Kashmir Press : A Journey from Past to Present

Kashmir Press : A Journey from Past to Present

By : M J Aslam



Prefatory:

Notwithstanding that the printing press was invented in mid 15th century, the initial newspapers in the world started their publication in Germany, England & other European countries only in 17th & 18th centuries. During 20th century, radio & television were invented, & the journalists used them to disseminate information among public on matters related to society, politics, culture, finance, sports, history, geography, & national & international affairs on daily basis. The journalists, then, found 21stcentury’s great technological invention, internet, as their latest medium of updating public, by transmitting information to them, on multiple issues via online-papers-magazines-periodicals-journals, fb pages, tweeter accounts, etc.

In Europe & other countries, before invention of printing press & newspapers, the news was spread by word of mouth by the peddlers from place to place within geographies & beyond after receiving the same from the merchants & travelers who had visited the area wherefrom the news had come. The oral spread of news, which was often contaminated by rumours & canards, lost its existence with introduction of newspapers followed by radio, television & internet.

A comment about Khabar-e-Zain-e-Kadal-e-Chi:

In the past, in the capital city of Kashmir, Srinagar, there was an evil system among Kashmiris of disseminating false rumours. Srinagar’s Zaina Kadal, 4thbridge then, 6th bridge now, in a sequence of bridges across Jhelum, was used to be the place where false rumours were hatched, but then the news makers moved to Amira Kadal, 6th bridge, wherefrom they further passed it on to others. Though the wise knew that news from Zaina Kadal , which was locally called Khabar-e-Zain-e-Kadal-e-Chi, was false, the majority were not that wise. (The Valley of Kashmir, Sir W R Lawrence (1895) page 8). The system of spreading fake news by word of mouth continued among Kashmiris till the beginning of 1960s, albeit spread of news by word of mouth had ended in Europe & India centuries before.

Emergence of Kashmir press:

Kashmir’s first “regular” private Weekly in Urdu, “Hamdard”, had started its publication since 1935. First regular Daily of Kashmir, “Aftab”, in Urdu, was started in 1958 which introduced first time “street sale” of a Daily newspaper in Kashmir valley. It was followed by another Urdu Daily, “Srinagar Times”, in 1969 which introduced “cartoon news” first time in Kashmir. The first “independent” English Daily of Kashmir was “Kashmir Times” that started its publication as Weekly in 1954 & as Daily in 1964 through Ved Bhasin. Apart from these prominent newspapers, there were also some “less known” Weeklies published in Kashmir. From 1990 onwards, the valley has witnessed spurt growth of dailies & periodicals.

Exploitation of absence of “independent” Kashmir press:

The absence of “private” media in Kashmir till 1958 provided fertile ground to the local “pro-India” politicians of that time & even before, to exploit the age old illiteracy, poverty & other backwardness of the common people for spewing out unhindered their narratives about Kashmir & political developments of the Indian subcontinent at that time that had a direct bearing upon JK-issue. The “dissent” was crushed simultaneously through the paid-hooligans of these politicians & the State machinery that they controlled after taking over aegis of “power” as “Emergency Administrator” to “puppet rulers” till 1975. Administrative onslaught with the help of police & agencies was so heavy that their narratives became, willingly or unwillingly, “dominant discourse” among common Kashmiris during most crucial decades of Kashmir’s political history immediately before & after Partition. Its direct result was that “dissent” was coercively confined to few areas of Srinagar city only. All this sordid state of affairs within JK, unfortunately, remained hidden from the outside people for most of the period of time, although everything that was going on within the vale was well recorded & documented. It came to the fore only with relaxation of censorships & sweeping strides of information technology, world over.

Pre-1947 Kashmir-scene:

Before 1947, the atrocities of Dogra rulers (1846-1947) with their Muslim subjects were not highlighted by the Press. The local newspapers faced censorship on publishing any news against the rulers’ unjust & arbitrary policies & actions. Any column against the government, if published in local newspapers, was dubbed as anti-national & anti-government. There was no freedom to criticise the autocratic rulers. Any criticism of the monarchs, their policies and decisions was considered to be a “seditious label”. Even any letter or news by Kashmir’s first political centre or group, Reading-Room Party of Fateh Kadal, Srinagar, against the government’s policies with respect to subjugated Muslim majority of the State was not permitted to be published in local newspapers. In Britain, till 19th century, it may be recalled here, Sir Philip Francis (1740-1818) was getting his letters leveling trenchant criticism against King published & republished in Public Advertiser, London Evening Post, other weeklies & periodicals under a penname of Junius. (Lord Denning‘s Landmarks in the Law (2014-Oxford) pages 283-284) But in JK, one could not think of writing against the Dogra rulers’ anti-Muslim policies under a pseudonym even.

