A journalist should under no circumstances become a government’s stenographer or an activist of a certain cause. The job of a scribe is to constantly critique those in power, challenge people at the helm, and also ask tough questions.
In the last week of the hot and humid month of July, some of the big names in Indian journalism converged on the scenic banks of India-held Kashmir’s famed Dal Lake to share their respective perspectives on themes like ‘Kashmir’s Portrayal in Indian Media’ and ‘Indian Electronic Media and Idea of Nationalism’.
Ideally, one would have hoped the picturesque background of the Dal Lake would cool tempers and that the discussions took place in a fair and balanced manner. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
The journalist community in the Kashmir valley remained divided on whether to attend the inaugural Srinagar Media Summit 2015 or not as Lehar, the non-governmental organisation which had organised the event, was lesser-known.
Prominent Indian journalists, columnists and commentators including Kuldip Nayar, Saeed Naqvi, Siddharth Varadarajan, Humrah Quraishi, Jayanta Ghosal, Shahid Siddiqui, Saba Naqvi, Rana Ayyub and Madhu Kishwar among others participated in the media conference held at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre on July 25 and 26.
With notable exceptions, most of the invited Indian journalists chose to use the platform to ‘sermonise’ and offer unsolicited suggestions to Kashmiri audiences rather than display a willingness to listen to what Kashmiris have to say.
Kuldip Nayar, veteran Indian journalist and columnist, inaugurated the Srinagar Media Summit (SMS, 2015).
In his inaugural speech Mr Nayar, instead of speaking on the subject, chose to talk about Pakistan-India relations and made arguments like how it was "impossible" for Kashmiris to change the political status quo.
He urged Kashmiris to realise the geo-political realities and reconcile with India.
"I met Nawaz Sharif when he was in wilderness. He candidly told me that Pakistan can neither snatch Kashmir from India nor will India offer it to Pakistan on a platter. Goodwill can be created by improving trade and travel relations," Nayar said.
Talking about what India stands for, Nayar said that his country will never allow anyone to hurt its idea of secularism and democracy.
"Kashmiris must realise that India will never let go Kashmir, because secularism and democracy form the very spirit of India. We can offer all kinds of sacrifices to protect India’s secular and democratic fabric," he said.
Nayar’s remarks made the audience, mostly young Kashmiri students and aspiring journalists, uncomfortable and tense. Some of them posed tough questions to the panellists.
Quite in tune with remarks made by Mr Nayar, renowned Indian journalist and columnist Saeed Naqvi said that the "status quo will not be altered so far as the Kashmir issue is concerned, certain adjustments have to be made as Kuldip has made it clear".
"In Kashmir, people’s hearts are affected," he said.
Commenting on the Indian media’s reporting standards, Mr Naqvi said that the media is "brought up on a certain diet of nationalism, jingoism and patriotism".
"Media in India is not evolved yet. It can trigger a riot by exaggerating one incident and downplaying another," he said, adding, "there are certain sins which are common across media".
Meanwhile, journalists like Siddharth Varadarajan, Humrah Quraishi and Rana Ayyub took a more liberal and balanced view and admitted that there have been attempts to "kill stories for protecting national interest".
S Varadarajan, founder of The Wire, while speaking at the media conference said, "The decade of the 1990s was not a proud moment for Indian journalism" in relation to Kashmir reporting, adding, "Coverage of human rights abuses in Kashmir from 1989 up to 2000-2001 in the Indian media was pretty bad ─ virtually non-existent. The Press Council of India also did a shoddy job."
"There has been blatant manipulation of media in the early 1990s with respect to Kashmir, but many journalists went ahead with fair and balanced reporting even then, sometimes at their own risk."
He, however, cautioned that one should not mistake the opinions of a journalist as the position of the Indian state because "There is a tendency in a conflict place like Kashmir that the entire blame of collective failures of state institutions is pinned on the media."
On the Pathribal killings of March 2000, he said that some print journalists played a key role in highlighting the cold-blooded murder of five civilians in South Kashmir, but the systemic failures of various state institutions could not deliver justice in the end.
Though it would be unfair to claim that all Indian newspapers, all television channels and all Indian journalists are partners in crime, the harsh reality is that misplaced nationalism and jingoism blurs vision and perspectives.
Why doesn't the media have the courage to write and show all existing, competing and conflicting narratives of Kashmir? Their only active mode with respect to Kashmir seems to be denial mode.
Dal Lake in India-held Kashmir freezes only during the harsh winters, but it appears that when it comes to Kashmir the mindsets in Indian media and political dispensations in New Delhi remain frozen in all seasons.