MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE AMARNATH CONTROVERSY--A CASE STUDY
Research by Aaliya Ahmed, Sabeha Mufti and Zara Malik,
Media Education Research Centre
Project coordinator, Sevanti Ninan
A Panos study
On August 31, 2008 the three-month long Amaranth agitation sparked by the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board ended with an agreement inked between the Government and the Shri Amaranth Sangharsh Samiti. Two years later questions remain about the role of the political class and the media in stoking the fires that erupted with successive government decisions on allotting land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board in June 2008. This is a preliminary inquiry into how the media reported the series of events.
Background and chronology of events
Post 1989, after militancy grew and Kashmir became a chronic conflict zone, the state saw a growth in media which has only accelerated over the last decade. When the land transfer to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board in June 2008 and its subsequent revocation triggered a massive popular upheaval, there was a plethora of media in both Jammu and Kashmir to chronicle it. But did they just report or did they contribute to inflaming passions in the state? Did the media contribute to the events which ended up dividing this diverse state along communal lines?
To the extend that the media is a product of its milieu, Jammu and Kashmir saw reporting which catered to the home base, and rapidly turned provocative as popular sentiment was whipped up by leaders in both regions. This study looks at the reporting in the English, Urdu, and Hindi press over the three months that the state of Jammu and Kashmir remained intermittently on the boil. We look at the coverage and commentary that these events attracted, and what they tell us about the role of the media in exacerbating or calming the conflict.
Part I: Stoking fires
Reporting the land transfer
The media in Kashmir, both English and Urdu reacted to the news of the land transfer by projecting the sentiments of separatist leaders onto banner headlines. Statements of different factions of leaders were a common source of provocative headlines for Rising Kashmir. So also the statements of Sangh Parivar spokespersons. There was no conscious effort not to provoke.
The paper carried headlines such as, June 12, 2008 ' 'Operation Yatra' devised on Israeli lines: Geelani'. Or, on June 14: 'Govt changing Kashmir's demography: Geelani' Or on June 15: 'India isolating Jammu Muslims: Geelani.' On the first half of front page on June 23: 'Kashmiris have no rights: Togadia' To play up mischievous statements in a climate ripe for communal provocation is to be irresponsible, to put it mildly.
There were stories which could have contributed to the Kashmiri sense of grievance. In Rising Kashmir: 'SASB hegemony cost Kashmir Rs 150 crore annually.'
And stories on page one which just by their facts were provocative: Nine days before the state government issued the formal notice on 800 kanals being transferred, Rising Kashmir had a page one scoop attributed to 'well placed sources', which said the govt was mulling transfer of 3600 kanal land to the SASB. (RK June 11: 'Govt mulling transfer of 3600 kanal land to SASB'.)
On June 20 the paper carried the actual announcement, the govt order on land transfer. This said 39.88 ha. (800 kanal), or less than a fourth of the land area mentioned in its scoop.
Greater Kashmir, too went full tilt. On June 4: 'Govt transfers 800 kanal forest land to SASB shoulder: Sinha has last laugh' (The reference is to the state's governor Lt General S K Sinha.) June 5: 'Forest land transfer smells fishy' and then, on Page 1, 'Govt says only 15 hectare land handed over, SASB says 40'.
Then on June 11th: 'Land transfer a conspiracy to change demography: Hurriyat (M)' The abiding theme of the coverage day after day, reflecting the sentiments of the local political leadership, was that the government was doing an Israel, changing land ownership so it could settle outsiders and change the demography of Kashmir, which would then no longer be for Kashmiris.
The Urdu paper The Daily Etalaat spelt it out more unambiguously through another quote: 'A conspiracy to end the Majority Muslim identity of the state: Hurriyat Leader Agha Syed Hussain' (June 21, 2008)
On June 15, there was a page 1 lead story in GK making a comparison designed to agitate the state's Muslims: 'Govt neglects waqf board, pampers SASB'. And the paper's page one banner on June 17 said, 'Pro freedom camp prepares to fight land transfer.' June 18, on top of the page: 'Governor defends his SASB, says vested interests campaigning against yatra' The governor of the state was the chairman of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The 'his' in the headline could also be read as a reference to constant speculation in the Kashmir press that he had a communal agenda.
On the same day: 'SASB plays cupid: Geelani Umar meet tomorrow'.
