In Conversation With Barkha Dutt
‘Media -The biggest disservice to the idea of Independence in the Valley’
Perhaps the most well known Indian journalist of her generation, Barkha Dutt, left NDTV after 21 long years this January as she was “disillusioned by TV news among other things”. The Padma Shri winner is currently an author for columns in various publications including, The Washington Post. Barkha emerged as a star reporter after her frontline war reporting on the Kargil conflict in 1999. Later she extensively reported from the region and conducted countless programmes on the crisis in Kashmir.
In a conversation with Nidhi Suresh, Barkha Dutt opens up about her relationship with Kashmir and how national media has dealt with Kashmir over the years.
What is the term you would use to describe the situation in Kashmir?
I think beyond the violence there is just the tragedy of seeing this happen in a seemingly beautiful place where you’re only left with that sense of ‘what if’.
What you think these words – ‘conflict’, ‘war’ or ‘terrorism’have done to the discourse of Kashmir?
My biggest problem with the Kashmir discourse is that it’s shaped by journalists who are very far from the land. Even when they visit, it is for very short durations which are not long enough to report. I think, I can certainly speak as reporter on Kashmir because I’ve spent quite a long time in Kashmir. There was a time in my life where I lived two weeks a month there. Somy problem with the Kashmir discourse is that it is constructed within clichés. These clichés are either used by mainstream media journalists or by very ideologically, adamant Kashmiris themselves. So in reality, you can’t escape the framework you get pushed into. Something that I’ve tried to do is to unshackle myself from the expectation of my audience both from and outside Kashmir. And it is just damn difficult because everyone comes to your story, your view point, your every word with an expectation. If you meet their expectation you’re their hero and if you defy it, you’re the traitor for the day. So I think the discourse is part of the problem. One of the things, I’ve argued in my writings is that, we are at a point where we can’t have an honest conversation about the State. Regarding Kashmir you can only be either an Arnob Gowswami or an Arundhati Roy. With regard to my own experience in Kashmir, I certainly am neither. These extreme positions only lead to oversimplifications while your lived experience in Kashmir will prove that none of these sides are fully true.
What do these ‘honest’ conversations involve?
In a place filled with multiple truths, I think the problem is that, there is a singular truth enforced on the State. The fact is that, the boy or girl on the street today is much more violent than a boy or girl was 10 years ago. The fact also is that, the Macchil encounter which the army eventually set up as an example of its own fair play has just been undone by the army itself. It is also a truth that Kashmiri policemen, some of whom I’ve personally met, wear masks to work so that people from their villages don’t recognize and target them.These are all simultaneous truths that coexist in Kashmir. So an honest conversation would at least attempt to acknowledge the existence of all of these truths.
What has changed for you over the time that you’ve spent in Kashmir?
A lot.I have a dysfunctional attachment to the state. It is a state that formed me as a reporter. I have been vocal about my views and many of my friends don’t like the change and direction I’ve taken.
How old where you when you first went to Kashmir for work?
Early 20’s. Right out of college. I am 45 now and that’s how long my attachment has sustained with the place. And it has been and remains my magnificent obsession. But I must say, while I’ve got a lot of love there, I’ve also received a lot of hatred. I’ve been repeatedly called anti-national by people here, or jingoist by people there. And I think what neither side realizes is, how can one person be both? How can the same piece of work evoke both reactions? I’ve seen a marked generational shift in levels of anger. When I was in my 20s and I used to meet Kashmiri friends there, they had a political position; there was sense of being able to talk even if you came from a completely different political or ideological perspective. But now I find that there is a hardening of anger.
And that’s dangerous?
It’s dangerous, it’s counterproductive, and it’s less tolerant of any other view. So rest of India and the present generation of Kashmir have now mirrored each other.
What was it like to be a woman reporter in Kashmir?
Well, it is a relatively conservative society. I haven’t felt discriminated but as a woman, they would wait to see how my body of work would establish itself. I’m not sure if its gender specific. Or maybe, I didn’t experience it as much because I didn’t work in a local company. When you have young men in any conservative, angry society it requires you, as a woman, to cross a few more barriers than usual.
You did a report called the ‘New Militancy’ where you said that most of the new militants from the Valley are young and educated.
You know, there has been and is a view in Delhi and across parties, that if you give young Kashmiris education and jobs, this problem will go away or at least diminish. By travelling through South Kashmir and visiting these families, I was trying to make the point that one has nothing to do with the other. The PM had made this comment on how he’d like to see laptops and not stones in the hands of Kashmiris and I was making the argument that, that’s not going to change anything. It’s not about the quality of education. I’ve met families where their son who who’d joined militancy was a school topper or take the case of the most extreme, Musa. His father had sent him to Chandigarh to do his Engineering hoping that if he changes his geography, his mind set might change. But did it? My argument was to say that this is the wrong prism to see the problem through.
