‘As Hindus, We were expected to further the cause with our stories’

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Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

EVERY YEAR, I look starry-eyed at the awardees of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards and at the stalwarts handing over the honours. For grit, hard work, tenacity and honesty to the trade, without a care for reward, getting richly rewarded. But this year, I couldn’t quell a queasy feeling in my stomach when the virtues of fair reporting were spoken about at the event. This has been happening since the Amarnath land agitation, when I was reporting for the Jammu bureau of a leading national daily. It visited Jammu like a gale, sweeping away in gusts the sense of fair play and discrimination of many scribes. In our morning meetings, it was assumed as a given that being Hindus, we (reporters, photojournalists and other staff) supported the agitation for restoration of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. Not only were we expected to support it whole-heartedly but it was considered our ‘moral’ duty to further its cause through our stories. It was routine for our editor to ask, “So how is the agitation faring in xyz place?” and an over-zealous colleague to answer passionately, “Excellent. It’s got a tremendous response there” and for the editor to rub his chin and say, “But find out what challenges they are facing in abc place and how it could be strengthened there.” If you were in Jammu, you had to sing paeans to the agitators. What smacked of fascism was that no other line of thinking, let alone criticism of any sort, was brooked. The few media houses that did judge it critically, were a woeful minority.

Two quixotic features of the agitation stood out. First, to refuse to recognise the real. To pretend not to see something as stark as an economic blockade of the Valley, imposed by the stone-pelting agitators by attacking and burning Valley-bound trucks. (I’ve seen trucks burnt to rubble by agitators, on the Jammu-Pathankote National Highway, but naturally, it wasn’t considered newsworthy in several publications because the Jammu media had decided there was no blockade. This assumption ruled out any question of trucks being attacked.) This kind of dangerous, deductive logic crafting an alternative reality was rampant at the time. The storyline would be decided in the office and reporters would be asked to select data from the field to support it. For instance, to prove the nonexistence of a blockade, we would be asked to report that medicines were available in plenty in Jammu. If there were a blockade, then Jammu would be equally hit, ran the specious logic. In reality, Jammu faced a severe shortage of medicines!

Second, to fancy the unreal as real, by drawing parallels between itself and the India’s Freedom Movement. Like praising the Emperor’s new clothes, which despite any empirical reality, were extolled to the skies. Eulogies of “those brave, nationalist, heroes,” the agitators, who went about uprooting railway tracks, smashing windows of public transport that dared to ply on the roads in defiance of the bandh call, and violently attacking trucks entering the state, filled reams of newsprint every day. Strangely, the mute common man of Jammu, the poor news vendor and hawker on the streets seemed to be more discerning than the city’s intelligentsia. They knew that there was much more to nationalism than flag-waving xenophobia. That sporting a ‘Bhagat Singh moustache’ wasn’t enough to equate one with the martyr. They knew that vandalism couldn’t pass for bravery and that they would have to repay the loss caused to the state from their pockets; all of which the intelligentsia missed, in a misplaced fervour.

Despite the claim that the struggle was solely for the restoration of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the fact is it did degenerate into hate for the ‘other.’ Gujjars’ kullas were burnt in hundreds. The word “Kashmir” was knocked off from the Kashmir Square Mall, a Delhi-style mall in town, and was rechristened ‘City Square Mall.’ Such sentiments are dangerous for any civilised society, more so when the media, the supposed watchdog of liberal values, is gung-ho about it.

Simple M Pani is 32. She is a journalist based in New Delhi

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