New Delhi: “‘We want freedom, India go back’…”, “Kashmir unrest: ‘They shot me and I fell to the ground’”; “Slurs and Slingshots: Kashmiris allege abuse”; “Indian Clampdown Reverberates on Kashmir’s Quiet Streets”; “Injured, pregnant Kashmiris cut off from aid in Modi’s communications blackout”; “Hindus from Kashmir celebrate India move, Muslims feel ‘deceived’”.
These are some of the headlines on Kashmir carried by the international media in the four weeks since the Modi government revoked Article 370 and changed the status of Jammu & Kashmir.
On 30 August, BBC reported that several villagers in south Kashmir, the hotbed of local militancy, alleged torture by security forces during night raids.
“Once I took off my clothes, they beat me mercilessly with rods and sticks, for almost two hours. Whenever I fell unconscious, they gave me shocks to revive [me],” claimed a Kashmiri man.
The Indian Army categorically denied the allegations. Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said to the BBC, “There have been no injuries or casualties due to countermeasures undertaken by the Army.”
On the same day, The New York Times chose to publish an opinion piece by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, “The World Cannot Ignore Kashmir. We are all in danger.”
On 29 August, The Washington Post published a report alleging that 3,000 people had been detained in Kashmir and that at least five of them were under the age of 18.
Similarly, a Wall Street Journal report claimed the same day that hospitals were running low on vital drugs.
These reports found few echoes in the Indian media.
The government has denied most of these reports, though it did yield some ground on the controversial reportage of the 9 August Soura protest.
The home ministry responded to the aforementioned WSJ story.
Some news reports about shortage of medicines from #JammuKashmir.
Updates on medicine supplies from J&K Admin:
1. Srinagar : 1165 out of 1666 chemist shops have remained open.
2. Kashmir valley has 7630 retail chemist shops and 4331 whole sale shops. Average 65% open @diprjk
— Spokesperson, Ministry of Home Affairs (@PIBHomeAffairs) August 25, 2019
The foreign media reports have been controversial in India, where the question of Article 370 has become a highly-charged issue with often-communal undertones, given the state’s Muslim majority.
Mostly critical, they have described the situation in Kashmir in ominous tones.
There has also been a public backlash against foreign media: Last Friday, a public protest was planned in Washington against The Washington Post’s coverage, while BJP MP Rakesh Sinha said BBC and Al Jazeera are biased in their reportage.
फ़ोन ,आवागमन की थोड़ी असुविधा को @bbchindi @AlJazeera_World द्वारा बढ़ा चढ़ाकर प्रस्तुत किया जा रहा है ,बसे बसाए हिंदुओं को उजारकर देश के अन्य भागो में तंबुओं में रहने के लिए विवश किया गया,पूजा स्थलों को ध्वस्त किया गया तो इनलोगो को दर्द नही हुआ. ये ग़लतबयानी में सिद्धहस्त हैं .
— Prof Rakesh Sinha (@RakeshSinha01) August 28, 2019
5 August & the week that followed
The Modi government moved to abrogate Article 370 on 5 August amid detentions of the state political leadership, curfew-like restrictions, including on communication outlets, and a suspension of cable TV.
A virtual information blockade has been in place for the last month, though communication restrictions have been eased for a few hours or in select areas.
In such a scenario, information from the Valley has been hard to come by — leaking out in trickles — and the media has been severely restricted in its ability to report the ground reality.
On the first day and the week that followed, most Indian media outlets erred on the side of caution. Most publications and TV news channels welcomed Modi’s move as correcting a “historic blunder”.
On 5 August, the front page of The Indian Express was headlined, “History, in one stroke”, while TV channel Times Now called the move “Historic and game-changing”.
There were some stray reports of protests — a report by PTI headlined “‘Localised incidents’ in Kashmir ahead of I-Day, restrictions will continue for a while: Officials” was republished by many publications.
Criticism was largely restricted to curbs on communication, civil liberties and the detention of political leaders.
The Editors Guild of India, in a statement, condemned the communication blockade and restrictions imposed on reporting in the valley.