The absence of “real private” Press & autocratic censorship on anti-government-news forced the leaders to get their letters published in “Muslim Press” of British-Punjab at Lahore. The Lahore-based “Muslim Press” through Inqilab, Siyasat, Zamindar & others newspapers regularly highlighted, in their reports , columns & editorials, the miserable conditions & adverse circumstances in which JK Muslims had been living under autocratic Dogra rule. Late Munshi Mohammad Isaaq of Muslim Conference who had business outlets in Rawalpindi used to bring with him copies of the newspapers, magazines & periodicals from Lahore that adequately depicted the disturbing ground realities of JK which were nothing but long sufferings of Muslim subjects at the hands of their rulers.

The “Hindu Press” through its newspapers, Pratap, Amar Ujala, Guru Ghantaal & Milap, had been openly supporting the despotic Dogra [Hindu] rulers & lending direct support to their suppressive rule & arm-twisting measures against overwhelming Muslim majority of 85% by enticing the monarch to invoke the provisions of the draconian law like the Indian States (Protection against Disaffection) Act 1922 ( also called the Princes Protection Act, 1922) against [Muslim] leaders & subjects for raising voice against injustices & tyranny of beggar [nonpaid slave labour], deprivation of equal opportunities of employment & education, back-breaking exorbitant taxation & many other monarchial ills of the durbar. They, in their columns & editorials, would advise the monarch to declare 85% Muslim subjects & their leaders as “rebels”, “seditious” & “anti-government”. This was done by the journos & editors of “Hindu Press” under what is nowadays commonly known as the doctrine of “national interest”. However, it was a clear “polarization” of the Press. It won’t be wrong to call it demonisation of the poor Muslims and demeaning their sufferings by the Hindu journalists for a “Hindu Raja”. They were working with the Punjab’s Hindu Press, much before Partition.

Post-1947 scene:

History repeats itself. Today, this pre-partition position of the Punjab Press can be compared with “local Kashmir Press” that highlights the “ground realities” of Kashmir, at the one end, & Indian mainstream media, print as well as electronic, that totally blacklists the “actual news” from Kashmir in “national interest”, at the other end. Noted journalist, Tavleen Singh, in her book, “Kashmir: a Tragedy of Errors”, expresses her anguish on this destructive role of Indian media in these words: “The press was the main reason why the alienation of Kashmir began. The people were sensitive about the way they were being reported in the national press which was deliberately misinterpreting facts and events, making it possible for governments to get away with any short-sighted policy”. In the words of veteran journalist, Ved Bhasin, there has been a complete “criminal silence”, on the part of India media about what has been going on inside Kashmir since decades. Their “partisan” reporting about Kashmir doesn’t need any introduction. In fact, such biases have been inherited by “Indian Press” right from pre-partition days of “Hindu Punjab Press”. Post-partition, the same prejudices of twist & turn of facts to suit the “official narrative” were reflected in their news reporting, editorials & opinions during all important phases of political developments of Kashmir such as unceremonious dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah on 9thAugust 1953, plebiscite front days (1953-1975), holy relic theft (1964), Pandit agitation (1967), MUF’s participation in assembly elections of 1987 & massive rigging thereof, & many other important events of Kashmir. Tavleen Singh aptly summarises the pathetic position of the Indian press with respect to Kashmir by writing: “The national press, out of misguided patriotism, has always chosen to tell the national public less than the whole truth about Kashmir.” Another Indian researcher, Teresa Joseph, in her published paper, Kashmir Human Rights and the Indian Press, gives reason for such slant reporting by stating that: “The over-dependence on government sources appears to be the bane of the Indian press reports on Kashmir giving them an inherent bias towards the government position on the issues concerned, while ignoring the ground reality.”

Post-1990 scenario:

Ground reporting by “local newspapers” in a conflict zone like JK, especially since 1990, is not only commendable but it also exposes & debunks the one-sided reporting & talk- shows of primetime TV channels of India, columns & opinions by the Indian Press, in relation to Kashmir.

But despite that many Kashmiri journalists reporting for local Press are discharging their responsibilities in a ethical professional manner, there are “some” Kashmir-born journalists working for Indian mainstream media who are only obfuscating the facts on ground or tailoring them to suit their employers’ requirements in relation to Kashmir.

