Masarat Alam's release: different tunes

IN Media Practice | 21/03/2015
The tone of the edits of most Delhi papers evoked nationalism, while the dailies published from J&K had a remarkably different pro-Sayeed, anti-Centre tone.
ABHISHEK CHOUDHARY tracks the media divide on this issue (Pix: The Times of India article on March 10).
The PDP-BJP coalition government in J&K got into controversy literally the day after it came to power: chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s remark on March 2, that Pakistan, the Hurriyat and militants had created a conducive atmosphere for the state assembly elections held in December 2014, gave other parties a chance to embarrass the BJP in parliament about the nature of the coalition. 
 
The release of Hurriyat hardliner and Muslim League chief Masarat Alam from a Baramulla prison on March 7 made things far worse, with politicians and the media blaming Sayeed for derailing the peace process in J&K even before it could take off. 
 
While Alam clarified the next day, March 8, that his release was a “normal legal process”, that he had been granted bail by the courts, and so it was “not a favour” by the Sayeed government, the mainstream media chose to harp on the issue. 
 
The Times of India edit on March 10 complained that by releasing Alam, Sayeed had “sent out a clear signal that the PDP does not intend to move away from its own campaign manifesto of releasing those the party calls ‘political prisoners’. Is Masarat a ‘political prisoner’ or a separatist with links to extremist groups? It’s a fine line which clearly Mufti believes he has the mandate to cross.” The same day ToI also carried a profile of Alam called “‘A stone thrower since childhood’,”  based almost entirely on a 2010 interview Alam gave to the now defunct ToI-Crest.
 
The Indian Express edit evoked history to warn the coalition: “The 1977 Jamaat-e-Islami-Janata Party alliance and the 1987 National Conference-Congress accord, and the 2002 PDP-Congress alliance all sought to forge ethnic-communal reconciliation—and all fell apart because they failed to address tensions. The PDP-BJP alliance rode to power on the back of hopes that it would build bridges and deliver good governance. It will ignore these expectations at its peril.”
 
The Hindu also had nothing radically different: “In an attempt to stem the negative fallout of its alliance with the BJP, the PDP is seeking to cultivate the Muslim secessionist constituency in Kashmir by showing reluctance to concede to the political sensitivities of the Hindutva party. If the PDP is to retain its core base and political influence in the Valley, it would have to be seen as the dominant partner in the alliance, unyielding to the pulls and pressures of the BJP.” By way of advice, it added: “Nothing is to be gained by political one-upmanship whether on the part of the PDP or the BJP. Instead of seeking to annul the release of Mr. Alam, the Central government would be better advised to keep him under close watch.”

In the wake of some additional information, it seems, ToI became sober on March 11: “The decision to release Alam predates Sayeed’s government as it was taken in early February when Jammu & Kashmir was still under Governor’s rule. Moreover, it’s an outcome of the fact that his detention order had expired and there were no legal grounds to hold him anymore.” It added: “The BJP and Congress too played a shrill game of who-is-more-nationalist-than-thou in kicking up a storm over Alam’s release.” And so on.

It would be safe to say that the tone of the edits of most of the Delhi papers was more or less similar. The dailies published from J&K, on the other hand, had a remarkably different—pro-Sayeed, anti-Centre—tone; they also had another thing in common: they all blamed the Delhi media, both print and electronic, of exaggerating the release of an individual out of proportion.

“What is being projected as a public outcry over the release of Alam is, in fact, media-engineered cheap scare-mongering with no attempt to put the issue into perspective,” said the Greater Kashmir edit on March 9. Alam“was seen as the spearhead of the five month long agitation that resulted in the death of around 120 youth. Ever since Alam was in jail and even though the courts did release him, he was always re-arrested and slapped with a fresh Public Safety Act. But does this mean Alam or for that matter any other leader with a different ideology should never have been released?”

The Kashmir Times edit the next day said, “The very biased tilt of the [media] discourse is evinced by the fact that while the release of Masarat Alam, in prison under Public Safety Act, has been turned into a major issue, the arrival of firebrand Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader PravinTogadia, accused of hate speeches, in Jammu and a rally organized by him to give vent to his xenophobia is being completely ignored. Togadia was not only allowed to enter Jammu and Kashmir but address a rally in which he preached his anti-Muslim hatred on Sunday, a day after MasaratAlam was released.”

“Masarat Alam is known for his hardline pro-Pakistan stand and his fiery views against which many would have reservation,” it added, “but he is neither accused of any terrorism charges, nor involved in any other case. In that light, his release should not have become any bone of contention or a potent recipe of discord. What should, however, be a matter of larger concern is why Togadia was brought to Jammu at the behest of the BJP to address a rally with his fiery provocative speeches. Togadia's visit is not a part of the CMP, by any interpretation.”
 
In “Storm in a teacup,” Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, pointed out that in Afzal Guru’s case, the media upheld the Supreme Court decision, even thoughin his case his trial was questioned by many. “But in the case of Masarat Alam, whose detention for four years has been on almost the same dossiers, the Supreme Court ruling is not the subject matter of the debate.”
 
Bukhari defended Mufti saying “releasing Masarat Alam is a subject that comes under his domain as Home Minister. If the political parties and the self-styled Kashmir experts are insisting that the Government of India should approve even a decision to release an individual, they are not only undermining the office of the Chief Minister but also showing contempt towards people who voted him to power.” As for the Congress, “they easily forget that when they came to power in 2002 with PDP, the first job they did was to release leaders such as Syed Ali Geelani who had been incarcerated by Farooq Abdullah's government.”
 
The Greater Kashmir edit on March 12 made similar arguments. “The steady emasculation of the successive state governments has already bred a deep sense of alienation and led people to distrust democratic institutions,” it said. “Though free and fair polls over the past decade have brought a large section of the population back to the system, challenging and undermining the authority of the office of Chief Minister of the state can very well turn the clock back.”
 
Finally, on March 16 the Economic Times reported, quoting MHA officials, that ‘a close study of the documents shows his release was a "legally correct and an overdue step" by the PDP government as Alam was in "illegal detention" for the past six months.’ The report added that ‘the "actual blame" and "mishandling" of the case in fact lies with the Omar Abdullah government.’ 
 
But didn’t Masarat Alam say the same thing in his interviews as soon as he came out? If only the mainstream media had resisted the temptation to come up with simplistic, hackneyed anti-separatist narratives, and done some research.
 
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