Documents India

Kashmir Human Rights and the Indian Press

By TERESA JOSEPH*

ABSTRACT : The contemporary discourse on governance and social conflict is generally marked by its state-centric approach, particularly in the mass media. Issues which are perceived to have a bearing on national interest/security, particularly those relating to defence, foreign policy, insurgency, and human rights are usually portrayed from a state security perspective, relegating the priorities and concerns of the people to invisibility. The Indian press is no exception to this practice, with the coverage of the human rights situation in Kashmir an explicit case in point. Given the fact that to most Indians an understanding of the situation in Kashmir is largely gathered from the mass media, this paper strives to analyse the nature of the coverage of the human rights situation in Kashmir by the Indian press. In order to enable a comprehensive analysis the focus of this study has been restricted to a content analysis of three English language newspapers over a period of three months.

The nature of the coverage of the situation by the Indian press is juxtaposed against the actual situation in the Kashmir Valley as depicted by alternate media sources.The contemporary discourse on governance and social conflict is generally marked by its state-centric approach – with an inclination to stress the importance of the State rather than that of the people, particularly the security of the nation-state over that of the populace. This trend is remarkably evident in discourses perceived as relating to the so-called ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’. The removal of actual or perceived threats to the State is seen to be more crucial than threats to the very survival of the people. The fact that security also has a meaning at the individual level which is independent of the State is often overlooked.1 Such a tendency is strikingly conspicuous in the mass media.
The media are evidently an integral part of the political power structure, reflecting the priorities and preoccupations of the dominant power groupings, and thereby supporting and perpetuating the basic norms and values of the dominant order and the business interests of the media2. Issues ostensibly having a bearing on national security are usually portrayed from a state-security perspective, relegating the priorities, concerns and sufferings of the people to invisibility. The realm of issues ranging from the obvious ones of defence and foreign policy to that of human rights’ violations (particularly when the state is involved) are usually considered sacrosanct and are viewed from a national interest or national security perspective. Voices of dissent, not subscribing to the dominant discourse are portrayed as anti-national, being actual or potential agents of external powers, thus setting forth a paradigm of ‘patriotism’.

The Indian press is no exception to the rule. Although an otherwise healthy institution, so-called sensitive issues relating to defence, insurgency, human rights which are perceived to have a bearing on the country’s national security interests are viewed with trepidation and portrayed purely from a state-centric angle. Although such reporting was evident in the coverage of Punjab and the North-East, the coverage of the human rights situation in Kashmir is an explicit case in point. The dominant discourse on Kashmir characterises it as a dispute over real estate between India and Pakistan, and a matter of national prestige. Consequently, the situation inside the Vale, or Valley of Kashmir is viewed strictly in terms of the Indian State vs. Pakistani sponsored terrorism. Those who do not subscribe to the dominant discourse are portrayed as anti-national. The human rights issue is depicted merely as part of the proxy war waged by Pakistan to defame India.

 