Also top of page, double column: 'DIGEST THIS: SASB mulls further extension in yatra'. The tone of the headline hints darkly at a conspiracy.
On June 19 the paper said, 'Raj Bhavan responsible for yatra controversy'. This was the first lead, one of five stories. June 21, another first lead: 'Revoke land transfer or face revolt.'
And so on.
The Urdu papers in Kashmir were as or more provocative: Srinagar Times, 7 June: 'Granting land to shrine board is against article 370: Hashim Qureshi (Amarnath shrine board ko arazi faraham karma dafa 370 ki khilafwarzi, Hashim Qureshi)
It reproduced verbatim what the JKLF leader said: To accept Indian occupation in Kashmir is to give permission to 'rule against the will of the subjects' (Jammu Kashmir mai bharti qabza istibaar ko jawaaz pohunchane ke mutaradif hai). 'India along with their corrupt government have granted the Sonamarg and Pahalgam land to Shrine board, thus adopting a policy like that of Israel so that they can turn the majority into minority. This will not only lead to communal tendencies but is against the very nature of the article 370.' (Hindustan ne apne zarkhareed aur naam nihaad sarkaar se milkar sonamarg aur pahalgaam mai janglaat ki arazi shrine board ko firokht karke Israili policy apnai taki aqsariyat ko aqliyat mai tabdeel kiya jaye jo na sirf riyasat mai firqa wariyat ko badava dena hai balki article 370 ki khilaaf arzi hai)
The Daily Etalaat said on the same day, 'Protests against Israel-like occupation are legitimate: India sticks to its mission of depriving Kashmiris of their land'.(Israili tarz ki jarhayat ke khilaf mazahimat lazmi: Bharat Kashmiriyon ko apni zameenon se be dakhil karne ke mansoobe par amal paira , Geelani)
This paper too produced verbatim what Geelani said: ' The allotment of land to Shrine board is a very serious issue and people should protest against this. Shrine board ko zameen muntaqil karma ek sangeen masla hai aur qaum ko is faisle ke khilaaf mazahimat karne chahiye , That time is not far when people from outside state will be brought here for settlement and the local people of Kashmir would be forced to migrate.' (who waqt door nahi jab gair riyasati bashindon ko bade paimane par yanha laya jayega aur riyasat ke pashtani bashindon ko hijrat karne par majboor kiya jaye ga).
Srinagar Times, June 13, Page 1: Giving 800 kanal land to the shrine board is a deep conspiracy whose only objective is to settle gair riyasati Hindus on the land: Geelani (800 kanal zameen shrine board ko dena ek gehree saazish hai. Jis kaa ek maqsad iss par gair riyasati hinduon ko basaana hai: Geelani)
And again on June 14, page 1: Giving the shrine board 800 kanal land in Pahalgam is a big conspiracy. (Shrine board ko pahalgam mein 800 kanal zameen dena ek badee saazish.)
No paranoia in Jammu
None of this paranoia was reflected in the reporting emanating from Jammu. Kashmir Times and Daily Excelsior, both published from Jammu were rather different in tone while reporting the land transfer. Kashmir Times was factual and presents a contrast to the Kashmir papers. On June 4, page 1: 'SASB gets 39.88 hectares of forest land.'
June 16 page 1: 'Congress blackmailed PDP: Beig, Dy. CM justifies temporary land transfer to SASB'. June 17: 'APHC(M) to begin unity moves on SASB land transfer issue.' June 18 page 1: 'Transfer of land is permanent: SASB'
June 18: 'Beig telling lies: Mangat, Charka' June 19: 'SASB triggering off dangerous polarization in state: PDP' June 19: 'Kar questions legitimacy of SASB land transfer, hand over board to KP's: Ansari'. June 20: withdraw order or quit: Farooq. And so on, with daily coverage till June 28
The Excelsior's coverage of the dramatic events in Kashmir was sparse and one sided:
May 27: Decision to allot land to SASB to be reviewed
June 12 : Politicians will not be allowed to take SASB land issues mileage, BAR
June 15: Transfer of forest land to SASB full justified Quazi
June 20: Baig says no land has been transferred to SASB
PDP files petition against governors aide, threatens widespread agitation
22nd: Mufti seeks cancellation of forest land to SASB
June 26: CM releases official record to show how PDP ministers carried land diversion proposal.