Thereafter, Pakistan’s reactions to developments in Kashmir — and criticism of those — have dominated Indian media headlines and TV studio discussions while footage has largely depicted empty streets strewn with barbed wire, patrolled by security forces. The overall general impression is of a state limping awkwardly back to normalcy.
A day after Eid on 12 August, however, ThePrint’s Azaan Javaid described the return of a slogan that marked the start of the Kashmir insurgency three decades ago: “There is only one solution, Gun Solution, Gun Solution.”
On 5 August, international headlines reflected on Modi’s mission Kashmir and none of it was complimentary.
The British Daily Mail reported, “India sends thousands of troops into Kashmir and revokes the region’s ‘special status’ provoking fury from nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan.”
The BBC said, “Article 370: India strips disputed Kashmir of special status”, while compatriot Financial Times wrote, “India scraps Kashmir’s special status amid lockdown”.
NYT chose to run “India revokes Kashmir’s special status, raising fears of unrest”, while Los Angeles Times stressed Kashmir’s loss of autonomy, “India revokes Kashmir’s limited autonomy, raising tension in a long-turbulent region”.
Al Jazeera mourned the move with the headline “Darkest day: Uproar as India strips Kashmir of special status”.
Most countries in India’s neighbourhood, barring Pakistan, have depended largely on news agencies like Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France Presse for news from Kashmir, as have news portals in West Asia, with Al Jazeera being the only exception.
Kashmir ‘the most dangerous place on earth’
In background and explainer pieces during that first week, American and British media portrayed Kashmir as a disputed site in a triangular conflict between India, Kashmiris and Pakistan.
Kashmir was variously referred to as “Indian-administered Kashmir” and “Indian-occupied Kashmir” — a “flashpoint” between “nuclear-armed rivals”. CNN and BBC’s descriptions frequently called J&K a “flashpoint”.
BBC’s explainer (5 August) called Kashmir “one of the most militarised zones in the world… a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for more than six decades”.
On a podcast, New Yorker referred to Kashmir as the “most dangerous place on earth”.
The BJP is described as a “right wing’’, “Hindu nationalist” party that has had ambitions to change J&K’s status.
On 8 August, The Washington Post noted that the revocation is the “fulfillment of a long-held demand of Hindu nationalists, who view India as a fundamentally Hindu nation rather than the secular republic envisioned by its founders”.
It also mentioned India’s “roaring approval” of Modi’s decision, “Modi, a Hindu nationalist by the time he was 10 years old, had upended life in India’s only Muslim-majority state, flexing those nationalist muscles for his millions of followers.”
The Economist, the same day, referred to Kashmir as a “bitterly disputed Muslim-majority region…” It added that “the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had long argued that Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was an error”.
This was, perhaps, the first day the coverage of the foreign press became controversial.
Al Jazeera published a video on 9 August, the first Friday after the decision, that claimed Indian troops had opened fire and used tear gas on Kashmiri protesters in Soura, Srinagar.
Next day, BBC telecast a video report where police were seen dispersing a protest. Gunshots were heard in the background. It called this “the largest protests in the Valley since curfew” and claimed that “thousands” of people joined the protest.
The opening caption of the video reads, “The Indian government said this demonstration didn’t take place.”
An official statement by the home ministry said these reports were “fabricated and untrue”, prompting the BBC to issue its own statement saying it stood by its reportage — the fact-checking website AltNews said the video was authentic.
The ministry subsequently issued a statement that blamed the “widespread unrest” in Soura on “miscreants” mingling “with people returning home after prayers at a local mosque”.
Stories in media on a said incident in Soura region of #Srinagar.
On 09/08, miscreants mingled with people returning home after prayers at a local mosque. They resorted to unprovoked stone pelting against law enforcement forces to cause widespread unrest.@diprjk @JmuKmrPolice
— Spokesperson, Ministry of Home Affairs (@PIBHomeAffairs) August 13, 2019
Since foreign correspondents are not allowed in Kashmir without a permit, foreign reportage from the Valley is by Indians who work for international media houses.
