Media’s paranoiac portrayal of Kashmir

Majority of Indians (55 percent) see the situation in Kashmir as a “very big problem” and a majority (58 percent) believes the government should use “more military force” than it currently uses in dealing with tensions in the area, according to Pew Research Center’s latest survey.

The survey findings are not much different than the American think tank’s November 2017 report regarding the opinion of Indians on Kashmir. According to that report, over 60 percent Indians favor hard-line stance in Kashmir and believed that Indian government should use military force in dealing with the situation in the valley.

Though the survey cannot be taken at face value as an indicator of Indian public opinion on Kashmir, it does raise some pertinent questions. Why does Indian public think of Kashmir in terms of a military operation and who is responsible for inculcating this abhorrent approach?

People will have varied opinions and answers to these questions. I believe a large section of Indian media is responsible for making the Indians think of Kashmir in terms of a military campaign.

Our perception of reality is a result of our beliefs and a lot of those beliefs are in some ways formed by the mainstream media. Media has a powerful influence on public opinion and government policies. Riding on this argument, it’s safe to say that the perception of a common Indian about Kashmir has been, to a large extent, shaped by what the media presented. They have been kept ignorant about the true nature of the conflict where a common Kashmiri suffers the most. The myopic perspective offered by Indian media over the years has crystallized in the form of a dangerous public opinion on Kashmir.

In April 2007, a group of youth from different parts of India visited the valley. The visit was arranged by a Delhi-based human rights group. It was aimed to acquaint them with the ground realities in Kashmir. They met people from all walks of life including students, academicians, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. During one such interaction, they told me they had arrived in Srinagar with no idea about the ground situation in Kashmir other than what they had been reading and watching in the media. But after interacting with the locals and while spending time in the valley, they came to know about the human face of the conflict.

In March 2009, I attended a two-day film festival in Bangalore organized by the students of a local college in which documentaries based on Kashmir were screened. Visibly moved by the documentaries, some young people approached me on the sidelines of the function with queries about the situation in Kashmir. They had the same remark to make. They knew only that much about Kashmir as was portrayed in the media. By not presenting the complete picture of the ground situation, the media has created this imperfect understanding about Kashmir.

Human rights groups have long complained that the Indian media offers a cursory coverage of the situation in Kashmir. Committee for Initiative on Kashmir was one of the first rights groups to point out the problem.

“The Indian press has adopted an attitude of ‘them and us’ regarding the people of the valley… reportage in the national press has only reinforced Kashmir’s sense of alienation, and among the rest of the Indians, a stereotype image of the Kashmiri Muslim as an ungrateful lot who want to secede to Pakistan,” reads the report of Committee for Initiative on Kashmir.

It further observed: “The reports that appear can be grouped into three categories- (a) statistics on militants killed by security forces and civilians killed by militants; (b) success stories about anti-militant operations in the valley and (c) rehash of government handouts.”

In her book “Kashmir: Tragedy of Errors”, noted journalist and author, Tavleen Singh observes: “The Indian press, out of misguided patriotism, has always chosen to tell the Indian public less than the whole truth about Kashmir. This has made it possible for governments in Delhi to get away with dangerously myopic policies.”

According to communication theorists, mass media have a decisive influence on the formation of public opinion. In case of Kashmir, Indian media always chose to show the Indian public less than the whole truth. No wonder, they remain ignorant about the ground reality in the valley. Ultimately, ordinary Kashmiris have to bear the consequences of the ill-informed public opinion. There is a question mark on Indian media’s credibility in Kashmir. It has been a big let down and it will take concerted efforts from the media houses to mend the image.