Within Kashmir, as on date, there is NO “private” TV channel to carry a news bulletin on day to day happenings inside Kashmir. Few “non local” TV channels, namely, Gulistaan news, ETV Urdu & 4TV Urdu , telecast daily “Kashmir news” bulletins & hold talk shows on “Kashmir affairs” in Urdu & Kashmiri. But the first two of them are Delhi based, while third one is aired from Hyderabad. None of these & other “private” news TV channels are “local” in any sense of term except some news-readers & reporters are local Kashmiris. But in spite of that some Kashmiri boys are the news-readers & anchors with these non-local TV channels, these “private” TV channels are under the direct control & supervision of “non locals” who own & run them who in turn shape the government’s narrative on happenings in Kashmir. The reporting on Kashmir of 4TV Urdu is comparatively “objective” & “factual”. The news content & comments of other “private” TV channels about Kashmir are almost copy of mainstream Indian media channels.

DD has a regional TV channel almost in all regions & States of India. Unlike that of all other DD regional TV channels, which were are stationed & directly reporting from their respective States, DD Kashir was the only DD regional channel that was aired not from Kashmir but directly from Delhi for 17 years till 2006. It operates directly under Union Ministry of Information. In association with All India Radio, it has installed high power transmitters along LOC to counter “Pakistani narrative” on Kashmir which (countering) was actually the “object” behind its launching.

By 2010, some “local” Srinagar based private TV channels had sprung up and started telecasting evening news bulletins in Kashmiri & Urdu in Kashmir valley. But with 2010 massive agitation of Kashmiri people, the news bulletins & talk shows about Kashmir affairs were all “permanently” banned by Omer Abdullah government in 2010 itself as, according to the government, those channels had been “enticing” people for processions & protests against the government. Even “local press” was censored against publication of newspapers for several weeks. The publication of “only one newspaper”, after its “discussions” with the authorities, was initially allowed, while the rest of the dailies resumed their publication, one by one, after several months. During uprising of 2016, “Kashmir Reader” was the onlynewspaper that was banned by the “authorities” for several months, for its pro-reporting-commenting on “live events” of Kashmir.

In the absence of “private” electronic media in Kashmir, we are, therefore, left with “private” print media or Press only. Almost all “independent” Kashmir based newspapers, periodicals & magazines have online access too. They have a tough competition with social mediawhich is now extensively used by Kashmiris just like all other social media users all over India & beyond. Social media creates readership of content-creator-cum-consumer. It is in direct antagonism with the principle of mass media which creates “professional journalists” who create news for “others”. It is, however, always “consumer friendly” news content. Mass media is not as inclusive as social media.

But in a conflict-affected State like JK, mass media or “private” print media in Kashmir can’t fully & openly align with the government nor can become mouthpiece of State media as the cost of its “independence”. However, it can become “proxy” for the government through its editorials & opinions that are crafted & drafted to keep government interests in mind. The government, in turn, through its limbs of functioning “feeds” the paper with publication of its advertisements, notifications & tenders. Under the influence of the government, semi-government agencies and even non-government associations that have business dealings with the government also “feed” such papers with exclusive publication of their public tenders & notifications. It, in turn, increases readership for the paper because people do not read paper only for news which is pre-known to the people in this age through electronic media & social media. The readers also read papers for multiple advertisements, notifications, tenders, & suchlike to keep themselves abreast with the business, education & job related day to day issues. When they find all this extra-news-stuff readily available in a Daily or so, it naturally raises the readership of the paper/s.

The “independence” of many modern established “private” media is considerably affected by the commercial interests .They depend on government commercials & advisements for generating income for paying of decent salaries to their huge staff & bear other heavy costs of maintenance.

The publication of opinions & ideas on op-ed & editorial pages is vested in “absolute discretion” of gatekeeperswho, by exercise of their “absolute editorial discretion”, usually, deprive many genuine opinions from getting published in their papers & in that process of gatekeeping, only “few” select-writers, projected as “columnists”, are given the “task” of filling, less than daily, in their pre-allotted op-ed & editorial page columns, to suit, accordingly, media owners’ convenience and “policy requirements”. This kind of editing & publishing of opinions & voices by them through their gatekeepers, time & again, on the same matters, by the chosen-few-writers becomes, then, a “Pvt. Ltd” type affair with a Daily & a periodical. It creates a blend of columnists & opinion-writers that shape the reading tastes of the people in such a manner that they become habitual of reading their writings only. It is not object-oriented journalism or glocal information system but purely local-consumer-driven & policy-driven editorial-opinion-pages-system which is adopted for the commercial interests of the media owners. It may be compared with all-happy (Sab Khush) journalismthat pleases both the wrongdoer & wronged, criminal & victim.

C : Counter Currents

(M J Aslam is Author, academic, storyteller & freelance-columnist And, AVP in J&K Bank.)

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