Kashmir has had a raging crisis every year for the last three years. The turmoil which engulfed the state in 2008 after the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, the continuing crisis after the allegations of rape in Shopian last year, and now the face-off between stone pelters and the CRPF resulting in several deaths by firing of young men and boys.
Stone pelting youth, retaliatory fire from CRPF personnel, deaths of 11 youth, some of them boys. How is the media framing this grim cycle of events and explaining its causes? In ways so different from each other that it makes you wonder about the role of the media in presenting conflict.
In fairness to the journalists filing, the choice of focus is their privilege. Yet if it excludes some angles, that influences the picture conveyed. Lets take a look at four or five recent reports on the situation. In 'Stone Sepulchre', Showkat Motta, editor of the Kashmiri magazine Conveyor, writing in Outlook (July 12, 2010) uses the deaths as his starting point and focuses substantially on Omar Abdullah's handling of the situation, his ineptitude, his seeming callousness in flying back and forth from Gulmarg while Srinagar is burning, and the corruption of his administration. Outlook's two page story does not dwell on the stone pelting. It has a box with the details of ten deaths.
The story narrates the deaths and subsequent developments and notes at one point, 'the police and CRPF had only one response to stone-throwing youngsters: bullets.' Starting with this account you find that those reporting tend to settle into one of two focuses: dying youth or stoning youth. Which one they pick certainly shapes a reader's response to what is happening in Kashmir.
Muzammil Jaleel's account in the Indian Express titled 'Stone rage' goes into this form of protest, its history, and those resorting to it. It talks to men and boys who do not do it for money and says there is a clear divide between those motivated by money and those by ideology. The story also talks of political backing for stone throwers. It mentions that some in the moderate Hurriyat think stone throwing is unislamic. The article also looks at the history of how the state has been tackling this phenomenon.
India Today's story ' Descent into Chaos' (July 12, 2010) has the Abdullah government's fire fighting as its starting point, and the killings are mentioned but not dwelt upon. The report goes into the differences between PM Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram on how to handle the separatists and says the chief minister is not sure who to go with in tackling the Hurriyat. It says Pakistan backed militant groups keep the pot boiling, mentions anti national elements linked to the Lashkar e Toiba and quotes and Intelligence Bureau official, Chidambaram and internal security expert Ajai Sahni to suggest that militants are using the stone pelters. They are doing it for money Sahni says.
The story says stone pelting has become a lucrative business in Kashmir and suggests at one point that once the street protests started the PDP ensured it never waned. There is more in the story by Aijaz Hussain and Bhavana Vij-Aurora on how the PDP is capitalizing on the turmoil.
India Today tells you that 1,600 CRPF personnel were injured in stone pelting incidents, 53 last fortnight in relentless brickbats from mobs. The writers tell you that Kashmir's descent into chaos is because of centre's unwillingness to see it as a battle between contesting political ideologies. This report quotes the police and the Intelligence Bureau quite a bit, it does not do a human story on the 11 deaths.
Seema Mustafa in the Sunday Guardian (july 4, 2010) talks of stone pelters: 'Kashmir youths are angry at injustice.' She says both central and state governments are unable to open channels of communication with young people, and adds that there is no one person they listen to, they are openly communal, and not willing to be contained by anyone. She says at this stage it is not Lashkar inspired, ' They are not, at this stage at least, serving any master.'
Tehelka's story on the clashes between the security forces and the stone pelters is written a few months ago, (March 06, 2010) 'Intifada in Paradise.' It focuses more on the stoning youth than the deaths (which had not reached alarming numbers then) and describes what they say, much as the Indian Express story does. It also quotes the security forces, who say officials feel these protests have become more difficult to deal with than the armed militancy. The state police chief in this story uses the same phrase India Today does, 'keep the pot boiling.'
The death of 11-day-old Irfan figures in this story like this: The vehicle in which the family was taking the baby to hospital was stopped and surrounded by 'protestors in two vehicles', police said. 'While they were being dragged out, the infant fell from the mother's lap and was injured,' said AQ Manhas, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Baramulla. The baby died before the family could reach the hospital. Police have registered a case of murder but it is unclear who were there in the two vehicles. For the first time, 'unusually' according to the police, the protestors used cars.
And here is how the same incident figures in an article titled 'Kashmir: Agitational Terrorism' In the South Asia Intelligence Review. (March 8, 2010).
The protests against the killing of a youth, Mohammad Arif Ayub, who was hit by a tear gas shell on May 22, 2009, during one such protest and died on May 26, 2009, in a local hospital, highlights the vicious loop of self-sustaining demonstrations in the Kashmir Valley.
On the other hand, the February 22, 2010, death of an eleven-day-old infant, Baby Irfan, during a scuffle between the child's parents and a stone-throwing gang in Baramulla, exposed the nature of these protests as orchestrated campaigns rather than spontaneous outbursts. The baby's grieving parents openly blamed the separatist leaders for forcing them to participate in their demonstration.
Protestors in vehicles, or a stone throwing gang? Parvaiz Bukhari in Tehelka draws no categorical conclusions from this incident as the second writer, Ajaat Jamwal, a research associate at the Institute for Conflict Management, does. This particular analysis should not be clubbed with journalism, but to the extent that the web circulates this analysis in response to a search just as much as it does media constructs, it is worth citing.
As one goes from version to version Motta's stone throwing 'youngsters' begin to be perceived as less categorically injustice driven, ending with the Review's categorical view of them as agitational terrorists funded by 'Pakistan's covert forces.'
One significant aspect of the reporting is that except for India Today nobody thinks the CRPF's injured men are worth mentioning. But to draw conclusions from that one would have to consider the totality of a publication's reporting on this issue.