Monday, February 19, 2018

Remember Kunan Poshpora

I was reminded today that February 23 is being marked as Kashmir Women's Resistance Day to mark the atrocities suffered by Kashmiri women, including those who live in Kunan Poshpora.

Here's something I wrote in The Hindu on September 8, 2002 after visiting Kunan Poshpora:

Kashmir's `steel magnolias'

The women of Kunan Poshpora ... three generations

"YOU can never understand our pain," shouted a young woman, head swathed in a black scarf. This outburst came at the end of an hour talking to students, men and women, at the SSM engineering college in Srinagar about the current situation in Kashmir. The young men dominated the discussion; the women, dressed in pastels, sat quietly in the first rows. 

Until this woman from the back burst forth.

What she said cannot be disputed. No matter how much you read about Kashmir, how many of its people you meet elsewhere, you can never fully understand their pain, frustration, tension, grief, loss and the longing for peace and normalcy. Yet, once there, you sense it in every conversation, in homes, in the market place and even in places unconnected with the troubles.

At the Ziayarat Makhdoom Sahib Shrine, which nestles below the imposing Mughal Fort on Srinagar's Hari Parbat, hundreds of women arrive at an early hour on Mondays and Thursdays to meditate, pray, ask for a mannat. You don't need to speak to anyone. Just sit there, listen to the haunting tones of the intonations on the loudspeaker, watch the pigeons in the courtyard take flight when someone passes by, and look at the faces. They speak of the grief, of the loss that must be a part of every life. There are old and young women, some are crying, some are talking to themselves, some just sit quietly. What are their stories?

Far away, in the village of Kunan Poshpora near Kupwara, separated by a range of high mountains from Pakistan, you sense the same sorrow, although no one speaks of it voluntarily. In this medium-sized picturesque village, with about 300 families, the women seem to live in idyllic conditions. Unlike villages in India, there is no harijan pada or social exclusion. There are poor families, but all of them have roofs over their heads and some land. The village grows paddy, corn, vegetables, walnuts, almonds, some fruit and has a river running past it. There is plenty of water and low voltage electricity. Firewood is available as long as there are women around to collect it. And all the children go to school.

But the sadness in the eyes of the women of Kunan Poshpora is not the consequence of the eternal burden that women must carry, of fetching, carrying and caring, tasks that remain unalterable regardless of location. Their eyes tell a different story; even today they can barely hide the terror and shame of a day in 1991, when Indian Army personnel raped over 30 women from this village. These women were young then. Today, 11 years later, some of them remain unmarried, others have come back to their maternal homes, and all of them are scarred for life.

Young Posha was just five when the incident took place. Today she is an anganwadi worker earning Rs. 800 a month (paid infrequently and hardly ever the entire amount). Yet, she is proud that she earns and says she is luckier than the other girls in the village.
"People come here and promise all kinds of things," she says. "One lady came and said we should get all the women raped in 1991 married off. But nothing happened."

Young women like her continue to carry the memory of what happened to their mothers. "Girls here face a lot of problems," says Posha. "We have to tolerate the taunts of people from other villages when they hear that we are from Kunan. Also whenever anyone from the army comes to the village, all the young girls have to hide in their houses. There are no men around most of the year. Most of them go off to Punjab or Kolkata to sell shawls. They only return in March to help in the fields."

Yet, despite this, the grit and determination in these women stand out. They do not just stand about and wail. The "victims" of the 1991 incident merge with the other women; no one tries to pull them out to tell their story. All the women are getting on with their lives. The younger ones are learning to do the typical Kashmiri embroidery on phirans so that they can find some means to earn. Shamima, just 15 and not yet a matriculate, is teaching pre-school children how to read and write. She is determined to get through although she admits that girls have a harder time than boys do, "because they have to do so much housework".

There is a whole generation of young women like Posha and Shamima in Kashmir who have known nothing else than "guns pointed at them from both sides". What will so-called "normal" life mean for them given their extreme vulnerability? Being a village close to the border, the army keeps an eye on them. So do the militants. And the villagers, particularly the women, have to walk with care.

What you sense in all of them is a hunger to learn and to earn, to be economically independent. After a week in the valley, I came away with a feeling of hope after talking to women like Posha and Shamima. And Dilafroze, a woman in Srinagar who could have lived a comfortable, cushioned life. Instead, after her experience of being targetted by militants, she decided to do whatever she could to help other women. So she arrived in the Kunan Poshpora earlier this year on a mission that failed. Far from being defeated by it, she returned a few weeks later with ideas and funds to help the women help themselves. Single-handedly, she has set up a pre-school for girls, and embroidery classes for young women.

You will see plenty of Kashmir ki kalis in the valley. But most of them are not "wilting lilies", women who throw up their hands in the face of the constant violence and terror around them. Young or old, these women are a Kashmiri version of "steel magnolias".

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The real moral duty of journalists: Not to dance to the tune of the powerful

Appeared first on

An NIA statement about an arrested Kashmir photographer should prompt journalists to consider how far their profession has drifted from basic standards. 

Perhaps the Indian media deserves a lecture from the National Investigation Agency about our moral duty. Given how far much of mainstream media has drifted from any concept of morality, leave alone accuracy or simple journalistic principles, we should not be surprised that India’s anti-terror agency has taken upon itself to pronounce judgment on who is a real journalist.

