TV debates on Kashmir are a travesty’

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Siddarth Varadarajan

SIDDARTH Varadarajan is a widely respected journalist and senior fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi. He was until October 2013 the Editor of The Hindu, one of India’s leading English language newspapers, before he founded the news portal The Wire. An economist by training, he studied at the London School of Economics and Columbia University and taught at New York University before returning to India to work as a journalist. He has been a visiting lecturer at the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley and a Poynter Fellow at Yale University. Varadarajan is also an author of the book Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy about the 2002 Gujarat Riots.

In an interview with Kashmir Observer’s Nidhi Suresh, Siddarth Varadarajan talks about reporting in and on Kashmir in the past few years.

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

I don’t think it can or should be reduced to one term.

The media often calls it a war, conflict, crisis…

Yes, it’s all of those things. Counter insurgency is a form of war. So when the Indian soldiers are engaged in that, it is a war. Then again, you also have what I call a ‘hot border and what happens at that border shouldn’t be called a war. I would call that a battle zone. It would actually be accurate to say that there is an internal war. Words like disturbance, militancy, human rights violations could also apply. Any number of words can be used to describe what clearly is an abnormal state in a democratic country.

While State inflicted violence in Kashmir is widely spoken about, do you think the national media has been complicit in this violence?

The media has gone through different phases. During the late 89 to mid 90’s, national media tended to turn a blind eye to the very obvious violations being made by the State in Kashmir. Those violations didn’t get the coverage that they ought to have got in any democratic society. From the mid 90’s onwards, the State itself recognized how counterproductive its approach was. Suddenly there was more space for coverage of human rights violations. It isn’t as if the media wasn’t complicit in covering up incidents or not devoting enough reporting resources to actually try to portray the truth of counter-insurgency. But let’s put it this way there was more space for human rights violation stories post mid 90’s. And the same situation, more or less, prevails even today. Thanks to social media, thanks to the rise of a large number of very articulate Kashmiri journalists based in the Valley, a lot more information from the ground is pouring out. So in that sense,while there is greater sensitivity in the wider media, there is also a major section of the media that is definitely complicit in the human rights violations in the Valley. The complicity was exemplified in the media coverage of the human rights violations in the Farooq Ahmed Dar (Human Shield) case or the lack of attention being paid to the recent U-turn that the armed forces have taken in the Macchil case or the complete lack of attention and follow up to the Pathribal incident, which to my mind is the most grievous example of people in uniform committing murder especially when you have the CBI itself describing it as murder and yet justice has not been delivered.

So does that mean that an explosion of information outflow also gives too much room for selective information outflow?

Every media house has an editorial line based on their political understanding of what is happening in Kashmir. Those media houses that have made a decision to trade with hyper nationalism as a way of increasing their market share are attuned to what the sarkar wants to talk about. Information coming out of such places leads from the front and end up being more rousing than the government and army itself wishes it to be. Often, they are also responsible for pushing the army and government into taking decisions that they might not have intended to. But newspapers like Indian Express and the Hindustan Times, or sites like the Wire or Scroll clearly show that there is a lot of scope for greater amount of work.

You didn’t mention any TV channels…

I would say NDTV English and Hindi are still much more sensitive of their coverage of rights violations but every other channel only competes with each other in serving up hyper nationalism and covering up what are obviously violations of law in this country.

How do you think television panel discussions affect the discourse on Kashmir?

Frankly, these panel discussions are a travesty. The bulk of them are just atrocious. What I’ve noticed over the last year or two is that every Kashmiri who does espouse the predictable Kashmiri line or doesn’t speak on behalf of the army is mercilessly attacked or humiliated. The party representatives, who as per the official discourse of India have stood with the Indian State, have taken part in elections, officially subscribed to the idea that that Kashmir is an integral part of the country, even their leaders and spokespersons are humiliated, abused and described as anti-national. So this vilification of the ordinary Kashmiri and the suppression of the Kashmiri voice is one of the most unfortunate aspects of these television panel discussions. And it has two terrible effects one, it hardens attitudes within the Valley because it suggests to Kashmiris that there is no room for a rational debate. And when you close doors to rational dialogue, you push people to a certain unhealthy direction and of violence and contradiction. And two, in the rest of India, it again conveys a very narrow, repeated idea of what is happening in Kashmir because you have the anchor and various other favored guests who will pounce on these Kashmiris and essentially present them as the biggest threat to India, as if they’re undermining the country, as if they’re responsible for all the evils that are happening, not just in Kashmir but across India. And obviously more people watch this, than read an article from the newspaper. On the other hand, English TV news is not as highly watched as Hindi. And Hindi TV news doesn’t have as many panel discussions as the English ones do. English TV is mostly viewed by the urban educated middle class and yes I think these discussions definitely have an impact on them.