Vora sworn in as new governor
You would not guess from the headlines of either Jammu paper that there was turmoil in the other part of the same state.
After the revocation
Once the land transfer was revoked, it was the turn of the Jammu media to stoke a fire. The Daily Excelsior, incapable of colourful headlines, made up with suddenly voluminous coverage, and many photographs of protests and protestors, day after day. From July 3rd onwards for the first three weeks of the month, it chronicled protests that were gathering momentum, galvanized by the Shir Amarnath Sanghash Samiti (SASS). From the 24th of July after the death of a youth called Kuldip who took his life over the land row, the protests grew stormier, turned violent, and moved even the Excelsior, not giving to editorializing at all, to an editorial titled 'Extremely Sad.'
The Kashmir papers reported the Jammu protests too on a daily basis but their headlines were rather different from those of the Daily Excelsior. The word 'communal' which never appeared in the Excelsior's headlines, and accusations which suggested communal intent, occurred frequently in the headlines.
Greater Kashmir, July 1, page 1: Jammu observes violent shut down, Saffron Parties attack PDP, Congress offices. July 03, page 1, a first lead across five columns: Communal tension in Jammu, Houses of Muslims burnt in Samba. The same day on page 3, top of the page: 'Bharat Bandh' today: BJP??"'VHP not to allow Haj Pigrimage'. Also on in the same day's paper: Bajrang Dal targets Muslims in Rajouri. July 04 more page one stories: Jammu remains tense, RAF called, Protesters stop trucks carrying supplies to valley, Shiv Sena men burn Hurriyat office.
None of these headlines appear in the Excelsior of the same period.
The Kashmir Times from Jammu however, managed to give a more complete picture. It said succinctly on July 2, 'Valley cools down, Jammu flares up'. The same day in a page one anchor it pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party was displaying double standards. 'BJP's double standards: Protests on Amarnath Land, restrictions on pilgrims in Uttarakhand'. When vehicles going to Kashmir were targeted, it said so in its round-up reports.
The Kashmir Times' account of what happened at Samba on July 1 is rather more rounded than the account in Greater Kashmir. GK's account says that an indefinite curfew was imposed in Samba district after a mob torched some house of Muslims in the area. The KT story begins differently: 'A day after the curfew was imposed in Jammu city and its outskirts, the authorities today clamped curfew in Samba and Bhaderwah towns after the eruption of high intensity violence including grenade attack on protestors and communal clash between community members at Bhaderwah and Samba this afternoon.' The torched houses it transpired, were primarily those of Gujjars. The long list of those injured in the day's clashes as listed in Kashmir Times is almost entirely a list of Hindu names.
Meanwhile Rising Kashmir like Greater Kashmir was also alleging communal intent in Jammu. One July 1, page 3 in bold headlines: Protestors get bullets in Srinagar, Rioters go scot free in Jammu. Another headline: 'Right wing Hindus beat Kashmiris in Jammu'. Its editorial the same day was titled
'Communal Cards.' Intro: Hindu radical groups are trying to portray the protests over land transfer as a communal issue which it never is.
On July 2, the banner headline in RK read: 'Battle for land. Kashmir strikes first victory.' On July 3, RK reported that the Sangharsh Samiti was threatening an economic blockade of Kashmir. In an editorial titled 'Communal politics' it accused Hindu groups of injecting doses of communal hatred in Kashmir.
On July 8, the editor of Epilogue Magazine (published from Jammu) Zafar Choudhary writing in Rising Kashmir also talked of the contribution of Ashok Khajuria, the state BJP president to the communalization of the atmosphere in that region. Jammu cable aired poisonous telecasts by him, and 'almost on a daily basis Khajuria would get an average of 1200 ccm put together in 20 odd newspapers hitting the stalls every morning in Jammu and other parts of the region. 'So what does Khajuria say', asked the article 'Vacate your houses or else we will throw you out.' 'Musalmano apne apne ghar khali kar do.' He added that Muslim organisations were having to isse press releases and rush to the same TV channels to announce in unequivocal terms that they stand with the case of Jammu.
In June, the media was lending itself to pro-freedom groups in Kashmir who set out to stoke a fire there. In July Jammu's many newspapers and its cable TV were doing the same for the BJP and the VHP.
(To be continued)
Urdu translations by Shazia Salam