How was the show received?
Well, let’s put it this way, my politics is certainly not secessionist. I don’t have a Roy’s view so I’m never going to be liberal enough for the Kashmiri. But neither am I going to be hawkish enough for our Prime Time channels either.
So what is your position?
Strengthen the moderates.
My position has been consistent from the time I started reporting from Kashmir. I’ve seen people lose their lives for wanting to have a proper dialogue. Abdul Ghani Lone was shot dead right in front of my eyes. Why was he killed? Simply because he was a separatist who was ready to talk to Delhi. And I believe that you have to strength the hands of those who are loyal to the Indian Union but want some kind of political freedom too. Find a way to bring militants and separatists onto the table. After all, it has been done with Nagaland so why would you not do it with Kashmir?
You mean the binaries cause the violence?
Yes, the binary causes the tension, the unpleasantness. The truth is that India is not going to allow secession in the Kashmir Valley. If this is taken as ‘The Truth’, we can work backwards from it and ask ourselves about the possibility within this truth. We could look at what is possible within the framework of humanism and our own constitution? And I think there are many possibilities over there. You see, no one wants to hear the truth. In Delhi, people don’t want to hear the truth about depths of alienation. In Kashmir, Kashmiris of this generation do not want to hear or speak about the fact that there is a creeping Islamism. Nobody wants to hear it. The burka is not organic to the Kashmiri. A militant group declared that it was mandatory for all girls in Kashmir to wear a burka. I had gone into agirl’s school where I did a poll asking how many girls wanted to wear burka. And of course the girls said that if it was forced they wouldn’t want to. When I filed the report, there was a fatwa announced banning my entry into the Valley. And at that time, it’s interesting that Mirwaiz Umar Farooq issued a statement saying everyone is welcome into the Valley. He took that socially liberal position. Today, I feel people like him may not be able to be public with a similar position because of all extremes on all sides taking control of the conversation.
Is it possible in Kashmir to make a distinction between a religious struggle and a political struggle?
Kashmiris have always insisted that this is an ethno-nationalist struggle. So it is about ethnicity and not Islam. During the Burhan Wani protest time, I met an injured school boy in a hospital in Kashmir. When I asked him why he had been out in the streets he said he had been marching because he was a savior of Islam. To verify his answer I asked him if it was for ‘Azadi’ or ‘Islam’ and he said “Dono hi” (both). 10 years ago anyone asked this question would simply have said Azadi. The thing is, we’ve to ask ourselves in Delhi, how did it get to this point of creeping Islamism? And for that, I believe that the kind of political vacuum that currently exists is dangerous. If you don’t fill a political vacuum with a good idea, a bad idea will take its place. Also I feel that some of the wisest voices out of the valley have been the military. It may be vilified by Kashmiris but because they’re the ones who have actually lived and served there. The former Northern Army commander, the one who put away the soldiers involved in Macchil for life sentence is today, very upset that this was undone. When the Burhan Wani street protests were going out of control, instead of the politicians, it’s General Hooda who had a press conference saying all sides must come to the table. Militancy is not the problem today. The problem is that we’re facing a civilian protest cloaked over the militancy. So you have to find a political solution. Otherwise there is no solution to this.
The National media often oversimplifies the problem of Kashmir. Is it fair to simplify such a complex problem?
I know it does but isn’t everything on TV news like that? Nuance is dead in everything, not just in a Kashmir story. When was the last time you heard a story told in a complex way with all its multiple truths?
Do you think the national media is doing anything different from what the State is doing in Kashmir?
I call the media the single, biggest disservice to the idea of Independence in the Valley.
Is that why you quit television?
It wasn’t Kashmir specifically but I got very disillusioned and needed a respite from television. I’m not saying I’ll never go back to it but at the moment I just need a break.
The words ‘militant’ and ‘terrorist’ are two different words for a reason. What does it mean when national media often uses them interchangeably?
I use the words interchangeably as well. Although, there was a time when I used ‘militant’ for a local Kashmiri and ‘terrorist’ for a Lashkar or Pakistani. But now I do use them interchangeably because I think, gun for violence is a form of terrorism.
So you don’t differentiate between the two?
I walked with CRPF in downtown Srinagar and realized that the Kashmiri is no longer scared of dying. But I did not support the pellet guns because I felt that the visual of the mass partial blinding really eroded the moral legitimacy of the State.
