Indian reporting on Kashmir: A few lessons in the rhetoric of denial

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First, some caveats.

Let me say at the outset that this post perhaps unfairly targets one recent newspaper article by one hapless correspondent. The article in question is not a report on Kashmir as such; rather, it is a review of a new documentary film on Kashmir that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 a couple of days ago. Let me also admit to not having seen the film myself, as it hasn’t yet aired in India. Thankfully (for my credibility!) this is not a defense of a film that I am yet to see. Rather, I think that this brief but telling film review – published online by one of India’s leading news outlets – employs a number of rhetorical ploys that have now become de rigueur in Indian reporting on Kashmir, and thus deserves to be scrutinized on its own terms.

Lesson Number One: Sometimes, less is more

In his zeal to discredit the documentary our Times of India correspondent, Ashis Ray, betrays his own biases even as he points indignant fingers at the film’s lack of objectivity.

“Late on Tuesday, Britain’s Channel 4 screened an hour-long TV documentary virtually challenging India’s credentials as a democracy, accusing security forces in Jammu & Kashmir of being responsible for disappearances of 8,000 Kashmiri civilians and extra-judicial executions in the past 22 years as well as for rape and torture.”

If the film indeed accuses security forces of committing such horrific crimes, then it is patently obvious, isn’t it, that it is questioning India’s democratic credentials? The word “virtually” in the opening sentence ironically downplays the nature of the accusation, such that the very thought of actually questioning Indian democracy becomes, by implication, taboo. There is indignation in this opening sentence, as in: “My boss virtually yelled at me when I questioned her management style.” We are meant to shudder at the thought that the film dares to come this close to saying something so outrageous. And in this collective shuddering we indulge our patriotic indignation as Indians.

Lesson Number Two: Conjure the threat of a conspiracy (and mask your legerdemain with such words as “clearly” or “obviously”)

“The same day, the UK’s Guardian newspaper carried an extended piece on the same subject in a clearly co-ordinated assault against India’s human rights record.”

A newspaper runs an article previewing the issues to be aired by a TV channel later that evening, and this supposedly constitutes a “clearly coordinated assault,” a veritable conspiracy against India’s democratic credentials. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of what could possibly motivate two British media outlets to conspire together on this one particular issue at this particular time. Couldn’t it be instead that the Guardian deemed the airing of a documentary on hitherto-obscured human rights abuses by a supposed bastion of democracy newsworthy? And what is one to make, then, of the demonstrable consensus among mainstream Indian media outlets to downplay, denigrate, and vilify the sentiment for azadi in Kashmir? Isn’t this an even more elaborate conspiracy, a “clearly coordinated assault” on Kashmiri demands for freedom?

Lesson Number Three: Present the State as the voiceless party

The lacunae [sic] in the programme, though, was that no neutral party, let alone authorities in J&K or at the Centre were given an opportunity to express their point of view.

As the late historian Howard Zinn insisted, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Who or what exactly might constitute a “neutral party” in this context? Perhaps the filmmakers should have interviewed a fisherman in Finland or the Seattle Senior Citizens Bingo Club. (But then, they too would in all likelihood cease to be “neutral” once they learned of the nature of the conflict, so we’d be back to square one.)

But the demand for a “neutral party” here is a red-herring, a ploy that positions the writer as righteous and just, all the better to present the authorities as, oxymoronically, the silenced party. Sure, a documentary on atrocities might find it useful to capture a figure of authority squeamishly denying the atrocities on camera (as John Pilger did brilliantly in his questioning of an Indonesian official for his film on East Timor, Death of a Nation). Let’s not forget, though, that the “authorities” are precisely that: those with the ability to author, and authorize, the dominant narratives in the media. Their “point of view” enters the living rooms of Indian TV viewers day in and day out, and for ordinary Kashmiris, this “point of view” is precisely what is manifest in the rapes, the torture, the killings that the film documents. This “point of view” is delivered in no uncertain terms, at gunpoint, by the security forces whenever the Kashmiris dare to demand their freedom.

Lesson Number Four: The slippery convenience of passive voice

Strangely, the production team was in the Kashmir valley at the time of last year’s stone-pelting incidents in which over 100 youths were killed. There are questions being asked whether they were tipped off by those who planned the demonstrations.

A laughable argument. “Strangely,” a team of documentary filmmakers interested in documenting an ongoing conflict happened to be present during an escalation of the conflict.

Here then is Conspiracy Number Two. For “There are questions being asked…” By whom? By the author? Ah, passive voice!

But even if it were true that the documentarians were tipped off by the organizers of the demonstrations, what is wrong with that? Should those whose voices are routinely kept out of the mainstream media not inform independent reporters of their demonstrations and protests? Do the authorities issue press releases before they launch each crackdown so that reporters and filmmakers might book their tickets to get there on time for the shooting (pardon the pun)?

“[O]ver 100 youths were killed”: Again, by whom? Readers might be forgiven for thinking that the killers were the stone-pelters themselves. Ray’s telling of it obscures not only the context of the “incidents” but also the identities of the parties involved. Why were the youths pellting stones, and at whom? We’ll never know. Kashmiri youth in this narrative emerge as irrational and violent. The men with guns, water hoses, tanks and whatnot at their disposal, the so-called “security forces” that actually do the shooting and killing, are on the other hand absent.

Lesson Number Five: Discredit rights activists through innuendo

The central figure in the documentary is a dignified, seemingly progressive and secular advocate at the J&K high court, Pervez Imroz. He was portrayed as diligently compiling complaints of disappearances, rape and torture; and filing cases in court on these…. He is behind the discovery of more than 2,000 unmarked graves which chief minister Omar Abdullah last year described as being mostly unclaimed bodies of foreign militants. Imroz termed the graves “prima facie evidence of war crimes”.

A well-known and respected human rights activist’s credibility cannot be challenged head-on; it must be done subtly. Note that Pervez Imroz is only “seemingly” progressive and secular, and is merely “portrayed” as diligent by the film. Could our correspondent not verify for himself Imroz’s secularism or progressive-mindedness, or offer some evidence to the contrary? Note too that while the chief minister’s claim regarding the mass graves is presented as a “description,” Imroz’s claims is presented as mere naming, thus subtly indicating that the latter is arbitrary and debatable while the former is closely tied to the reality.

Now, doesn’t Ray find it “strange” that a human rights campaigner discovers unmarked graves, and the state claims that these are graves of militants that they have killed? If these graves do indeed carry the unclaimed bodies of foreign militants killed by security forces, shouldn’t their presence have been known already, rendering their late “discovery” by activists moot?

Lesson Number Six: Reality bites

The programme depicted gruesome examples of torture. One woman claimed on camera that she was raped by security forces when she was 16 and still in school.

Thus concludes our article, abruptly, as if the author were simply too shocked at the reality of what he’d just watched. The writer seems flummoxed, as he can only muster a weak hint of a denial of the reality of Kashmir. “One woman claimed on camera that she was raped….”

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