In reality, Kashmir emerged at the top of the human rights agenda of the world in the late 1980s as fallout of the policies adopted by various Indian governments and the sense of alienation among the people of Kashmir to which, of course, Pakistan contributed its share. As Balraj Puri succinctly puts it: … one can trace the beginning of the Kashmir problem and its growth to its present dimensions to the denial to the people of the state of civil liberties, democracy and human rights including the rights to freedom of speech, rights to protest and form an opposition party, right to vote and to elect a government of their choice.3
International human rights organisations, as well as several Indian civil rights groups have documented in detail the atrocities committed on the people of Kashmir by both Indian security forces and militant groups. However, public opinion in India remained largely silent on the issue. Given the fact that to most Indians an understanding of the situation in Kashmir is largely gathered from the mass media, which not only provides necessary input for the decision-maker, but also helps in shaping public opinion, this paper strives to analyse the nature of the coverage of the human rights situation in Kashmir by the Indian press through a content analysis of selected national newspapers.
Except for a brief interlude soon after the Farooq Abdullah government came to power, human rights violations in the Valley have been consistent since 1989. However, in order to enable a comprehensive analysis, the focus of this study has been restricted to a period of three months. A random selection of the period from 1 December 1991 to 29 February 1992 was made, and a content analysis of three English language newspapers over this continuous period was done. The selected newspapers — The Hindu, Indian Express and The Times of India – were the three largest circulated national English dailies and among the ten largest circulated newspapers in any language in the country at the time.4 Although the coverage of local and regional news differs among the various editions of each newspaper, national and international news coverage in all the editions remains the same. A cross- verification finds that there are no variations in the nature of the coverage of Kashmir in the various editions of national newspapers. The present study is based on the Coimbatore, Kochi and Bombay editions of the three newspapers respectively. An analysis of this nature necessitates the juxtaposition of the actual situation in the Valley as depicted by alternate sources, against the nature of the coverage of the situation by the Indian press.
The human rights situation in Kashmir During the last ten years, thousands of ordinary people have lost their lives in Kashmir. Although official sources claim the number to be around 19,956 only (as of September 1998)5, reports by various non-governmental organisations put the number to be around 50,0006. Statistics, of course may, vary depending on the source. Various reports by both national and international human rights organisations –including the Committee for Initiative on Kashmir (CIK), People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Asia Watch, and Amnesty International — have given first-hand accounts of the human rights situation in the Valley since the late 1980s. These reports give detailed accounts of the innumerable instances of security excesses, the militancy in the Valley, and the plight of the civilians caught between the security forces and the militants. A brief overview of the human rights situation in Kashmir around the specific period of focus of this study as depicted by alternate media sources is essential for an understanding of the issues concerned.
The two reports by the Committee for Initiative on Kashmir, India’s Kashmir War and Kashmir Imprisoned: A Report, give first-hand accounts of the situation in the Valley.7 They describe the innumerable cases of daily raids on houses, assaults on peaceful demonstrations, indiscriminate arrests and harassment of ordinary civilians by the security forces. There are numerous accounts of various forms of torture — both psychological and physical – and extra-judicial murders, including those resulting from firing on peaceful processions and funerals, encounters and killings during cordon and search operations, and crossfire. Various other reports, including the Amnesty International report, India: Torture, Rape and Deaths in Custody, and the Asia Watch Report, Kashmir Under Siege, released in May 1991, also detail descriptions of the human rights situation in the Valley.8 With concrete examples they elucidate the various incidents of torture – including those against women and children – the numerous cases of extra-judicial executions in fake encounters and also details of political prisoners under detention without trial in the Valley. Similarly, reporting from Srinagar, Edward W. Desmond wrote in Time (4 November 1991) that, while the Government and rebels clashed in prolonged encounters in the Valley, it was the Kashmiri bystanders who paid a high price. Daily life was filled with tension in all the major towns, where gun battles broke out regularly and civilians were the main victims. Reports by the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group and the US Department of State also describe the human rights situation in Kashmir around the period of this study9. The People’s Union for Democratic Rights, in their report, Lawless Roads: A Report on TADA, points out that the killings of unarmed civilians in ‘extra-constitutional violence’ was the dominant feature in Kashmir.10 There are also numerous accounts of kidnapping, torture, murder, and the molestation and rape of women, both by the security forces and the militants, on grounds of the victims being informers or traitors or simply because they hold public office. The targets of the militants were not always security personnel or informers, but also included civilian officials, political leaders, journalists and common citizens. This was the dismal picture of the human rights situation in Kashmir, which was brought to light by various national and international human rights organisations.
In stark contrast, the Government of India initially denied all allegations of human rights’ violations and the so-called security excesses were termed mere propaganda by Pakistan and the militants of Kashmir. It later maintained that such allegations were an interference in the sovereign rights of India. Purportedly, such charges were made in order to defame the country’s security forces, and human rights activists within the country were often maligned as anti-national.11 Under pressure from national and international human rights groups, the Government realised that its propaganda line was counter-productive, and began to occasionally publish details of action taken against erring security personnel. However, it continued to adhere to the position that such eventualities were exceedingly rare, and that human rights’ violations in the Valley, if any, were largely the work of militant groups aided by Pakistan.
Reporting Kashmir: a quantitative analysis
A study of Indian newspapers over any period of time will reveal that, although a substantial number of reports on Kashmir can be found on the front pages, they are usually mere quotations of official speeches and press releases or straight news without any kind of analysis, having as their sources press releases, statements/speeches of government officials, and leaders of mainstream Indian political parties. Editorials, lead articles, features or news analyses are hard to come by. Over the course of the three months of this study, there were a total of 423 reports relating to various aspects of Kashmir in the three newspapers under study. An interesting fact is that, although 208 of these were considered important enough to be placed on the front pages, the number of editorials/lead articles/ features/ news analysis was exceedingly negligible. On the other hand, as many as 346 pieces were mere news reports or straight news without any analysis. (See Table I).
Table-I A comparative quantitative analysis of the nature of reports on Kashmir (1 December 1991-29 February 1992)

Dec

Jan

Feb

Total

Grand Total

TTOI

IE

TH

TTOI

IE

TH

TTOI

IE

TH

TTOI

IE

TH

Front Page Reports

8

5

11

18

20

23

40

31

52

66

56

86

208

Editorials

1

1

2

1

3

4

2

4

7

3

14

Lead Articles/Features

3

1

2

3

5

4

7

5

6

18

News Reports

30

13

26

39

29

32

58

49

70

127

91

128

346

News Analysis

1

1

1

2

1

1

13

4

14

16

6

16

38

Photographs

2

1

1

2

1

3

2

2

7

Total Number of Reports

36

15

28

44

32

36

77

64

91

157

111

155

423

*TTOI – The Times of India (Bombay); IE-Indian Express (Kochi); TH – The Hindu (Coimbatore)
More significantly, a survey of the sources of these reports revealed that 230 of them were based on official statements/press releases. Of these, an overwhelming 78% had as their sources Indian Government officials and leaders of mainstream Indian political parties. Only 7% were based on Kashmiri sources, 8% on Pakistani sources and 7% on other sources, including that of officials from other countries. (See Table II). TABLE- II A comparative quantitative analysis of the official sources of news reports on Kashmir (1 December 1991-29 February 1992)

Official Sources

Dec

Jan

Feb

Total

Grand Total

TTOI

IE

TH

TTOI

IE

TH

TTOI

IE

TH

TTOI

IE

TH

Indian

12

7

14

24

15

6

32

17

43

68

39

73

180

Pakistani

1

1

1

1

3

6

5

5

6

7

18

Kashmiri

1

2

1

1

3

2

5

5

3

7