how India had failed to keep that promise. He also added that the solution was to go back and make amends from the time of the accession onwards to the way India had encroached upon and undermined the terms of accession. That’s the real point he made in that interview.

He also said the least India could do was acknowledge the mistake?

Oh he went even further.

He said that we must go back and restore to the Kashmiris the promise made to them. Mr.Chidambaram was asking the Centre to rewind history and rectify it. Not just acknowledge the mistake.

The conflict in Kashmir takes place in Kashmiri and Urdu. Do you think anything is lost when translating it to English for your shows?

It’s quite possible but I wouldn’t know because I don’t know Kashmiri. It would be far too narrow and rigid to think that one would require an understanding of a language in order to write about the place. I know that the phrase lost in translation does indicate that a translated version does not convey the rich and full meaning of what happens but what we’re talking about is not a linguistic or cultural problem. Kashmir is a political problem. The issue of Kashmir also arises from the last few years, where the demands of the people have been deliberately betrayed. And in such cases inability to understand vernacular does not hinder interpreting what is happening in Kashmir.

So the language of the stone pelter…

Stone pelters are actually just people picking up a stone and throwing it. Those kids believe that, pelting is their way of trying to fight a war. It would be exaggerated for the rest of us to actually believe that they’re waging a war. They are not. Violence in the form of stone pelting is just a part of a process of defiance.

Stone pelters are actually just people picking up a stone and throwing it. They may call it Kanni Jung or stone pelting, but it is just what it is. Those kids believe that, pelting is their way of trying to fight a war. It would be exaggerated for the rest of us to actually believe that they’re waging a war. They are not. Violence in the form of stone pelting is just a part of a process of defiance. The kids involved may call it a war but for the rest of us, who are hopefully more objective and distant, use a different language. Again, this is not a problem of not understanding the language; it is a problem of allowing their terminology to mislead you into believing that it’s something bigger than what it is. Stone pelting is something young people do, particularly when they’re aggrieved.

How do you define objective journalism in today’s time?

I would say that objective journalism is a deliberate, conscious attempt to not just present two opposing sides but other views as well. To include the first-hand account as well as the views of people who can give a certain amount of depth and context to the topic. It is about narrating in a measured and balanced way while staying away from sensationalism. All of this is highly unlikely and probably not possible to fit into one article. I believe, objective journalism is something you judge over a period of time, over a period of reports.

So objectivity is something one arrives at?

It is something a journalist must strive towards.

How do you think you, as a journalist, have contributed to this discussion on Kashmir?

I think as a television anchor with Kashmir my job has been to try and do two things. One, to interview people across different sections who are knowledgeable and represent interesting answers to a topic, such that my audience has a spread of opinions to choose from. At the same time, I need to organize spaces to help understand and reflect what other people are thinking about the topic. Then I can try and incorporate it all so that,once again, the audience has a chance to hear a variety of different views.

What do you think would happen if Kashmiris began producing their own television news?  Would it threaten national media? 

No, of course not. Why would it be a threat? You have television channels in Telegu, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Assamese.

But isn’t what’s happening in Kashmir far different from what is happening in these States?

That emotion is anyway expressed in Kashmir’s local English press. And there’s also the Urdu press that helps with that.

Kashmiri print has a very different conversation from National media print reports about Kashmir…

Obviously. And Kashmiri TV will mostly have a different discussion too. I don’t see why that should be seen as a threat to someone.

Have you felt the difference in the conversation the Kashmiris are trying to push and the national media is trying to push?

Of course, you don’t need to go to Kashmir to feel that difference. You just need to talk to Kashmiris anywhere and you can feel it; just having them as a guest on my show has been enough to make it evident. One may need to go to Kashmir to feel the depth or richness of that feeling but one can feel it even while reading.  Do you think 90% of TV anchors are truly aware of the difference in these conversations? No, not that they ignore it but they aren’t even aware of it.

You’ve been to Kashmir?

Yes, I was born there. Although, I haven’t lived there because I left when I was six weeks old. Back then, my father was in the army. Thereafter, I’ve visited Kashmir on holidays but never stayed more than a few days.

Is the media caught up in binaries?

The media all over the world simplifies stories. One form of simplification is to present things in two or three lines rather than a rainbow of multicolours. The media has to simplify the topic to make it easy for those who can’t understand it. If you make it complicated people not only won’t understand, they will switch off the TV and go somewhere else. Simplification is part of what the media does and often even over does it.

Isn’t that a compromise on objectivity?

No it isn’t. It just helps make things easier. Look, when the media in India reports on the political situation in America, which isn’t just complicated but also very confusing, they can’t present all the multiple views that a Washington Post will. For an audience outside, it will be perplexing beyond a point of comprehension. Therefore a certain simplifications have to happen. But by definition, news reports will not be able to encapsulate the full richness of a topic.

Isn’t understanding the nature of the complexities more important than simplification? Doesn’t this lead to polarised opinions as well?

To be honest, the conflict is not really that incomprehensible. The essence of the conflict is essentially three things, one, Kashmiris believe that they’re different and not the same as India. This is because of their Kashmiri identity and religion as well as because of the way they acceded and did not merge with India. Two, they believe they’ve been mistreated because of the way they’ve been handled by successive governments in Delhi starting from Nehru. Three, it’s the way the unrest has been perceived and seen. Many people, south of the Bannihal, feel that Kashmir is a problem Pakistan has created and if Pakistan would stop Kashmir would stop too. And that’s not true. Moreover, these complexities are already known and have been endlessly written about. Newspapers don’t have the time to address them on a daily basis or else we would be writing a history book every day. Also how often do you see Congress blaming Indira Gandhi for Kashmir?

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