In a report on 9 August, The Guardian described “the deserted” Lal Chowk a few days before Eid on 12 August and wrote of “the voices of Kashmiris… (which) have been almost completely silenced”. It then quoted local people on their daily travails.
On 15 August, a Wall Street Journal report contrasted PM Modi’s Independence Day speech promising “peace and prosperity” with the Indian paramilitary forces “blocking off streets” in Srinagar. They quoted local residents “seething” with anger.
Editorials condemn move as ‘shocking’, ‘dangerous and wrong’
NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, Bloomberg (US), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Global Times (China), Financial Times and The Guardian (UK) were among the newspapers who carried editorials on Kashmir.
All condemned India’s move.
On 5 August, NYT said in an editorial headlined “India Tempts Fate in Kashmir, ‘The Most Dangerous Place in the World’” that the move was “dangerous and wrong”. “Bloodshed is all but certain, and tension with Pakistan will soar,” it wrote.
Washington Post said on 16 August, “Mr Modi is playing a dangerous game. His sunny vows of transparency aside, the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy was done in darkness and in the most coercive way possible.”
The Guardian stated on 6 August that the move was “incendiary” and “shocking and perilous”.
LA Times compared the situation in Kashmir to Hong Kong, where massive protests against Chinese control have continued for nearly two months and Palestine, where Israel has been accused of moving settlers to Arab territory.
Financial Times, meanwhile, said India’s relationship with Kashmir requires “great care”.
In an editorial posted 8 August, the South China Morning Post was deeply critical of the Modi government. “Modi’s strategy is dangerous, not just for Kashmir, but the nation. It will strain India’s social fabric, democracy and diversity,” it noted.
Bloomberg stated the same day, “The real problem in the state isn’t Pakistan or jobs. It’s a lack of agency for local residents.” The headline minced no words — “Article 370: India is making a mistake in Kashmir”.
Israeli media’s mellow response
The view from Israel is more sympathetic to Modi, perhaps because of good relations between the countries and the parallels drawn between India’s moves in Kashmir and Israel’s in Palestine
The Jerusalem Post said on 5 August: “…Unsurprisingly, this seemingly intractable conflict seems a lot like the kinds of conflicts Israel has had with its neighbours, which were also partly the result of a failed partition plan that came out of British colonial rule.”
However, Haaretz published critical opinion columns, one of them, written by a Pakistan-based journalist, headlined, “’Kashmir Is Palestine’: Why Both India and Pakistan Want to Push This Ominous Comparison”.
Photographs from Reuters, AFP and AP were telling, often more than the reports. NYT’s collated photo report showed protesters mid-struggle with the security forces, Kashmiris struggling to leave the state — ticket windows crammed with people in a desperate bid to get out, etc.
Photographs of deserted streets, closed shutters flanked solely by the military and paramilitary forces were a favourite with publications.
Credibility and criticism
The Western media’s Kashmir coverage has gained undue importance, perhaps, amid a paucity of reportage in domestic television and print media.
Opposition parties have used it to attack the government while the Indian authorities have questioned the credibility of the reporting.
However, organisations like the BBC have stood by their coverage: “…We strongly refute any claims that we have misrepresented events in Kashmir,’’ it said in a statement to ThePrint, reiterating the stand it took amid criticism of its reports on the 9 August Soura stir. “We are covering the situation impartially and accurately. Like other broadcasters we are currently operating under severe restrictions in Kashmir but we will continue to report what is happening.”
Amy Kazmin, south Asia correspondent of Financial Times, said local reporters working for the foreign media “have done a fantastic job”.
The Washington Post is yet to respond to ThePrint’s request for comment.
Sevanti Ninan, media commentator and former editor of the media website TheHoot.org said, “For the foreign press, Kashmir is both a conflict zone, and disputed territory, and it covers it as such. After Kashmir’s change of status, they think it is their job to capture protests, not to pander to the Indian government’s sensitivities.”
With inputs from Srijan Shukla and Shailaja Bajpai