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The Media's Biased Portrayal Of Kashmir Is Causing Untold Damage

20/06/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Srinagar, Kashmire - India

Kashmiris have had enough negative publicity and people from the Valley of Saints and Reshis (or "Rishis" in the Indian mainland) are challenging their negative portrayal in the national, New Delhi-centric media.

The adverse, cynical projection of Kashmir in news channels and newspapers now even has Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti talking about it. She recently said that sections of the national media, "by discussing a few people and broadcasting their speeches and by running their images repeatedly, are out to spread hatred against my people (Kashmiris) in India."

This projection of Kashmir through a jaundiced prism is being questioned by the youth of the Valley. It's a source of angst for them that the national media consistently plays to a negative stereotype where Kashmir is concerned. They make even a small stir in the Valley look like an alarming event threatening national security.

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Kashmiri youth are not all violent stone-pelters

Young people resent the fact that when some masked youth take to the streets to pelt stones or brandish flags, national news channels flash the footage for days together. However, the same media ignores any positive developments in Kashmir. They hardly ever mention the all-encompassing, warm Kashmiriyat that still defines the Valley, despite decades of turmoil and suffering.

Increasingly, Kashmiris are challenging the news coverage that projects them as stone-pelters or militants. They want the media to also highlight Kashmiri achievers.

Recently, a 60-year-old boatman named Ghulam Mohammad Guroo lost his life while saving three tourists from drowning in the Jhelum River. This news, say the youth, received scant national media coverage. However, they argue, had the same boatman attacked the tourists over a dispute, the aggressive, "nationalistic" media would have played the story for days on end since it would have reinforced their prejudiced outlook where Kashmir is concerned.

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Mark Antony says in his spectacular soliloquy after Caesar has been murdered: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

The good of the Kashmiris, it seems, is lost amid today's combative, jingoistic squabbles on prime-time TV. Hot-headed warrior anchors on TV lose no time in pouncing upon Kashmiris for all wrongs, real or perceived.

From top bureaucrats to shikara-men, I have heard Kashmiris admit that they watch these brawls on prime-time TV with trepidation. And if some contentious issue regarding Kashmir is being discussed, it is often a free-for-all for the anchor and the "experts" alike.

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So much to see

Increasingly, Kashmiris are challenging the news coverage that projects them as stone-pelters or militants. They want the media to also highlight Kashmiri achievers. Mehbooba Mufti mentioned some of them recently in a speech: 23-year-old Athar Aamir who ranked second in the all-India civil services exam, 17-year-old Ayesha Aziz who is now India's youngest commercial pilot, the daughter of a deceased auto rickshaw driver from Hutmurah-Mattan who secured a scholarship in a London school for her creativity.

Mufti says the reason for this selective coverage is that if "the electronic media highlights these achievers, they (national electronic media) won't get a chance to humiliate and abuse Kashmiris."

The incidents of violence against Kashmiri students in various parts of India are the result of the negative stereotypes built by the media.

While this may be overstating the point a bit, I do think that the incidents of violence against Kashmiri students in various parts of India are the result of the negative stereotypes built by the media.

Even senior bureaucrats and police officials argue that this negative image of Kashmir in mainland India and abroad is now following a repetitive pattern. Outsiders think Kashmir is some violence-ridden place where guns are always being fired.

This is the consequence of the unidimensional portrayal of Kashmir in national media. Kashmir is viewed only from the lens of violence and bloodshed. This consistently negative portrayal has a highly adverse impact on the Valley -- socially, politically and economically.

In the summer of 2015, heavy rainfall took place in Srinagar for two days. Kashmiri hoteliers recall that some news channels promptly played the images of the catastrophic floods of September 2014 on loop. The result? Many hotel and flight bookings to Kashmir were cancelled.

The dispute at National Institute of Technology (NIT) Srinagar in April this year was restricted to the campus. Handwara and Kupwara, where violence took place some days later, are not on the tourism circuits of Kashmir. The unrest that happened there was contained within a few days. But the NIT dispute was projected by the media as a high-decibel fight against anti-nationals, and hogged national headlines for days. Fortunately, the PDP-BJP government kept a very measured stance on the issue, and refused to make it a question of national security, as was projected by the media.

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Kashmir is not a hotbed of hate and violence

The local and out-station students of NIT can now be seen having tea together in the canteen, but that is not reported. The good news emerging from Kashmir is seldom shown by the media. As a result, the Valley retains its negative image.

This consistently negative portrayal has a highly adverse impact on the Valley -- socially, politically and economically.

The Kashmir media reported that due to the NIT controversy and the Handwara-Kupwara violence, 40% of the total flight and hotel bookings for the Valley were cancelled. This caused a major setback for tourism, which is the mainstay of the economy here. Courtesy the focus only on negative news emerging from Kashmir, it is very difficult to convince new tourists to come to the Valley. In March, a celebrity artiste was invited by a Kashmir organization to visit the Valley for their event. He had multiple fears. Is Kashmir safe? What if he had to be evacuated in case of an emergency? He came with great anxiety. And he left delighted, having visited the highly picturesque destinations in Kashmir amidst peace and leisure. The next month, he was back with his family for a private visit.

The questions posed by new visitors to Kashmir can be bizarre. How far is the border? Does everybody have guns here?

Courtesy the media projection, Kashmiris are regarded as alien, violent people. This is far from the truth. It is only when people come here that they experience the warm hospitality and graciousness of the Kashmiris.

On account of the perceptions built by the media, Kashmiri youths who go out to mainland India to study are now actually scarred by the prejudices that they have to encounter. They are sometimes greeted with violence that causes as much pain back home as well.

It is time that the media coverage of Kashmir became more multi-dimensional. While the media looks at the violence in Kashmir, it must also speak of the youth entrepreneurs and achievers here, the success stories that are buried beneath the negative propaganda.

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