The context is the plainly unjustified arrest of 23-year-old Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yusuf on September 5. His family was not informed as he was taken away. More than four months later, on January 18, he was charged with sedition, criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage war against India.

On February 15, in documents presented before the Additional Sessions Court in New Delhi, the National Investigation Agency attempted to make out a case that Yusuf is not a real journalist but is actually a stone-pelter, and therefore, an anti-national.

The words used by the central agency to describe who is a journalist are fascinating. They illustrate how the state would like all of us journalists to be quiet, obedient note-takers who cover important functions, like the inauguration of hospitals, and ignore anything deemed anti-national, such as young Kashmiris venting their anger and frustration at the state of affairs in their land.

Making out an argument on why it believes Yusuf is not a real journalist, here is what the National Investigation Agency said in its court document:
  “Had he been a real journalist/stringer by profession, he may had (sic) performed one of the moral duty of a journalist which is to cover activity and happening (good or bad) in his jurisdiction. He had never covered any developmental activity of any Government Department/Agency, any inauguration of Hospital, School Building, Road, Bridge, statement of any political party in power or any other social/developmental activity by the state Government or Govt. of India.”  
According to the anti-terror agency, a real journalist’s moral duty is to cover developmental activity of governmental departments, such as inaugurations of hospitals, schools, roads and bridges, and statements of political parties in power. Clearly, reporting statements by the Opposition does not count as real journalism.

The National Investigation Agency also states that Yusuf was not a professional as he had not taken any professional training in photography or videography. Taken together, this non-professional was only covering anti-national activists in order to “create mass awareness amongst the local people about such activities so that they can be motivated to support such activities”.

By these parameters laid out by the agency, thousands of journalists would be suspect. For one, most journalists do not cover the kind of development activity the agency has described. This task is usually given to the junior-most person in a media organisation, and the event merits publication or air space only if a very important person is involved.

Most professional journalists think of developmental activity as something entirely different. It means burning shoe-leather, travelling to places that are ostensibly being developed by the government or some private agency, and then reporting on the true state of affairs. Such stories cannot be done on the basis of press handouts, or briefings.

Real journalism produces stories that most often run counter to the dominant discourse broadcast by government-friendly or government-owned media. This is developmental journalism in its true sense, something that is a somewhat endangered form of journalism in today’s media scene in India. If journalists were really doing this, they would be fulfilling their moral duty, or at least their professional duty.

Real journalists

Then let us look at the charge that Yusuf had not attended a professional training institute. By that measure too, many journalists in India would stand disqualified, particularly people of my generation and an earlier one. When I began journalism, there were no journalism courses. We learned on the job, as did our seniors. Yet, that did not make us less professional. We were real journalists and continue to be so.

Of course, it is no point dissecting every word of the National Investigation Agency as its purpose in arresting Yusuf is entirely different: to send out a message to Kashmiri journalists who have, at considerable risk to their own lives, informed India and the world about the state of resistance and suppression in their state. These are journalists who have tried to understand and convey the anger of young Kashmiris who are prepared to die or be maimed for life to oppose what in their view is an unjust regime. These journalists are doing their moral duty. They are real journalists, not stenographers.

The journalism drift

Yet, the agency’s statement should also prompt Indian journalists to look at the state of journalism in India today, and how far it has drifted from professional and basic journalistic standards.

Take the case of the sacking of Angshukanta Chakraborty, who was until recently the political editor of the DailyO website, part of the India Today group. She was summarily dismissed last week for a tweet she released on her personal Twitter handle in which she criticised journalists who spread fake news, without identifying anyone. She did not need to. Everyone knows that some of the main proponents of fake news in mainstream media work within the same media organisation from which she was dismissed.

Take, for instance, Abhijit Majumder, editor of the Mail Today tabloid. He was called out in January for tweeting fake news about a Hindu man being killed during the communal flare-up in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh. The man was alive. Yet, by then Majumder’s tweet had travelled far. His bosses at the India Today group did not haul him up for spreading such dangerous and unsubstantiated information that exacerbated the communally-charged atmosphere in Kasganj.

On the contrary, far from being reprimanded, Majumder was recently recommended for an important position in public broadcaster Prasar Bharati. In a rare show of autonomy, the Prasar Bharati board on February 15 rejected the proposal that had come directly from the Union government.

Pliant media

This and several other pointers reiterate what is already well-known: that the state approves of those journalists who openly endorse the government’s or the ruling party’s line, and will reward them. Those who choose to do real journalism – to be sceptical, to ask difficult questions, to dig out the truth, to refuse to take things at face value, do so at their own risk.

What is pitiful is that unlike the actions taken against people like Yusuf, or several other journalists in places like Chhattisgarh, the media has quietly fallen in line without a hint of resistance. It bows to the government’s agenda, gives space and time to the issues that suit the powerful, and routinely overlooks what is going on in most parts of this country.

Worse still, this pliant media has contributed to the coarsening of public discourse on many issues, including politics. The space for a reasoned debate on any subject has virtually disappeared. Forcing every issue into antagonistic binaries only benefits those who want our society to be polarised. It is the anti-thesis of the role the media is supposed to play in a democracy – of a space that informs and engenders real debate and that speaks truth to power.

Bob Moser, former editor of Texas Observer, wrote in a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review: “For reporters, it’s surely as close to a Golden Rule as journalism affords: Fear nobody and nothing in your quest to unearth hard truths and afflict the powerful”.

Journalism in India is certainly not afflicting the powerful. It is dancing to their tune.