Do you think something is lost when everybody is forced to choose a – for or against positions when it comes to Kashmir?

All of these anchors shout at guests when they give an answer that isn’t a yes or no and guests are typically asked questions which cannot be answered in a yes or no format. When you have a whole hour, which is a long time to have a debate and explore nuance, I don’t understand why this is not done. Instead panels have 10 guests, where 4 or 5 have the identical point of few and shout and scream. And other four or five are representatives of parties and have different shades of similar opinion. This kind of panel is no space for a debate. This is just unwillingness to look at nuance, or even ask rational question.

Does print offer that space?

Yes it does. But print has a very different problem altogether. Because of the physical constraints of the newspaper, reporters tend to favor shorter copy. This means that there is no space for background, perspective for analysis or quotes from different people. Example, if you’re doing a human shield story, ideally you want it on the front page, which means only about 400 words. Do you have space there to have a quote from the army? Of course. What about from people who differ from what the army is saying? Do you have space to pose questions? If what Major Gogoi said is correct, then let me ask you, how much time does it take to tie somebody to a jeep? Surely it takes 4-5 minutes. And what was this murderous crowd doing for that 5 minutes? He said that the army wasn’t firing bullets because he claimed the whole act was done to save lives. And obviously, stones were not being thrown at him. So if he had 5 minutes with no firing or stone throwing, then surely there was just no need to tie the man, right? A simple question of this kind would require 80-90 words, or a couple of minutes for a TV channel to ask. But there was no room for this. If Gogoi wanted to made use of this as an innovative method to get out of a life threatening situation, then why did he drive Farooq Dar for four hours across villages? Again these questions aren’t posed. When they are posed, the army or the people who shout and scream on panels have no answer. HT did one detailed piece where they re-traced the journey of the jeep and spoke to the villagers in those 20 villages. This was an important piece but the way a media eco system works is that, if a story is not followed by others or doesn’t generate discussion, it just dies. And that is what happened. So today there are still people who will say Farooq Dar was a terrorist or a stone pelter and even though he shows his voting slip, people will say he never voted.

If what Major Gogoi said is correct, then let me ask you, how much time does it take to tie somebody to a jeep? Surely it takes 4-5 minutes. And what was this murderous crowd doing for that 5 minutes? He said that the army wasn’t firing bullets because he claimed the whole act was done to save lives. And obviously, stones were not being thrown at him. So if he had 5 minutes with no firing or stone throwing, then surely there was just no need to tie the man, right? A simple question of this kind would require 80-90 words, or a couple of minutes for a TV channel to ask. But there was no room for this.

Do non-Kashmiri journalists imbibe a false sense of entitlement when they write or talk about Kashmir?

In Kashmir, reporters are probably conscious of the bearing that the issue has on their own sense of national identity, or national security. So in that sense they imagine that they are discharging some kind of larger duty.

Any journalist who goes to a new place to do a story doesn’t really escape that feeling. It’s important to shed that quickly and use the knowledge base of local reporters and people on ground to gain perspective. If a reporter from outside presumes to know more than a local that would definitely be a folly that he/she is going to commit to that story. In Kashmir,reporters are probably conscious of the bearing that the issue has on their own sense of national identity, or national security. So in that sense they imagine that they are discharging some kind of larger duty. The challenge for the reporter is not just to overcome the instinctive I know it all feeling, but also to remember not to report from his/her belief that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

Kashmiris have faced alienation from the State. Would you say that the media has encouraged it?

When the media chooses who to interview or who to put on a panel discussion, it’s driven by the idea of wanting so called well-known person who represents a strong body of opinion. So if there were a local, articulate Shikara association person, then it’s quite possible that they would invite him. But of course, on the panel, they would abuse him and not listen to him. The problem is a deeper one; TV channels, if they were to do a story on farmer suicide, which they will not do anyway, chances are that they would have a panel with economists and politicians, rather than a farmer who suffered indebtedness and contemplated suicide himself or the family members of someone who did commit suicide. The maximum you would hear from them would be a 30 second byte from a reporter on ground. Media valorizes so called experts and shuts out ordinary people. If they would call on ordinary people, anchors and producers, worry if they can manage the show because, the fact of the matter is that, this is something TV channels have hidden from viewers sentiments against the State, the country or the desire not be called an Indian. And these are very sentiments that run quite deep.

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

Firstly, even though it exists, I don’t think it’s healthy to have a separate national media discourse and a Kashmiri discourse on Kashmir. The same questions posed to national media reports on their reportage of Kashmir should also be posed to Kashmiri print reports. If not from national media, I wish there was more rigorous standards of reporting from Kashmir at least.

