Covering Kashmir’s Summer of Discontent

Covering the Valley following Burhan Wani’s death calls for a deeper understanding of the conflict in the state and sifting through its various discourses to get to the truth of the events 

In the late afternoon on January 8, I received a phone call from a  fellow journalist  asking me to confirm if the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was trapped in the then ongoing encounter at  Bamdoora in Kulgam. I called up a police officer who said that they believed Wani was holed up in the besieged house  but couldn’t confirm until the gunfight was over.  Half an hour later, the same journalist called again to break the news that Wani had been killed. Soon after, the news spread like a wildfire on social media. The picture of Wani’s blood-soaked body lying on a hospital bed went viral.

All that the journalists expected was yet another massive funeral in South Kashmir with many villages jostling for the privilege to bury him in their respective graveyards, a scenario that had unfolded not long before following the elimination of the Valley’s top Lashker commander Abu Qasim. But what followed was beyond anybody’s wildest imagination.

As the news spread, thousands of people across South Kashmir poured out into the streets to mourn and to protest through the night. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom in a slideback to 1989 when armed struggle first broke out against New Delhi.

By the following morning, the news started trickling out of the killings of the protesters in police action. The score reached 30 and counting in the 48 hours after Wani’s death. Besides, hundreds of the injured started reaching the hospitals in Srinagar, many of them hit in the eyes with pellets fired from a pump action gun, a controversial non-lethal weapon deployed for crowd control since the five month long 2010 unrest. One of them who lost both her eyes is the 14 year old school girl Insha Malik. A picture of her pellet-riddled face, has since become the symbol of the summer mayhem in the state.  

The fury from South soon washed over into the central Kashmir and from there to the North. A familiar scene unfolded. Mosques boomed with slogans and the recorded songs calling for sustained “resistance against India”. Knots of the youth hit the roads and pelted stones at the police and the paramilitary personnel deployed to quell the strife. In the following days the protests billowed up into a full-fledged revolt. The security forces responded by firing teargas canisters, pellets and bullets, leading to more killings and blindings.

Government shutdown the internet and the mobile phone networks except the Government-owned post paid BSNL service.  But this made little redeeming difference. The crowds on the streets only surged further, now seething with more anger in the wake of the rising toll.

What made Wani important enough to warrant such a widespread mourning, anger and the sacrifice? This is a question whose answer is more understood than articulated in Valley.  In his six years as a rebel, Wani had ushered the anti-India militancy from its near-extinction.  The strategy he adopted to accomplish this was more tech-driven than a result of any of his distinctive exploits as a rebel. According to Kashmir police “he hadn’t fired a single shot”. But three years into militancy, he had given up the cloak of anonymity and taken to social media, posting his videos and the pictures and those of his associates.

The image of a Kalashankov wielding handsome young man in battle fatigues drawn against a pastoral backdrop and calling for a fresh shot at jihad against India held an irresistible appeal for a new Kashmir generation mopping up the fallout of more than two-decade old separatist insurgency and bitter about New Delhi’s perceived oppressive treatment. This way Wani evacuated the militancy of its messiness and invested it with a fresh moral glamour.   

For a journalist in Kashmir or for that matter from outside the state, covering the eruptions like the one following Wani’s killing is a onerous proposition. More than their intrinsic truth, it is the competing narratives – national, Kashmiri and Pakistani or an overlap of them - that take over.  The challenge is to retrieve the essential tragedy of the situation unencumbered by the ideological discourses swirling around in media and the public sphere.  


For a journalist in Kashmir or for that matter from outside the state, covering the eruptions like the one following Wani’s killing is a onerous proposition. More than their intrinsic truth, it is the competing narratives – national, Kashmiri and Pakistani or an overlap of them - that take over.  The challenge is to retrieve the essential tragedy of the situation unencumbered by the ideological discourses swirling around in media and the public sphere.  


Did this happen in Kashmir? For a while, it did:  The news about 96 killings, several hundred blindings, and thousands of the injured forced its way to the centre stage, helped along by the monumental nature of the tragedy. But the narratives soon caught up. Midway through the unrest, Kashmir suddenly stopped to be the news, even as the killings and the blindings continued. Post-unrest now, victims of the violence have been forgotten. Let alone justice, there is not even the talk of their rehabilitation.

Covering Kashmir, therefore, calls for a deeper understanding of the conflict in the state and sifting through its various discourses to get to the truth of the events,  incidents and mass mobilizations unfolding in the state.  

And it is the wilful neglect of this fact by a section of the national media, especially some television channels, that made Kashmir difficult to cover in the first month of the strife. A perceived biased coverage of the situation by parts of the media rubbed off in public perception on the media as a whole. Journalists, irrespective of where they came from, were beaten by the mobs and their vehicles attacked. The only way, you could do your job, was to hide your identity by carrying an alternative identity card and removing the press sticker from your vehicle, something that led to run-ins with the security forces.

The local media, which otherwise enjoys public confidence because of its Kashmir-centred coverage, was also at the receiving end, seen as an extension of the New Delhi based media.  

“It took some conscious foregrounding of the plight of the victims of violence in our coverage that restored the confidence,” says Sajjad Haider, the editor of the Kashmir Observer. The staff of the paper was attacked several times on their way to office. “But I don’t blame the people. Privileging the state narrative as against those of the people as sections of the electronic media habitually do is not only an abdication of their  responsibility but it also breaks the trust the people place in journalism”.

But this “foregrounding” of the Kashmir situation soon invited the wrath of the state which on July 16 seized the local papers and banned their publication. The ban, however, was withdrawn within three days. Two months later the Government struck again, banning Kashmir Reader. The ban was lifted three months later.

Kashmir is  now normal again. The Azadi crowds have left the streets so have security personnel. There hasn’t been curfew in place for more than two months and the Hurriyat has also withdrawn its weekly protest roster. There hasn’t been a fresh killing in a month and only an odd blinding here and there. Chillai Kalan, the harshest 40 day period of the winter has taken over since December 20, plunging the  night temperature to sub zero. A snowless, dry cold makes the days no better. State Government has moved to warm Jammu as part of the six-monthly Darbar Move  leaving the Valley to fend for itself with a drastically curtailed power supply.

The five month unrest is suddenly a distant memory. Journalists are done filing their stories about the turmoil and have moved on to more mundane issues. Once heated discussions on social media have ebbed too. Ordinary people are trying to return to their daily lives.  Soon Kashmir will crank up to its normal routine, looking forward to receive tourists once spring arrives. But the families who lost their loved ones or whose children were blinded have been left alone, passed over by the media,  the state government and the separatist groups.

The Article First Appeared In Newslaundry


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