Who poisoned Indian public opinion on Kashmir?

Last week, Pew Research Centre came up with its survey report regarding the opinion of Indians on Kashmir. According to the American think tank, over 60 percent Indians favor hard-line stance in Kashmir and believe 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? Who is responsible for inculcating this abhorrent approach? What can be the potential long term impact of such a public opinion on Indian government’s policies in Kashmir?

People will have varied opinions and answers to these questions. With the benefit of hindsight, I believe a large section of Indian media is responsible for making the Indians think of Kashmir in terms of a military campaign by inculcating a sense of prejudice and thereby allowing the successive governments to pursue a hard-line on the issue.

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 made to believe that Kashmir is all about the “proxy war” waged by Pakistan. 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 human rights 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 human rights abuses in Kashmir. Committee for Initiative on Kashmir was one of the first rights groups to respond to the excesses committed in the valley and came up with a detailed report titled ‘Kashmir War Proxy War’.

“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 about Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir.”

No wonder, Indian pubic remained ignorant about the nature and extent of human rights violations in the initial phase of insurgency in 1990.

Coming to the last question, the media-poisoned public opinion also has a bearing on Indian government’s policies in Kashmir. This in effect gives the governments in Delhi carte blanche to use iron-hand tactics in Kashmir.

Political experts have attributed the political unrest in Kashmir to the mistakes committed by successive regimes at the Centre. However, one of the major reasons as to why these mistakes were repeated is because the Indian media always chose to show the Indian public less than the whole truth about Kashmir. Kashmir is portrayed only from a state perspective and security-sovereignty prism, relegating the concerns of Kashmiris to invisibility. Statements of politicians, and military and intelligence reports find more space than the lives of ordinary Kashmiris who ultimately have to bear the consequences of the ill-informed public opinion.