I don’t intend that one is better than the other…

Alright, then as part of an improvement process Indian newspapers need to be more receptive to Kashmiri voices without worrying about the word anti-national. And Kashmiri reports need to be more critical and bold in terms of asking questions about their own Azadi movement, or people who talk about Azadi or jihad or Islam. We, at The Wire ran a story about the civilians who flock to an encounter site. Even though it’s a very dangerous situation and many have been killed they still come forward to show their solidarity for the militants. If you talk to military law experts, a civilian who would ordinarily have protection in a state of internal war, the common article 3 of the Geneva Convention states that once you put yourself in harm’s way the whole equation changes. We tried to push the Hurriyat to answer questions on whether they ought to take a stance on this. We asked them that while they may applaud the sentiments, isn’t it important for them as political leaders to also counsel their people? It will not be possible for anyone killed in such circumstances to claim justice due to human rights violations. It’s very difficult to get answers out of them. Nobody wants to publicly articulate that and neither do I see Kashmiri press asking such questions. On the issue of TV, I don’t see TV channels really emerging out of the Valley right now, but I think young Kashmiri journalists should use more video to tell stories and upload these on YouTube. If this happens more effectively,I wouldn’t be surprised that the Indian State, which is happy to block access to internet whenever they please, would just heighten that blocking policy. And what would that indicate?

Do you think that an essence of reporting the conflict gets lost while translating a protest that happens in a local language to English?

I’m not so sure because slogans are very easy to understand. Often crowds shout slogans in Urdu, which is understood by anyone who knows Hindi. But there was this one instance a video of CRPF men being heckled on election day surfaced on social media. It took many hours before Kashmiris were able to say that, although it showed images of young men harassing the CRPF, a huge part of the audio in that video, was of by standers saying don’t do this. This was being said in Kashmiri so many reporters and viewers didn’t understand it. The problem is not about inability to understand the language but more about anchors who are just unwilling to listen. You could have a perfectly articulate English speaking Kashmiri on a panel but I don’t think that would increase the willingness of an Arnob Gowswami or Rahul Shivashankar to listen carefully to what they’re trying to say. Chances are that they would be shouted down and described as anti-national or called a terrorist

The Kashmiri women’s narrative has been the one that’s remained in the shadows. Do you think that when the women of Kashmir start to effectively voice themselves, they might start a whole new conversation?

Women have been an important visual part of all protests. In fact, one of the favorite types of protest pictures that newspapers tended to carry have been the image of a woman protesting. This is simply because it’s a striking visual but I don’t think any of these visuals have made difference nor had any proper voice. Parveena Ahangar is one of the most moving speakers I’ve seen but I don’t see the same hyper nationalist jingoistic media being moved by a Parveena Ahangar.

Is it because a woman’s voice might be more threatening than a man’s?

Well I surely think women’s voices in this context carry a lot more strength and are far more effective. But just as all voices that speak the truth or offer a critical perspective are brushed aside, so is the woman’s voice. I wouldn’t say that there is an attempt by media to deliberately block out Kashmiri women. Shabnam Lone, for example, is shouted at in the same way a man is. But I think it is an important element of the protest that we see in the Valley. It is important not just to tap a woman articulating her grievances but also to listen to the woman who wants to get out onto the street. And this is something the Indian State should take note of. At the end of the day,there is no doubt that the only outsider who might really understand the situation in Kashmir is the security forces who do their duty on ground.Politicians in Delhi may not have an understanding because they’re driven by filtered reports. It is actually the men on the ground, who have a greater capacity to deal with Kashmiris in a humane way and listen to their voices. It is also important for us and politicians to remind ourselves that their lives are also on the line as the conflict intensifies.

Do you think the word anti-national fits into a country that calls itself democratic?

I think it’s an absurd word.

Its origins lie in authoritarian impulses that previous regimes have had. The term gained popularity during the time of Indira Gandhi. It’s a word regularly used to describe opponents and our security establishment loves using it. Fact is that there is no definition of anti-national anywhere in the Indian constitution. It is simply a sign of insecurity of those who control the State. As long as it is done in a legal manner, democracy strengthens itself by asking difficult questions and challenging authority. And if you look at successive Supreme Court rulings whenever someone is called anti-national, the assumption is that he/she should be booked for sedition. Crime of sedition does not apply to speech or even any action unless it incites violence or is physically violent. But despite that fact, police and security forces routinely arrest people all across the country with the stupidest of charges, claiming that they’re committing sedition and the word anti national, almost always figures in public descriptions of these acts. When it comes to using that term, there is no end to the stupidity.

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