Reporting in times of communal strife --IV

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Regional Media | 09/09/2010
More than Kashmir Times published from Jammu, commentary in Greater Kashmir highlighted the alienation – economic, physical, and psychological – fostered by the blockade and the fact that it was directly antithetical to India’s claim to the Valley,
says SUBARNO CHATTARJI.

 

MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE AMARNATH CONTROVERSY--A CASE STUDY

 

  

Research by  Aaliya Ahmed, Sabeha Mufti and Zara Malik, 

Media Education Research Centre

Kashimir University

 

 

Project coordinator, Sevanti Ninan

A Panos study

 

On August 31, 2008 the  three-month long Amaranth agitation sparked by the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board ended with an agreement inked between the  Government and the Shri Amaranth Sangharsh Samiti.  Two years later questions remain about  the role of the political class and the media in stoking the fires that erupted with successive government decisions on allotting land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board in June 2008.  This is a preliminary inquiry into how the media reported the series of events and the commentary carried by newspapers during that period.

 

 

‘Economic Terrorism’: the blockade of the Kashmir Valley

Subarno Chattarji

 

That government and bureaucratic actions often have multiple consequences was perhaps best proven by the afterlife of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) land acquisition. Protests in the Kashmir Valley against the acquisition and counter-protests in Jammu in favour were the more salient features of political and civic society responses. It was when the protestors in Jammu resorted to an economic blockade that the Valley was forced to come to terms with their own isolation as well as the need for greater self-reliance. Newspapers – particularly in the Valley – were exercised by this issue since it impinged on daily realities and revealed new vulnerabilities.

 

Kashmir Times carried a news item citing PDP patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: ‘"Treading the footsteps of the vicious communal elements in Jammu, the reported enforcement of the anti-Kashmir economic blockade by BJP functionaries now even in some parts of Punjab has started pushing Kashmir towards absolute physical and economic isolation, perhaps for the first time since independence."’ (‘Economic blockade not civilized conduct: Mufti,’ August 7, 2008) The Mufti’s reaction expressed a type of disbelief and shock at the actuality of the blockade – a point taken up by other newspapers as well. While many Kashmiris may have felt isolated from mainland India this was ‘proof’ that ‘elements’ aligned to mainland political parties were determined to reinforce that sense of separation.

 

More than Kashmir Times (which is published from Jammu), commentary in Greater Kashmir highlighted the alienation – economic, physical, and psychological – fostered by the blockade and the fact that it was directly antithetical to India’s claim to the Valley. Ihsan Malik pointed to the irony inherent in trying to economically squeeze the Valley: ‘The blockade from which we are suffering is different from the other instances of blockades, in that, it is being used by the state against a region which it always claims to be its integral part.’ (‘Blockade Politics,’ GK, August 18, 2008) Malik conflated the protestors in Jammu with the ‘state’, implying that the state could, if it wished, lift the blockade. Malik hinted at collusion between the institutions of governance in Jammu, the protestors, and their political masters in India, pointing ultimately to the failure of the central government to alleviate the sufferings of a people it claimed as its own. Malik’s larger point was the sense of Kashmiris living under sufferance and being ‘subjected to all sorts of physical and mental torture’, of which the blockade was only the most recent instance. The economic blockade was a ‘leaf taken out of Israel’s book. The blockade is a favourite strategy with the Israelis. They have, time and again, used it to stifle the poor Palestinians.’ The comparison between Palestine and Kashmir is often made by jihadists mapping territories where Muslims are oppressed and need to be liberated. Here, however, it was offered in a secular setting and the fact that this was not an isolated sentiment is proven by another article by Z. G. Muhammad who wrote that ‘the way the agitation is being led it substantiates the much talked about the [sic] Mossad plan for strangulating Kashmir economically.’ (‘Economic Blockade can rebound,’ GK) At one level this may seem akin to paranoia and the airing of conspiracy theories. At another level these articulations are indicative of the sense of siege and isolation generated by the blockade and the reference to Palestine creates larger historical and specifically Muslim solidarities.

 

From these parallels it was another step towards perceiving the blockade as an act of war on a sovereign people, thereby further consolidating a sense of victimized nationhood. Subaktagin Gaznavi stated that ‘the ulterior motive [of the blockade was] to subjugate and starve Kashmiris and bring them to their knees.’ (‘Blockade as a weapon,’ RK, 8 August, 2008) Citing the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war and collective punishment, as well as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Gaznavi argued: ‘The imposition of economic sanction/blockade is nothing but seemingly an act of war against the Kashmiri nation. This instrument of economic warfare is against the conventions of war.’ While it is possible to cavil at the overt articulation of war between sovereign nations – since the Valley is not one – in effect, it is unsurprising that the blockade was perceived as such, especially since it was a form of collective punishment and the state seemed to acquiesce in these acts by its refusal to actively lift the blockade.

 

Gaznavi upped the rhetorical and political ante which was partly reflective of collective shock and anger. Several editorials stated the need to counter these acts of war by stressing Kashmiri self-reliance. In ‘Fighting economic blockade’ Greater Kashmir emphasized the need for economic self-sufficiency. At the same time it also harped on the need to resist the dismemberment of Jammu & Kashmir. ‘The economic blockade needs to be converted into an opportunity of working for self-sufficiency. […] In this trying situation the role of the Kashmiri leaders will be watched for years to come. Their political acumen as well as sincerity is at test. […] It is high time for them to respect the people’s wishes and aspirations by ironing out differences that are basically superficial rather than deep.’ (July 31, 2008) While Gaznavi seemed to see the blockade as an irrevocable moment in the sundering of the Valley from Jammu and the rest of India, the Greater Kashmir editorial was more emollient in its unwillingness to push the differences thrown into relief by the blockade.