Well, let me put it this way. I can tell you the word I would not use is martyr, rebel or gunman. These men are not revolutionaries. They are weapon yielding men, trained or self-trained in the act of killing in support of what they believe is their cause. According to me there is an eroding of moral legitimacy on all sides. I was a full critique of the pellet guns. I walked with CRPF in downtown Srinagar and realized that the Kashmiri is no longer scared of dying. But I did not support the pellet guns because I felt that the visual of the mass partial blinding really eroded the moral legitimacy of the State. On the other hand, I also think that when pilgrims get targeted or when you have violent assault of civilians or security forces, the man you’ve made a hero actually called for a caliphate in Kashmir. People only condemned Musa for this but please pull out Burhan Wani’s videos. He called for a caliphate too. Such things only make the Kashmiri lose the legitimacy of their own genuine grievances.
Do you think something changed with Zakir Musa called for a caliphate?
Yes but Musa has been disowned by everyone. To me Wani is more worrying. He also called for a caliphate. Why didn’t anyone notice that? Also, what was more important was when the USA declared Salahuddin as a terrorist, the distinction between a local militant and foreign terrorist was over. There are these weird intertwined ironies in Kashmir and no one has the discipline in the media to untangle it. It’s all broad stroke reports.
Do non-Kashmiri journalists feel a false sense of entitlement while discussing Kashmir?
First of all, hardly any journalist even visits Kashmir before talking about it. There is no substitute for an on field reportage. The problem is with claiming expertise and yes that happens a lot.
Would it help if national media journalists admitted to the fact that they don’t fully understand the conflict while reporting?
Yes, to take sides on this matter would be idiotic.
So a mere acknowledgement of a certain amount of incomprehensibility is enough to have credibility?
Where does the word anti-national feature in a country that calls itself democratic?
See I cut my teeth as a reporter covering Kargil. I’m very sentimental about the military but that doesn’t stop me from saying that Macchil was a mistake and those who did it must be punished. Nobody should be caught between these false binaries of enforced codified nationalism.
What direction do you think Kashmir is headed now?
Kashmir is now like a pressure cooker. You keep putting a lid on it and it keeps bubbling over until you put the next lid and that’s what the State has been doing.
What about women of Kashmir? Do you think it might make any difference if the women of Kashmir spoke more fearlessly about their thoughts?
Women have surely suffered differently from men. I met some very outspoken women in Kashmir. I’m not sure if I put the conflict through a gendered prism.
You conclude one of your articles by saying, “The bottom line: Kashmir is no longer an issue that Pakistan can get the world to take notice of.” Are you suggesting that the ‘Kashmir issue’ is an externally generated problem?
Why isn’t there a non-violent icon in the Kashmiri movement? Where is the Irom Sharmila of Kashmir? Kashmiris are very angry that I ask this. I was told that Parveen Ahangar is the Irom Sharmila but I don’t think she’s been the face of that separatist rage on the street.
I believe that the global response has changed after 9/11. There is no respect for an armed expression of anger, more so if it is rooted in Islam. When Nawaz Sharif gets up at the UN and invokes Burhan Wani as a hero while the West is not ignorant of what Wani suggested. This won’t get any kind of moral sympathy or support post 9/11. That’s one of my arguments. Also, why isn’t there a non-violent icon in the Kashmiri movement? Where is the Irom Sharmila of Kashmir? Kashmiris are very angry that I ask this. I was told that Parveen Ahangar is the Irom Sharmila but I don’t think she’s been the face of that separatist rage on the street. These are the things I’ve tried to raise, not construct a narrative that Kashmir is an externally generated problem.
What do you think would happen if Kashmiris began producing their own television news? Would it threaten national media?
It would certainly have a very different conversation from national television but it would only widen the gap. I think the challenge is to ask – Where is that middle ground? We all need to accept that certain truths are empirical. No Indian government is going to grant secession to the Kashmir Valley.
And that is because of geographical reasons?
Yes and because there is no accepting that one part of one state should define the future of the rest of the country. Secondly, there is no definition of Azadi. If you push a Kashmiri, to define it, you’ll find different answers. Mehbooba Mufti had a great line by saying that Azadi had to be replaced with something better. You have to appeal to the young Kashmiri, who should look over his/her shoulder and say, ‘My god no, not Pakistan. Whatever I want, I don’t want Pakistan’. And how is an independent Valley going to exist between these two countries? Let’s get real.
Do you look back at your body of work and wish you could undo something?
I’ve never found myself ideologically dishonest on Kashmir. I come from a very empathetic perspective, except for the militants. Empathy has out of reporting from within Kashmir as well as from national media on Kashmir. And what I know for sure is that this ‘For’ and ‘Against’ game is not journalism.