Depending on where you get your news, right now you either think Kashmir is on the cusp of a magical new dawn full of promise and hope or you believe the Indian state is perpetrating the worst sort of brutality on its citizens by deploying torture and excessive force as instruments of domination.
If you’ve seen these competing narratives — one predominant on Indian television and the other a simplistic trope of Western newspapers — you must be befuddled.
What is the truth? The answer is neither.
Of course the situation in the Kashmir valley, in its 30th year of insurgency, is very serious. Ever since the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to withdraw a constitutionally mandated special status, a month-long communication lockdown and political detentions make claims of normalcy and stability plainly absurd.
The triumphalism of prime-time patriots who vilify and demonize ordinary Kashmiris instead of displaying empathy, at least for those who are not militants or secessionists, must be called out and condemned. It’s also wrong to state, as so many of our more supplicant journalists have, that the decision to abrogate Article 370 has been uniformly welcomed. The state of Jammu and Kashmir (now bifurcated by the Modi government) has always had different aspirations, reflecting both regional and religious variations. It is primarily in the Kashmir valley — which has roughly 8 million people compared with Jammu’s roughly 6 million — that there is simmering anger. But this is also where the secessionist sentiment and the roots of militant violence are, so it is natural for Kashmir to be the media focus.
I’ve been reporting in Kashmir for 25 years, and the current human cost of the clampdown is inescapable: an inconsolable man in tears because he can’t reach his son who lives in Oman; a young man who had to cancel his wedding because he couldn’t speak to his bride-to-be; raw rage as throngs of people wait their turn at government-run telephone help lines; and the sheer panic and heartbreak that comes from living in an information vacuum. I have also criticized the decision to detain politicians who have stood with India, often at great risk to their lives. Over the years, hundreds of political workers have been killed by terrorists for daring to participate in regional elections. There is no rationalization for the prolonged imprisonment of mainstream politicians. If anything, the weakening of the mainstream — and the opacity that has marked these arrests — has only emboldened Islamist separatists.
But the sweeping generalizations used by foreign media and several Indian left-leaning commentators when covering or discussing Kashmir make me angry. There has been a complete absence of historicity and context in a lot of reporting and in some cases even a shortage of facts. The world is being told that this is an unprecedented situation.
Many phases in Kashmir’s recent history have been worse.
In 2016, when Burhan Wani, a local militant, was killed by security agencies, parts of Kashmir were under curfew for 100 days. Mobile phones and the Internet were also cut off. Wani and his fellow militants weaponized social media, uploading photographs where they showed off their assault rifles and posting videos that called for a caliphate in Kashmir. In the initial aftermath of his death, restrictions were not as strict, and by the end of the first week, 37 people were killed as violent protesters clashed with the police and paramilitary forces. The administration’s spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, told me, “We have learned from the mistakes we made then. We decided to protect lives, some liberties may have to be compromised.”
Another terrorist, Zakir Musa, used social media to declare that Kashmir was a religious issue and warned that any separatist who called it political would be beheaded. Online networks have been regularly used to live-stream operations between terrorists and the security forces and at other times to mobilize crowds to throw stones at policemen and Indian soldiers.
Why is the international news media telling the Kashmir story to the world without explaining this context? Why is the role of Pakistan in sponsoring terror groups in the region being ignored?
Sensationalist headlines over the past couple of weeks declared that young Kashmiris were going to take up arms en mass after autonomy was revoked. I met several men who claimed as much, but when I prodded them further, I discovered that these men had always been secessionists, had never voted in any election and had plenty of contempt for mainstream politicians under house arrest and would have said exactly the same thing three months ago. In other words, the scrapping of a constitutional feature has hit those who believe in the Indian union, not those who were sympathizers of insurgent groups to begin with.
Most foreign media (and unfortunately some Indian reporters too) have missed this distinction. They appear to have just discovered the story. The cliche of the concertina wire in multiple news reports — hardly of deep import in a city that has spent decades counting corpses — is just one telling example of how the old Kashmir story suddenly has a new media audience.
Many reports highlight that teenagers are among those detained. But they have failed to mention the other side — that children have sometimes been used as shields by terrorists in face-offs with soldiers. And in many instances, school-age children have joined violent protests in support of slain militants, triggering a fierce debate within the valley. The former chief minister of the state, Mehbooba Mufti, among those under arrest, had controversially raised this in 2016. Talking about a 15-year-old student being part of an attack on a police station, she countered: Had he gone to buy milk or toffees?
If international headlines report the death of a 17-year-old, they should also tell us the story of the 5-year-old battling for her life after a militant attack. If there is criticism of a prolonged lockdown, it should also be reported that as curbs are lifted, there is pressure from militants for people not to get back to the routine of life. Pointing to how apple traders were shot for getting back to work, one official told me, “Militant threats are being sold as a civil counter-curfew.”
Kashmir is a complex story with many dimensions and paradoxical realities. In the false “living hell vs. happy place” narratives, the multilayered truth is a fatal casualty. The full impact of the Modi government’s risky decision will only be known in the months ahead. It might well prove to be a terrible mistake that will set back Kashmir by years. Or it might yet prove to be a tactical success.
As journalists, we must ask tough questions.
But we should all steer clear of half truths and vast exaggerations.