 

Rising Kashmir, while shocked by the blockade, was convinced that it was part of a larger historical framework. It editorialized on the need for greater self-reliance particularly since it perceived the blockade as part of a pattern sustained ‘over the last six decades’: ‘The acute hardships faced by people in valley by scarcity of essential commodities, life saving drugs and medicines, even kids’ items, by the economic blockade does call for a new thinking based on self-reliance.’ (‘Economic terrorism,’ August 12, 2008) One solution posited as a question was the opening of the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad road: ‘Does it raise the issue of appointing an international forum that shall propose ways of reviving the Kashmir economy and put opening of Srinagar Muzzafarabad road on high priority?’ An earlier piece had considered the same option, stating that this route ‘will not only help the region to prosper but will free the people of many land locked areas of Jammu from the chains of imposed slavery.’ (Shuhab Hashmi, ‘Time to open alternate routes,’ RK, 2 August, 2008) The ‘alternate routes’ may have been more rhetorical than actual but their articulation was expressive of widespread anger, frustration, and desperation.

 

While most commentaries and editorials focused on questions of identity, survival, and isolation there were more mundane but equally vital issues linked to these. The economic costs of the blockade was estimated at Rs. 100 crores and articles highlighted the extent to which organizations such as the Kashmir Fruit Growers and Dealers Association were keen to move their products through the Muzzafarabad route, because for them it was not just a question of supplies dwindling but of perishable products rotting and markets being cut off. Swaminathan Aiyar pointed to the fact of traditional market and trade routes whereby ‘"all our fruit went down the Jhelum valley into West Punjab (which is now in Pakistan)."’ (‘Pushing Kashmir towards Pakistan,’ Economic Times, 13 August 2008) Aiyar mentions the ‘Muzzafarabad Chalo’ movement, backed by the Kashmir Fruit Growers Association, and its significance: ‘The Muzzafarabad Chalo movement was not just an economic plea for evacuating their produce, it was a demand for the restoration of the historical links between the Valley and what is now Pakistan. It was a demand by Kashmiris for the right to determine their own future, to send their produce where and when they wanted, and not be at the mercy of Indian (or Pakistani) political parties. The case for separatism has been strengthened greatly, even in the mind of moderates.’ This was a case for economic emancipation and Aiyar stresses the links between economic and political freedoms, highlighting the frustrations brought about by geography (being landlocked), politics, and history. The arbitrary drawing of international boundaries (part of the sub-continental colonial heritage) coalesces with the arbitrary blockade and its resonances of a type of latter day colonialism.

 

As if histories and consciousness of occupation were not difficult enough to handle, throughout the SASB controversy the Valley newspapers in particular were acutely aware of the communalisation of the protests in Jammu and expressed their sense of betrayal by repeatedly stressing the communal amity preserved during the Amarnath pilgrimage. It was as if all their hospitality had come to nought as the protestors in Jammu denied the pluralism of Jammu & Kashmir. Aiyar dwelt on the ways in which communal consciousness now seemed to be a bedrock one: ‘Optimists may keep talking about Kashmiriyat and local traditions that transcend religion, and may project differences between the Valley and Jammu as regional rather than religious. But the fact is that communalism has mixed inexorably with regionalism to produce a toxic and combustible potion.’ ‘Kashmiriyat’ as perceived by the votaries of a pluralistic region not only served to highlight the uniqueness of Kashmir but also to give it a coherent identity based on traditions and practices of religious tolerance. Aiyar’s argument destroyed this framework implying that the communal was as much a part of this territory of India as others, indeed that the communalisation of the Jammu protests was evident in the economic blockade of a Muslim majority region.

 

Finally, Aiyar stressed the counter-productive nature of the blockade in political terms – a point stressed by earlier commentators. ‘The Jammu blockade is a blatant attempt to squeeze Kashmiris economically into submission. This approach is doomed to failure. You cannot starve a community into comradeship, and the very attempt to do so is a form of colonial brutality. The Jammu agitators may have legitimate grievances, but their chosen instrument of protest can only stoke secessionism. Ironically, the Hindu die-hards who most bitterly oppose secession are doing the most to make it a reality.’ This was the irony pointed out by Ihsan Malik whereby the very people one wishes to embrace within the nation are alienated by its policies and votaries. Aiyar’s piece is significant in that it is an ‘outsider’s’ perspective yet sympathetic and analytically dispassionate in its detailing of the consequences of the economic blockade.

 

In a way it bolsters many of the arguments and resentments and insights available in the Kashmiri newspapers and focuses on the extent of the damage done by the ill-conceived blockade of the Valley. This brief survey of editorials and commentaries of the economic blockade not only highlights the unforeseen (perhaps unintended) consequences of the SASB land transfer, but also the myriad and intricate intertwining of issues in Jammu & Kashmir. Region and religion, the plural and communal, the pull of ‘azadi’ and the push provided by an alienated government, economics and politics all coalesce to compose the seething maelstrom of Kashmir.

 

Also Read:

Part I

Part II

Part III

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